While locals are apt to take institutions such as The Center for Southern Folklore for granted, savvy tourists often make it their first stop in Memphis. Situated downtown in Peabody Place, the center serves as an informal gateway to everything musical in Memphis: Here visitors can learn about the city's rich history as a blues town, a jazz haven, and, of course, the birthplace of rock-and-roll.
Last week, the center's director, Judy Peiser, hosted a rehearsal for Black Snake Moan music supervisor Scott Bomar, who practically grew up at the center, booking shows, performing in his own bands, and playing alongside established soul and blues acts. This time, however, the doors were locked, and the only folks in the audience were Black Snake Moan co-producers John Singleton and Stephanie Allain, actress Christina Ricci, and a few crew members, as Bomar and director Craig Brewer worked with Samuel Jackson, Kenny Brown, and Cedric Burnside on some songs for the movie.
This week, the spotlight is on the Center for Southern Folklore itself, which is holding its 18th annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival. A cornucopia of blues, gospel, rock, folk, soul, and jazz, the free festival exhibits an array of talent, ranging from young local artists such as Kelley Hurt, Cory Branan, The Natural Kicks, and Mouse Rocket to musical mythmakers such as Billy Lee Riley, Jim Dickinson, Super Chikan, and East Tennessee fiddler Roy Harper. As the city's aural landscape has evolved, so has the festival, showcasing Latino bands such as Symbiosis and Los Cantadores, Celtic group Kula, neo-soulsters Will Graves and Authentic Lyfe, and rappers Kavious, The Iron Mic Coalition, and Willie Firecracker.
"We're continually focusing on the tried-and-true artists who represent the heritage of the region," Peiser says, "but we're also looking at the slant that younger musicians have on it. We've got a lot of groups who are new and different while still exploring their roots, like alt-country bands and neo-soul singers, who are definitely rooted in the Memphis tradition."
She points to center employee Tonya Dyson-Jerry, who sings with Men-Nefer and Will Graves, as one of the voices that make "the new sound of soul" in Memphis. "We met when she booked KRS-ONE here last spring," Peiser says, "and she's been here ever since."
Another center regular, spoken-word performer IQ, began hanging around years ago. "I asked if he knew who [Mississippi poet] Etheridge Knight was," Peiser recalls. "He said no, and I told him until you do, I'm not talking to you. I didn't want IQ to think he was doing his craft in a vacuum. He came back to me, saying, 'I can't believe this!' A short time later, he saluted [Knight] with a poetry night here."
At this year's festival, IQ will perform in the center's Folklore Store and emcee various stages throughout the weekend.
"Tonya and IQ are strong in their own traditions," Peiser notes. "Through their connections in the music scene, they bring other performers to the center, which helps keep the festival diverse."
From late morning to late evening this Saturday and Sunday, over a hundred musicians and dancers will perform on four stages: inside the Folklore Store and the Folklore Hall and outdoors at the Trolley Stop Stage and on the Verizon Stage, located at the corner of Peabody Place and Main Street. Quilters and craftspeople will hold court in the hallway connecting the two indoor venues, while chefs will offer cooking demonstrations in the Viking Culinary Arts Center, located next door to the Center for Southern Folklore. (See Food Notes, p. 46.)
"The feel of this year's festival is so exciting," says Peiser. "Whether it's Mouse Rocket or [gospel group] The Sensational Six, the music is just great. The level of professionalism is really strong in every category, and I am amazed by the variety of performers."
Bomar expects to be at the festival all weekend. "It's always one of the live-music highlights of my year," he says.
"The real folks," Peiser fires back proudly, "know where it's at."
The Memphis Music & Heritage Festival runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, September 3rd and Sunday, September, 4th, in and around the Center for Southern Folklore. Admission is free. For more information, call 525-FOLK or go to SouthernFolklore.com.