“Artists, in fact learners of any kind, thrive in a supportive context and when given permission to experiment and collaborate.”
In June of 2015 my family and I moved to Memphis from Atlanta. In our brief time here we have tried to learn about our new town, and we have visited places that define it: Graceland, The Peabody Hotel, The Pyramid (home to the largest Bass Pro Shop in the world–you want it, they’ve got it…in Camouflage), and The Brooks Museum. The barbecue here deserves its own sentence of places worthy of a visit; The Rendezvous, Corky’s, Tops, Interstate (my current favorite), Central, Germantown Commissary, and Three Little Pigs. (I have always found that eating pork provides a bit of insight. If true, Memphians must have a lot of insight.)
Where so much of Memphis gets its real flavor, however, has to do with music, and the almost impossible richness of talent that converged here at several seminal moments in American music history. The two places that best embody those moments are Sun Studios and STAX Records. The birth of Rock and Roll and the edgiest (and much of the greatest) Soul music originated here. Most relevant is that so much of the talent–names such as (in no particular order and part of a much longer list) Aretha Franklin, BB King, Carl Perkins, Ike Turner, Booker T, Elvis, Alex Chilton, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes–came from an area the size of a postage stamp on a standard map of the United States. I do not believe that there was something in the water that made this so. I believe much of our creativity lies dormant, and the role Memphis music has played in our collective music history exposes a greater and more interesting truth than we might first see.
Convergence and Permission are critical in the formation of a creative community. When a group of people has a shared space to come together and they have permission to uncover and reveal their gifts, the artifacts they leave behind are often astounding. Additionally, what can happen in those communities when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, is electric. Seeing the topic from this angle reveals that those of us working in education have much to learn from what are essentially wonderfully successful learning environments where collaboration, engagement, and experimentation take root.
These convergences of remarkable talent are a common thread in literary, performing, and visual arts history, and I will not attempt to do any justice to that topic here. Looked at from the opposite side, the story of a great artist arriving from a vacuum in which there is no predecessor or support is interestingly rare.
As our nation slashes budgets for the arts, we should take note, and even better, take action. Individual artists have unique gifts, but their talents rarely seem to reach their potential unless they are enfranchised within a support system. Artists, in fact learners of any kind, thrive in a supportive context and when given permission to experiment and collaborate.
The stories of Sun Studios and STAX Records should inspire those who ask big questions about how we can create the right schools for our kids…and not just in the context of the Arts. In our desire to create successful learning experiences in a school, we have much to learn from the stories of convergence and permission exemplified in these two Memphis history touchstones.