story by Robert Griffin and Sarah Rutledge Fischer | photos courtesy of Memphis in May
You may have heard that the Memphis in May International Festival will break tradition in 2019 by saluting the rich and colorful fabric of Memphis’ culture. It is only fitting that we, in turn, salute the Festival that, for 43 years, has brought so much to our city.
Memphis in May was created in 1976, following the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, when the Memphis Chamber of Commerce discovered something astonishing— they had nearly $50,000 (over $200,000 in today’s money) left over in their budget. The Chamber allocated that money, along with additional sponsor dollars, to develop a festival designed to entice Memphis back to its struggling and nearly abandoned downtown.
That first 1977 festival, modeled on the Edinburgh International Festival, saluted the nation of Japan with a Japanese Summer Garden and a U.S.-Japan business conference. That first year also included two of the festival’s longest- lasting events: the Sunset Symphony (since retired in 2015) and the Beale Street Music Festival.
The original Beale Street Music Festival wasn’t held in Tom Lee Park, where it is held now. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Music Festival was held in the much smaller Handy Park, with performances taking place up and down Beale Street in empty lots where clubs had once stood. Over the years, the Music Festival succeeded in honoring the city’s musicians, music history, and music future, while also bringing people back to Beale. These days, enthusiastic crowds overflow Tom Lee Park, and festival-goers flood up the hill to the now thriving Beale Street Entertainment District, bringing the celebration of Memphis’s music culture full circle.
The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, another key component of Memphis culture, was added the second year, in 1978, and held in a vacant lot near the Orpheum. Ms. Bessie Louise Cathey beat twenty-four competitors to win a Grand Prize of $500. She was followed by Lee Waterbury, who won $250, and Mrs. Johnnie Whitaker, who won $150. The contest has since become an international barbecue phenomenon. In 2018, the contest hosted 226 teams from twenty- three states and six countries who competed for more than $115,000 in prize money. That’s a lot of good barbecue.
Beyond the music and barbecue, Memphis in May has given Memphians a connection with countries all over the world. Each year, school kids spend time learning about that year’s honored country. Memphians remember Memphis in May events celebrating the culture of Egypt, Brazil, or Tunisia. They grew up creating school projects on China, Italy, or Morocco. Some have even met with trade delegates from Germany, Portugal, or Sweden. The Festival’s international focus has brought the world to Memphis and Memphis to the world.
This year, to salute Memphis’s unique culture, the Festival added a new event, Celebrate Memphis. Celebrate Memphis will include four stages featuring local performers, a food court packed with local food trucks, a Global Community area featuring the many cultures that call Memphis home, and an arts area full of local craftsmen. There will be an airshow featuring local pilots and a paratrooper stunt team and a meet-and-greet with players from the Memphis Express, 901FC, and the Memphis Redbirds. Memphis’ competitive spirit will be on display as the city comes together to set the Guinness Record for the World’s Longest Picnic Table. Finally, the entire event will culminate in the area’s largest fireworks display and drone show, enhanced by the bridges’ Mighty Lights and a Memphis Music Soundtrack.
Best of all, Celebrate Memphis is FREE to the public. What a great opportunity to come down to the river with family and friends and celebrate the history and soul of our city.
For more information on the 2019 Memphis in May International Festival, visit the Festival website at https:// www.memphisinmay.org or find the Festival social media