Culture of Memphis, Tennessee

"Welcome to Memphis" sign on US 51 (2008)

Memphis, Tennessee has a long history of distinctive contributions to the culture of the American South and beyond. Although it is an important part of the culture of Tennessee, the history, arts, and cuisine of Memphis are more closely associated with the culture of the Deep South (particularly the Mississippi Delta) than the rest of the state. For example, the city's influence on 20th century music has had worldwide impact. Memphians have had an important role in founding or establishing several important American music genres, including Blues, Gospel, Rock n' Roll, and "sharecropper" country music.

As of the census[1] of 2000, there were 650,100 people, 250,721 households, and 158,455 families residing in the city. In 2003, the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was the 42nd largest in the United States, with a population of 1,239,337.

Memphis in May is an annual, month-long festival that promotes many aspects of Memphis' cultural heritage. Each year a different nation is partnered as a theme of the festival. Once the featured nation is announced, there is an open call for poster design, and the selected official festival poster becomes a treasured collectible, prestigious for the collector and the artist/creator.

Memphis has long been home to persons of many different faiths. An 1870 map of Memphis shows religious buildings of the Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Christian denominations and a Jewish congregation.



As of the census[1] of 2000, there were 650,100 people, 250,721 households, and 158,455 families residing in the city. The population density was 2,327.4 people per sq mi (898.6/km²). There were 271,552 housing units at an average density of 972.2/sq mi (375.4/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 61.41% African American, 34.41% White, 1.46% Asian, 0.19% Native American, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 1.45% from other races, and 1.04% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.97% of the population.

There were 250,721 households out of which 31.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 34.1% were married couples living together, 23.8% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.8% were non-families. 30.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.9% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.52 and the average family size was 3.18.

In the city the population was spread out with 27.9% under the age of 18, 10.8% from 18 to 24, 30.7% from 25 to 44, 19.7% from 45 to 64, and 10.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 32 years. For every 100 females there were 89.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.9 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $32,285, and the median income for a family was $37,767. Males had a median income of $31,236 versus $25,183 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,838. About 17.2% of families and 20.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 30.1% of those under age 18 and 15.4% of those age 65 or over.

Metropolitan area

The Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), the 42nd largest in the United States, has a 2003 population of 1,239,337, and includes the Tennessee counties of Shelby, Tipton, and Fayette, as well as the Mississippi counties of DeSoto, Marshall, Tate, and Tunica, and the Arkansas county of Crittenden.


While in 2004, violent crime in Memphis was at a record low for more than a decade, that trend has changed. In 2005, Memphis was ranked the 4th most dangerous city with a population of 500,000 or higher in the U.S.[2] Crime in Memphis increased in 2005, and has seen a dramatic rise in the first half of 2006. Nationally, cities follow similar trends, and crime numbers tend to be cyclic. Local experts and criminologists cite as possible causes to the rise in crime in Memphis to gang recruitment, and to a reduction of federal funding by 66% to the Memphis Police Department.

In the first half of 2006, robbery of businesses increased 52.5%, robbery of individuals increased 28.5%, and homicide increased 18% over the same period of 2005. The Memphis Police Department has responded with the initiation of Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H. (Crime Reduction Using Statistical History), which targets crime hotspots and repeat offenders.[3] Memphis ended 2005 with 154 murders, 2006 ended with 160 murders. In 2006, the Memphis metropolitan area ranked second most dangerous in the nation.[4]

In 2006, Memphis ranked number one in violent crimes for major cities around the U.S according to the FBI's annual crime rankings, where it had ranked 2nd in 2005.[5]


In 2007, Forbes recorded Memphis as the most sedentary city in America. Although Memphis has a slightly lower statistic on the BMI than the national average of 66% of Americans being overweight or worse off, Memphis holds other records that combine to make it the most inactive city in the United States. When asked, 30% of people had not exercised regularly.

Forbes also cited Memphis having only 16.1 acres (0.066 km²) of parkland per 1,000 residents, as well as having a higher television watched per week per person amount at 41 hours (as opposed to the national average of 30 hours). A mention was also made of "favored Southern cuisine".[6]

Cultural events and fairs

Carnival Memphis

Carnival Memphis is an annual series of parties and festivities held in early summer to salute various aspects of Memphis and its industries. Begun in 1931 as the Memphis Cotton Carnival, it is organized by the Carnival Memphis Association and its member krewes, private societies similar to those of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. A secretly selected King and Queen of Carnival reign over the festivities.

Memphis in May

Hernando de Soto Bridge (2000)

Memphis in May promotes Memphis' musical and culinary heritage. The month-long celebration is largest annual series of public events put on in Memphis. Each year it features a different country, highlighting aspects of the honored nation's history and culture.

Each spring since its founding in 1977, Memphis in May has had a significant economic and educational impact to the city. The celebration includes a diverse mix of events, beginning during the first weekend of the month at Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River, the site of the Beale Street Music Festival.

During International Week, the city focuses on its honored country, part of a larger program in coordination with area schools to broaden cultural awareness among students, as well as a good deal of business linkage. Other signature events of Memphis in May include the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (the largest pork barbecue cooking contest in the world)[7] and the closing event of the month — a performance of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on the river called the Sunset Symphony, also featuring a performance by musicians from the honored country.

Memphis in May sprang from the Cotton Carnival festivities, which began holding big musical events at the Fairgrounds. In the early 1980s the idea of Memphis in May got started. Germany and Japan were the first two nations to be honored. Events were scattered around the city. A barbecue contest was held in tents in downtown parking lots. The contest proved very popular and has grown substantially, with a dedicated volunteer corps, corporate sponsorship, school involvement, and general citizen attendance. Contestants travel from afar to compete in the barbecue contest and to enjoy the Beale Street Music Fest—originally held in vacant lots on that storied street.

Cooper-Young Festival

An arts festival, the Cooper-Young Festival, is held annually in September in the Cooper-Young district of Midtown Memphis. The event draws artists from all over North America, and includes art sales, contests, and displays.

Since the late 1980s the Cooper-Young Festival has grown into one of Memphis' most anticipated events, with over 50,000 guests in recent years enjoying a mix of art, music and crafts presented by over 300 artisans from around the country. The festival celebrates the arts, people, culture and Memphis heritage. In addition to art, the festival includes sales of clothing, jewelry, live music, and gay novelty items.

Voodoo Music Experience

As a result of Hurricane Katrina, in August 2005 Memphis co-hosted the Voodoo Music Experience, normally the centerpiece of Halloween festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2006 the annual musical event returned to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Music and the arts


B. B. King (2006)

After the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1870s, Memphis' population was very low, and it slowly started being replenished by country people from the Mid-South. Farmers and freed slaves alike brought their musical roots here, and the commercial hurly-burly created a polishing of this talent and heritage, best exemplified by bandleader and composer W. C. Handy.

Memphis is the home of founders and establishers of various American music genres, including Blues, Gospel, Rock n' Roll, and "rockabilly" country music (in contrast to the "rhinestone" country sound of Nashville). Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and B. B. King all got their starts in Memphis in the 1950s. They are respectively dubbed the "King" of Country, Rock n' Roll, and Blues.

Other famous musicians who either grew up or got their starts in the Memphis area include the Box Tops,with Alex Chilton, the Gentrys, the Grifters, Nights Like These, Carl Perkins, John Lee Hooker, Justin Timberlake, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Charlie Rich, Lucero (band), Al Green, Muddy Waters, Big Star, Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, Willie Mae Ford Smith, Sam Cooke, Booker T. and the MGs, Otis Redding, Arthur Lee, The Blackwood Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave, Three 6 Mafia, 8 Ball & MJG, Yo Gotti, Elise Neal, Shawn Lane, Terry Manning, The Sylvers, Aquanet, Steve Cropper, and Anita Ward.

Memphis is also a haven for classical music, and has produced such opera singers as Ruth Welting and Kallen Esperian. The city has its own opera company, Opera Memphis, which performs in the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Memphis. The New York Metropolitan Opera first visited around 1910 and played to packed houses until recently when they quit doing 3-day stands. The Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis plays a critical role in music and performance in the city. Ballet flourishes here as well, with Ballet Memphis, now in its 22nd season, striving to interpret the South's cultural legacy through dance. Ballet Memphis presentations feature both classical and modern dance choreography.

The Highland Strip is an area located near the University of Memphis and is known as a haven for the college crowd. Venues such as Newby's showcase local musicians as well as national touring acts on a weekly basis. But Beale Street in Downtown is the mecca for live performance. Well known musical groups vie for work in this popular venue, crowded by tourists and locals alike.

Literature and Theater

Well-known writers from Memphis include Civil War historian and novelist Shelby Foote, made famous by his contributions to The Civil War series on Public Television, and playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote his first play on Snowden Street and saw it performed on Glenview Street. Novelist John Grisham grew up in nearby DeSoto County, Mississippi and many of his books, such as The Firm, The Client and The Rainmaker, are set in Memphis.

Many works of fiction and literature use Memphis as their setting, giving a diverse portrait of the city, its history, and its citizens. These include The Reivers by William Faulkner (1962), September, September by Shelby Foote (1977), The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor (1985), the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1986), The Firm by John Grisham (1991), Memphis Afternoons: a Memoir by James Conaway (1993), Cassina Gambrel Was Missing by William Watkins (1999), The Guardian by Beecher Smith (1999), and The Architect by James Williamson (2007).

Theater flourishes at Playhouse on the Square and Theatre Memphis. The Midtown-based Voices of the South is a non-profit, ensemble based theater company whose mission is to create, produce, and perform theatre from diverse Southern perspectives.

Fine arts

Memphis has also had a significant impact in the world of photography. William Eggleston, the pioneer of color photography as a serious artistic medium and considered one of the greatest photographers of all time, still lives and works in Memphis. A number of younger photographers, including Jeanne Umbreit and Huger Foote, are Memphians. Some other notable Memphis photographers were fashion/celebrity photographer Jack Robinson and civil rights-era documenter Ernest C. Withers.

In the last two decades, the art scene in Memphis has exploded. Art galleries were first established at Overton Square but have moved farther east. The independent art scene has had some success on South Main, on the trolley line in downtown Memphis. Several art galleries have moved into the neighborhood, stimulating a real estate boom that expanded into new residential construction. One interesting conversion was the Power House, a former power plant near Central Station that was transformed into contemporary art space by Delta Axis, a Memphis contemporary arts organization. The Power House closed in August, 2009, citing economic concerns.[8]

The Cooper-Young neighborhood in Midtown Memphis has also been home to several art galleries. The Edge is an art studio neighborhood, located at the edge of downtown near Madison Avenue, Marshall, and Union Avenue. The Edge is home to Memphis' Black Repertory Theater,[9] world-famous Sun Studios, and Delta Axis, among others. The old commercial strip on Broad Avenue in the Binghampton area is home to a cluster of artists and craftsmen.

Quality commercial art galleries in the east Memphis area include the David Lusk Gallery, Perry Nicole Gallery, L Ross Gallery and Lisa Kurts Gallery. All are on or near Poplar Ave., the main east-west thoroughfare. The Memphis College of Art and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art are neighbors inside Overton Park, along with The Shell, a 1930's outdoor performing arts venue recently renovated and reopened in September 2008.

More informally, art intersects with entrepreneurship in many traditionally African American neighborhoods through hand-painted signs. Artists like James "Brick" Brigance, an Orange Mound native, paints lettering, logos and images on the brick facades of many neighborhood buildings.[10]


Asian-American Tombstones in Elmwood Cemetery (2007)

Since its founding, Memphis has been home to persons of many different faiths. An 1870 map of Memphis shows religious buildings of the Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Christian denominations and a Jewish congregation.[11] Today, places of worship exist for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus.

Baron Hirsch Synagogue, which was founded in Memphis in the late 19th century, has the largest congregation of Orthodox Jews in the United States.[12]

Bellevue Baptist Church is a Southern Baptist megachurch in Memphis that was founded in the early 20th century. Its current membership is approximately 27,000. For many years, it was led by Adrian Rogers, a former three term president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The international headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, one of the fastest growing sects of Christianity and the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, is also in Memphis. The headquarters, Mason Temple (named after the denomination's founder, Charles Harrison Mason), is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech the day before he was killed.

The denominational headquarters of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church are located in Memphis. Memphis is also home to the main Cumberland Presbyterian seminary, the Memphis Theological Seminary. The Cumberland Presbyterian church maintains a library and archival facility at the headquarters.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis has its seat at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, founded as a parish in 1921.

The Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee has its cathedral, St. Mary's in Memphis.


The Memphis regional market is the forty-fourth largest designated market area (DMA) in the nation, with 657,670 homes (0.597% of the total U.S.). Several media outlets in print, broadcast and internet cover varying segments of the market.


  • The Commercial Appeal — daily (Sunday-Saturday); general news. The Commercial Appeal is Memphis' largest and most widely circulated newspaper.
  • The Daily News — daily (Monday-Friday); legal records.
  • Memphis Business Journal — weekly; business and economic news.
  • The Memphis Flyer — weekly; politics, arts and entertainment, lifestyles.
  • The Shelby Sun-Times — weekly; East Memphis and eastern Shelby County community news with Cordova and Germantown editions.
  • The Tri-State Defender — weekly; African-American community news.
  • La Prensa Latina — weekly; Hispanic community news, Spanish-English bilingual.


  • Memphis Downtowner - monthly; community interests; focus on the downtown area.
  • Main Street Journal - monthly; news, entertainment and politics.
  • Memphis Magazine - monthly; general community interest, arts and entertainment, lifestyles.
  • Memphis Parent - monthly; family issues and interests.
  • RSVP Magazine — monthly; society and philanthropy events.
  • Memphis Sport - bimonthly; local sports and recreation.
  • Number - a visual arts quarterly


A wide variety of local television stations also serves the market area. The major network television affiliates are WMC 5 (NBC), WREG 3 (CBS), WPTY 24 (ABC), WHBQ 13 (FOX), WLMT 30 (CW)), and WPXX 50 (MyNetworkTV). The area is also served by two PBS stations: WKNO 10 and WLJT 11.


Diverse formats can be found on the radio dial throughout the Memphis area. Two of the several stations of note include WMC-FM (99.7 FM, popularly known as FM 100), a leading Hot AC station; and the historic WDIA-AM (1070 AM), the first African-American-operated radio station in the US. WHER the first "All-Girl" radio station was founded in Memphis by record producer Sam Phillips in 1955.[13] WHBQ-AM and WMPS-AM broadcasting personalities Rick Dees, Wink Martindale, and Scott Shannon are now nationally known. WEVL (89.9 FM) is a volunteer-run-and-supported station where the many DJs are expert collectors in their musical provinces.


  1. ^ a b "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  2. ^ Morgan Quitno 2006 Crime Rankings
  3. ^ Ashby, Andrew (2006-04-07). "Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H. Advances at MPD". Memphis Daily News 121 (76). Retrieved 2007-08-02. 
  4. ^ Morgan Quitno 2007 Crime Rankings
  5. ^ Conley, Christopher (2007-09-27). "Memphis leads U.S. in violent crime". Commercial Appeal. Retrieved 2007-10-31. 
  6. ^ Ruiz, Rebecca (2007-10-29). "America's Most Sedentary Cities". Forbes. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  7. ^ "History of World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest". Commercial Appeal. 2005-05-10. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2007-08-02. 
  8. ^ Unique Memphis art gallery runs out of steam - Power House cites funding problems
  9. ^ Black Repertory Theater to Open on Marshall
  10. ^ Vanderford, Amie (2008-07-07). "Memphis by Hand: Creative Small-Business Advertising". Southern Spaces. Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  11. ^ Bird's eye view of the city of Memphis, Tennessee 1870.
  12. ^ Baron Hirsch Congregation
  13. ^ WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts

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