Recorded in 1959 and released as the B-side of “Back in the USA,” Chuck Berry’s song “Memphis, Tennessee” was not an immediate hit in the US, but would creep as high as #6 on the British pop charts in 1960(?). Although diametrically opposed in tone, the song’s story foreshadows Berry’s 1965 hit “Promised Land” (covered by Elvis in 1973) with its protagonist negotiating a cross-country long-distance phone call with the operator. In “Promised Land,” the narrator’s tone is jubilant and triumphant, but in “Memphis, Tennessee” it is somber and morose. “Memphis” is the story of a young man returning a long-distance call to a girl named “Marie,” who lives in Memphis, “on the south side/high up on a ridge/just a half-a-mile from the Mississippi bridge,” with whom the narrator had been emotionally involved, and subsequently separated “because her Mom did not agree.” The songs plays with listeners’ expectations; based on the typical content of pop songs from that era, most people automatically assume that the narrator is a young man, just starting out in the world, who remembers Marie as an early sweetheart, perhaps from his teenage years, with whom he was forced to part because of her mother’s disapproval. The last line of the song, however, turns our expectations on their heads:
“Marie is only six years old. Information, please: try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee.”
The song so effectively misleads us that this line commonly horrifies first-time listeners–he was involved with a six-year-old girl? On repeated listening, however, we realize that the idea of a romantic or sexual involvement between the narrator and Marie is never stated, and come to understand that Marie is not the narrator’s former sweetheart, but his child. The “Mom” mentioned in the lyrics is not a tyrannical mother-in-law figure, but the narrator’s ex-wife, who “tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee” not by meddling, but by divorcing the narrator and maintaining custody of their daughter, Marie. And so in one line the song gains a tremendous gravity, transmogrifying from an adolescent paen to puppy love (which is what most other pop songs of the era actually were) into a much more serious lament of a much more mature situation. A young man (and he must be young, for how else could his sweetheart’s *mother* effectively exert control over their relationship?) who loses a sweetheart is consolable–he has a long life ahead of him and should be able to find another. An older man who has missed the formative early years of his daughter’s life due to an acrimonious divorce is not so quick to find solace, and his is a situation that most grown men, regardless of age, could at least relate to (if not actually identify with.)
Coming as it did in 1959, this one key line in this one particular song anticipated, in its affect, the metamorphosis of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself from children’s music to adult fare, a process which would not be well underway until the advent of Cream in the late ’60s. That the song was released as a B-side and did not find widespread acceptance until covered by Lonnie Mack in 1963 is perhaps, at least in part, due to the anachronism of its theme. Rock ‘n’ Roll audiences were younger, then, and not ready for the emotional weight of a subject as serious as divorce and the pangs of fatherhood. With its incestuous blurring of the line between mother and lover, the song, of course, is ripe fodder for Freudian analysis, and especially given the pedophiliac tone of some of Berry’s other songs (e.g. “Sweet Little Sixteen”) and the sex scandals that rocked his career (“C’mon, baby, just let me pee on you!”) the way is clearly open for disappointing moralistic interpretations of “Memphis, Tennessee.” Such tawdry readings miss the more profound meanings of the song and of its position in cultural space.