Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” Lyrics Meaning
“Walking in Memphis” is one of those songs which, according to its author, is literally about an event that transpired in his real life. Back in the days before Marc Cohn blew up and was still trying to break through on the music scene, he decided to take a trip to Memphis as a hopeful remedy for writer’s block. And at the time, he was residing in New York City which, as readers familiar with US geography would know, is a considerable distance from Tennessee.
Memphis may not be the most famous city or even capital in Tennessee, but it is a major cultural hub nonetheless. For instance, it is where the late Elvis Presley’s most notable residence, Graceland, is situated. And in fact from the onset of the lyrics Cohn, in a roundabout way, gives a shoutout to Elvis.
Moreover the Mississippi Delta region, which from a northern standpoint sorta originates in Memphis, is considered by many to be the place where the blues’ genre of music originated from. Meanwhile Cohn himself, to some degree, is a blues’ musician. And it is pretty obvious he knows his stuff, as after paying homage to Elvis he proceeds to give a shoutout to W. C. Handy. Handy is a musician you probably never heard of before.
But just as Elvis has earned the moniker of being the King of Rock and Roll, W. C. is known as the Father of the Blues. He is really the main figure who the genre is ultimately traced back to. And the vocalist evokes the spirit of Handy to come and aid him as he suffers from his own ‘blues’. And since we also know the background of this narrative, that would obviously be Marc’s way of requesting divine help, if you will, in overcoming his writer’s block.
In the second verse, the vocalist namedrops Elvis more overtly. He tells a story of ‘following his ghost’, which only Marc could see, into Graceland and to an area therein known as the Jungle Room.
The third verse begins with Cohn referencing one Muriel. Now besides for the narrator himself, Muriel is actually the most-important character in this story. For example, unlike Elvis Presley and W. C. Handy, Marc met Muriel personally, while she was still alive. And as he recounted, she was an elderly musician who not only brought him on stage (to sing gospel) but also advised him from a more spiritual perspective.
He met her at a venue called the Hollywood Cafe. According to the venue’s website, they specialize in traditional southern dishes such as catfish. So that would likely be why the same dish is mentioned in the bridge, at a place where “gospel [is] in the air”.
Indeed if an outsider, like Marc Cohn, conscientiously sets about immersing himself in hardcore blues’ culture (well for the most part blues is a southern, African-American genre), that’s basically another way of saying that it is highly interconnected to gospel music. For instance, the aforementioned W. C. Handy very much grew up in a church home.
So that would logically be why for instance Cohn used the opportunity of visiting Memphis to also stop by the Reverend Al Green’s church. Al Green of course is a legendary singer who made a name for himself in soul music before, after suffering a personal tragedy, turning to gospel. But he was able to make such a transition because he too, being a southern Black, grew up in a religious household.
So in a way, as we have alluded to in the past on this platform, gospel and the blues and even some of the derivatives of the latter, such as soul music and R&B, all sorta have the same origins in the African-American church. And that’s something that Marc Cohn realized, that if he really wanted to catch the spirit, so to speak, then he had to fully immerse himself in the culture, i.e. catfish, gospel music and all.
“Walking in Memphis”
And as for the chorus, it most simply focuses on the vocalist “walking in Memphis” and more specifically down Beale Street, which itself is an important tourist attraction for blues’ aficionados. Going to Tennessee and especially Memphis without visiting Beale Street would apparently be akin to New York without visiting Times Square. And once again, besides being a place to chill, it holds a special significance to the blues’ community. So it’s like Mr. Cohn covered all the bases during his visit.
And ultimately his mission did prove successful, as the result was this song going on to become Cohn’s signature piece. So this is one of the few cases we have come across where a story which, according to the singer/songwriter is “100% autobiographical”, actually proved to be a hit.
This is one of the earliest singles in Cohn’s discography and his first under a major label, that being Atlantic Records. In fact “Walking in Memphis” is derived from his debut album, which is also entitled Marc Cohn. And the track was released on 21 February 1991.
Cohn, a singer who is actually from Cleveland, managed to drop five studio albums between 1991 and 2010. And even though he has apparently managed to carve out a loyal fandom, by and large “Walking in Memphis” is really the only notable hit of his career.
Success of “Walking in Memphis”
This song broke the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and the top 30 of the UK Singles Chart. It also managed to go gold across the pond. Also it was the song that logically would have held the most weight in Marc Cohn winning the Best New Artist Grammy Award in 1992. In fact in taking home that award, he actually bested Boyz II Men and Seal. These are two musical acts that went on to have much more notable music careers.
Cohn, who plays the guitar also, wrote and co-produced this song. And the other producer is Ben Wisch. Ben would go on to win his own Grammy (in the category of Best Latin Pop Album) in 2007 for his participation on Ricardo Arjona’s project Adentro (2005).
Marc Cohn’s Memphis Trip
According to Cohn, his visit to Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church and to the Hollywood Cafe, where he met Muriel Wilkins, were per the instructions of a friend who was more familiar with Memphis.
Cohn went on to describe “Al Green’s service” as ‘one of the great experiences of his life’. And concerning Muriel, the African-American singer at the Hollywood Cafe who “was in her 60s” at the time, she actually helped Marc come to grips with the death of his mother. Cohn’s mother died when he was just a toddler.
The last time Marc Cohn saw Muriel Wilkins was when he returned to Memphis and the Hollywood Cafe in 1986. This was after he had put “Walking in Memphis” together. And while Muriel did rightly predict that this was the best song he had written, unfortunately she passed away before the track was officially released. And reportedly, the song they performed together in the Hollywood Cafe during his first visit in 1985 was the timeless 18th century hymn “Amazing Grace“.
Cohn came to Memphis looking for inspiration and he actually found it!
To note, the aforementioned Hollywood Cafe is not in Memphis but rather a nearby locality, to the south in Mississippi, called Tunica Resorts.
In 2019 Miley Cyrus who, as the daughter of country music legend Billy Ray Cyrus, is actually from Tennessee, performed at the Beale Street Music Festival. And during the event, she brought Marc Cohn on stage to perform a rendition of “Walking in Memphis”.
There is actually a statue of W. C. Handy (1873-1958) situated on the aforementioned Beale Street (located in a park named in his honor). And it was reportedly in its presence that Marc Cohn called on Handy, as noted above.
One of Cohn’s inspirations to visit Memphis in an attempt to defeat writer’s block came via an interview of well-known musician James Taylor that he read.
As a completely unrelated though interesting side note, this song was recorded in New York City’s Quad Studios, i.e. the same facility in which Tupac Shakur was shot (and survived) in 1994.
In 1995 Cher covered “Walking in Memphis” to comparable success of Marc Cohn, i.e. her rendition also charting in about a dozen countries.
And a country music group known as Lonestar dropped their own version in 2003, to milder chart success.
One of my favourite ever songs. Actually released on my 46th birthday 21/02/91, hey , what a birthday present , many thanks Mark Cohn.