Oliver Pelling has long-distance information on this iconic city.

So the elevator will ding like elevators do and four or five ducks will waltz on to the red carpet that's been rolled out in the foyer to receive them. The ducks will be closely followed by a bellman (an adult bellboy) who'll be directing traffic with a cane. The bellman's official title is actually The Peabody Memphis Duckmaster.

The Peabody Memphis Duckmaster will be offering encouragement to the ducks by saying things like, "very good!" and "very nice!" Emboldened, the ducks will continue their march along the red carpet to the fountain in the middle of the foyer, before clambering up three steps and jumping in. There will be a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered, and they'll be taking photos, giggling, ooh-ing, aah-ing, and have very little idea what is and isn't real anymore.

The ducks will swim around the fountain for a bit before eventually jumping out, retracing their steps along the red carpet, and getting back into the elevator, followed closely by The Peabody Memphis Duckmaster.

Advertisement
Memphis
Memphis "I Am A Man" mural. Photo / Craig Thompson

The elevator doors will slide shut, the crowd will burst into rapturous applause, and the ducks will return to whence they came, presumably to grapple with the harrowing reality that the rest of their lives will be spent this way. Two marches a day, every day, forever. There is of course some necessary context to help explain this peculiar deployment of ducks at The Peabody Memphis hotel, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Mention Memphis to any of your annoyingly well-travelled friends and they'll either go: "Oh yeah, Elvis! Graceland! You've gotta go to Graceland!" or "Oh yeah, it's a bit of a dive." In a way, both of these people are correct. If you do find yourself in Memphis, not visiting the home of perhaps the most influential pop star of all time (and the enormous, theme park-esque adjoining facility) does feel at least mildly heretical. You're there — you might as well. But Memphis is much more than Elvis.

In regard to the other point: like much of the America tourists tend to neglect, Memphis does indeed have its problems. You'll see it as you drive (or more likely, are driven) between the more suburban tourist attractions. Boarded up homes, abandoned businesses, dilapidated apartment blocks, shrubs and weeds reclaiming entire blocks.

In a country as developed as America, they're the kind of sights that will come as a sad, surprising shock.

Until last year, Memphis' poverty rate was the worst in America. According to a 2018 report by the University of Memphis (UoM), its poverty rate is now the second worst in America. Memphis also happens to be the second slowest-growing city in the country — ranked 487 out of 515 American cities in terms of its economic growth. And while the UoM report claims that things are getting better, it urges "cautious optimism".

Far from any of this being a reason to not visit Memphis, the exact opposite is true. It's merely important, real-life context for an important, real-life place. A city's wealth is not indicative of a city's worth, after all, and to learn of Memphis' colossal cultural history, to see and hear her story for yourself, is to give respect where respect is due.

For a start, if you like music, any type of music, a visit to Memphis is a pilgrimage whether you realise it or not. Take Sun Studio: open today for both tourists to visit and recording artists to use, it's where the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis cut wax and spent the 50s and 60s learning how best to bring the world to its trembling knees. Ground zero for rock and roll, and still very much intact. Less than a 10-minute drive away, you'll find The Stax Museum of American Soul Music — the original site of the unfathomably influential Stax Records. Think Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. and the MGs. Memphis oozes this stuff.

One piece of information that your annoyingly well-travelled friend may or may not relay to you is that you can't visit Memphis without visiting the National Civil Rights museum. Built within the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, it's one of the most poignant and profound monuments to a man — and a movement — you're likely to find anywhere in the world.

Advertisement

"Memphis is super-proud of its history," says Lahna Deering, a musician, local radio host and Sun Studio tour guide of seven years. "It's not all happy history, but the legacies left behind are mind-blowing, and a little hard to fathom at times."

Speaking of legacies, you can take a stroll down Beale St and jump into any of the neon-drenched blues bars (B.B. King's Blues Club, if you have to pick one), then dribble over one of the best barbecue feeds of your life at Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, a smoke-filled circa-1948 basement barbecue joint that will make you believe that god and brisket are made of the very same stuff.

If you want Vietnamese food, and you're well within your rights to want Vietnamese food in Memphis, Tennessee, head to Pho Bin (on Lahna's recommendation).

Sports fan or not, you'd do well to catch a Grizzlies game if you're in town during the NBA season. The team itself are one of the worst in the league — shockingly bad — but there is arguably not a single more authentic "local" experience, in any city in the world, than handing over your hard-earned money to knowingly watch a losing team.

For more locals-only entertainment (because Beale St is decidedly not that), spread your wings and visit Minglewood Hall, Loflin Yard, Wild Bill's, Hi Tone Cafe or Lafayette's Music Room to get a fill of what's happening, musically-speaking, in Memphis in 2019. And if you pick your visitation days carefully, you can actually go and watch Reverend Al Green perform a sermon at the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Just keep in mind it's an actual church, not a tourist attraction, so leave the selfie sticks (are they still a thing?) at home. Memphis is also home to a massive outdoor shop housed inside a gigantic glass pyramid that has actual, real-life alligators inside it. But that's a tale for another time.

Unlike the Austins and Nashvilles of the American south, Memphis isn't sanitised and packaged up pretty for the consumption of pleasure-cruising international visitors. Memphis is Memphis.

And Memphis is America — the good, the bad, and the ugly. "We're all here trying to make it work," says Deering. "And that shines through."

As for The Peabody Memphis Ducks, the short version is that a general manager of The Peabody got pissed on whiskey at some point in the 1930s and decided it was a good idea.

As for the long version, you're better off asking The Memphis Peabody Duckmaster himself.

National Civil Rights Museum - formerly the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot. Photo / David Meany
National Civil Rights Museum - formerly the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot. Photo / David Meany

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE

An 11-day Tastes and Sounds of the South Trafalgar trip,

including return flights transfers

, accommodation and some meals starts from $6155pp, twin share, departing October 22