Marc Cohn’s 1991 song “Walking in Memphis” is a unique ode to a gorgeous city and the spiritual relief available through music and human connection. By far Cohn’s best-loved tune, it reached #13 on the U.S. Billboard charts and surpassed that number in Canada, Australia, and Ireland. It has become Cohn’s signature song and earned him a Grammy in 1991 for “Best New Artist.”
Here’s the backstory. Marc Cohn was a 28-year-old session musician, hoping for his big break. In a moment of self-doubt, he began to fret that his songs would never make the big time because they didn’t contain the spark of genius of, say, a James Taylor or a Jackson Browne. Desperate for a hit of mojo, he remembered reading that James Taylor said he traveled to new cities to enhance his inspiration. Taking Taylor’s cue, Marc flew off to Memphis on an odyssey that would transform both his spiritual life and career.
“Walking in Memphis” opens with the evocative line, “Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded a plane/Touched down in the land of the delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain/W. C. Handy, won’t you look down over me?/Yeah, I got a first-class ticket, but I’m as blue as a boy can be.”
Cohn then unfurls his “100% autobiographical” Memphis travels, beginning with typical tourist spots such as Sun Studios and Graceland, alluding to the ghost of Elvis going into his home while a young girl waits for him in his notoriously 1970s kitsch-fest of a “Jungle Room.”
It’s neither surprising nor inappropriate to allude to Elvis in his hometown, and fine use is made of his presence. But The King is by no means Cohn’s main source of inspiration here. He appeals to “Father of the Blues” W. C. Handy for guidance, whose statue overlooks the city and whose childhood home still stands. Then Cohn takes the obligatory strut down Beale Street, Memphis’ main drag.
We follow his poignant travels until about mid-song, where Cohn brings us to Reverend Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning, where he was rocketed into the next divine dimension.
His next stop is the rundown little Hollywood Café in nearby Mississippi where he pays honor to Muriel, a former schoolteacher who sang gospel and played the piano. They latched on to one another with a profound bond. He sang his heart out at her request and confessed a lot of his problems during her musical breaks.
When Muriel asks him, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?” he joyfully belts out, “Ma’am, I am tonight!” It’s a moment of witty shared reverence. Cohn, who is Jewish, nonetheless felt delivered from his blues and creative blockage from this experience. To this day, he remains amused when asked if he’s Christian because, in his view, the answer he provided was the most Jewish response imaginable.
“Walking in Memphis” succeeds on so many levels, from Cohn’s glorious voice to the stunning video that lays out his story in moody black and white. The track is enhanced with spectacular backup singing that pays homage to his life-changing moments in Reverend Al Green’s church along with that of his new friend Muriel, a woman who sadly passed away shortly before “Walking in Memphis” publicly dropped. (Fortunately, she heard him sing it privately and gave it her enthusiastic blessing.)
“Walking in Memphis” has a recurring refrain for which it is best known: “I’m walking in Memphis/I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale [Street]/Walking in Memphis/but do I really feel the way I feel?” His feet levitating off the main street of this mad, wonderful city suggest the spiritual lift he received from this providential trip.
Marc Cohn came home to write it all up and a few years later it became a hit for the ages. He still tours today, with “Walking in Memphis” remaining a crowd-pleaser.
Both Cher and the country band Lonestar have rendered excellent cover versions (and Paul Anka a smooth, relaxed one), but it is Marc Cohn’s soul-baring voice and superb keyboards that make “Walking in Memphis” a 90s masterpiece.
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