Memphis in May
This Southern city’s month-long festival celebrates international culture, music and, of course, barbecue.
Crowds on Beale Street
Memphis, Tenn. The name itself conjures up images of Southern culture, barbecue and blues music. Yet every May for the past 37 years, the city is transformed into an international smorgasbord during the festival known as “Memphis in May.”
Originally settled by Native Americans, then sold to the United States in the early 1800s, Memphis (which means “City of Good Abode” in Egyptian) has a rich and colorful history.
Once the largest cotton market in the world — due in part to the slave trade — Memphis was a controversial player during the Civil War.
Gambling, saloons and prostitution were rampant for years, until a massive cleanup effort in the early 1900s. Today, Memphis is a culturally progressive city with a revitalized downtown and thriving economy.
“Memphis in May is one of the best things about the city,” says Mitzi Thomas, a native of Memphis, who now resides in Tulsa. “It’s a great way to showcase the city to visitors. Memphis is such a great mix of old and new, and you can see it all during the festival.”
Thomas and her husband, David, have attended Memphis in May for the past 15 years. David also competes in the World Championship Barbeque Contest, which is an integral part of the festival.
Memphis in May — one of the nation’s largest international festivals — is broken into four main events that each take place on a different weekend during the month.
The Beale Street Music Festival from May 2-3 serves as the kickoff to Memphis in May. It is known for showcasing local talent alongside big-name stars in a gorgeous outdoor park overlooking the Mississippi River.
The Beale Street festival can draw crowds of more than 100,000 people during its three days. Attracting music fans from all 50 states and more than a dozen foreign countries, it features an eclectic mix of contemporary rock and roll, blues and soul music.
International Week, which celebrates a different country each year, follows May 5-11. This year is dedicated to Panama. During this weeklong festival, various events throughout downtown Memphis will highlight the country’s food, culture and entertainment.
While targeted to the community at large, the core of International Week focuses on a comprehensive educational program for the area’s public and private schools. By the time a child graduates from high school, he or she will have been exposed to the cultures and customs of 12 countries, simply by attending this portion of Memphis in May.
Arguably the most well-known part of Memphis in May is next — the World Championship Barbeque Contest from May 15-17. From a small start of 26 teams in 1978, the competition has grown to be the largest in the world, with more than 250 teams competing for cash prizes up to $10,000. Media from all over the world cover the event.
“My husband and his college friends compete on a team every year,” Thomas says. “I love watching people from all walks of life come together to celebrate one of Memphis’ culinary delights.”
(In fact, Thomas and his team have won several awards over the past few years, including first place in one of three major categories in 1992 and 2013).
The Sunset Symphony closes the month on May 24. Held in Tom Lee Park, this is usually a free or low-cost event and is the largest annual concert of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra plays a variety of classical music, as well as selected pieces from the country being honored that year.
Tickets for Memphis in May activities are available at www.memphisinmay.org.
Five not to miss in Memphis
1. Visit the opulent Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Ave., and watch the famous Peabody ducks make their way down its red carpet.
2. Tour downtown by trolley for a great overview of the city and the Mississippi River.
3. Stroll down Beale Street, famous for its bars and music.
4. Visit the beautiful Botanic Gardens, 750 Cherry Road, and feed the koi.
5. Travel back in time to Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. The home of Elvis Presley is now a museum and popular pilgrimage for thousands each year.
Where to stay
Madison Hotel Downtown, 79 Madison Ave.
Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Ave.
Holiday Inn Select Downtown, 160 Union Ave.
Crown Plaza Downtown, 300 N. Second St.
Where to eat
Rendezvous, 52 S. Second St.: A world-famous restaurant located in a basement in an unassuming alleyway.
The Arcade, 540 S. Main St.: Memphis’ oldest restaurant and a great place for breakfast.
Gus’ Fried Chicken, 310 S. Front St.: Need we say more?
Central BBQ, 2249 Central Ave.: Locals swear by this place.