The Story Behind Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" Hit Song

The Inspiration and Explanation for the Lyrics

Elvis Presley statue on Beale Street
••• Elvis Presley statue on Beale Street. Richard I'Anson / Getty Images

The 1991 hit song "Walking in Memphis" originally by singer and songwriter Marc Cohn poetically recalls his first visit to Memphis—the taproot for some of his treasured, influential musicians like Al Green, Elvis Presley, and Isaac Hayes.

The song embodies a lot of the spirit and character of the city. Lines from the song point out some great things about Memphis if you're passing through or spending leisure time in town.

The Inspiration for the Song

The story goes that Cohn was having a dry spell coming up with his signature music and lyrics. He was inspired by masterful singer/songwriter James Taylor who had said that he broke his writer's block by going somewhere he'd never been and then got inspiration from that experience. Memphis was just the place for Cohn.

As you see from the song, he did the touristy things like visited Graceland, but also asked friends for more obscure, off-the-beaten-path suggestions, which resulted in references to Al Green and "Muriel at the Hollywood."

Key Lines from the Song

There are a few references in the lyrics to Elvis, which Cohn says he regrets in hindsight because the song was not meant as an homage to Elvis. He wrote the song as an embodiment of his experience in the city as a whole.

Blue Suede Shoes 

In the first line of the song, Cohn mentions blue suede shoes, a reference to the rockabilly song "Blue Suede Shoes" that was originally recorded by Carl Perkins and made famous by Elvis Presley.

You can purchase a pair of actual blue, suede shoes from Lansky Brothers, "the Clothier to the King," in downtown Memphis.

Delta Blues

The Delta blues are a style of blues music that originated in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s. Memphis is generally considered the northern boundary of this geographic area.

There is a Delta Blues Museum is in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about 1.5 hours from Memphis

W.C. Handy

Handy was a blues musician, composer, and a pioneer of the genre. He performed on Beale Street with his band in the early 1900s and wrote the song "Memphis Blues," which originally was a campaign song for mayoral candidate Edward Crump. W.C. Handy Park is a city park on Beale Street; there is a bronze statue of Handy there.

Beale Street

Designated by Congress as the "Home of the Blues," Beale Street gained notoriety in the early 1900s as an entertainment district with restaurants and clubs. Today, the nearly 2-mile-long street is a major tourist destination in Tennessee.

Ghost of Elvis

At the time of Cohn's visit to Memphis in 1986, Elvis had been dead nine years. There had been many conspiracy theories swirling about Elvis, including that he or his ghost has been sighted around the world.

Union Avenue

Union Avenue is a major thoroughfare for car traffic in Memphis. While there is a misconception that the street is named after the Union Army, it was actually named in reference to the unification of different areas of the city early in Memphis' formation.

Gates of Graceland

Cohn stopped at Graceland, the mansion that was Elvis Presley's home and today is open for visitors from around the world.

It is also where Elvis is buried. The gates of the property have a distinctive metal design with music notes and guitar players.

Jungle Room

One of the more famous rooms in Graceland, the Hawaiian-styled "Jungle Room" is known for the deep green shag carpet and tropical decor including carved wooden furniture. Also, this room served as one of Elvis' final audio recording rooms.

Reverend Green

The Reverend Al Green is a Memphis-based soul singer and songwriter who later recorded gospel music and became an ordained minister. This Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was a major influence for Cohn. And, at the time of Cohn's Memphis visit, he was preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Cohn, a Jewish boy from Cleveland, went and talks about his memory of the experience:

The service was so deeply moving that I found myself with sweat running down my face and tears in my eyes, totally enveloped by everything I was seeing and hearing... Al Green's service was one of the great experiences of my life.

Muriel at the Hollywood

The Hollywood Cafe is a small southern food greasy spoon in Robinsonville, Mississippi, where a gospel singer named Muriel performed frequently. There's more to this story, but the basic rundown is a friend recommended that he check out this retired school teacher. He did, got on stage, and played along even though the two didn't share a common songbook.

In "Walking in Memphis," the song culminates with the iconic lyric, "'Tell me are you a Christian, child?' and I said, 'Ma'am, I am tonight!'" That night Cohn did not become a Christian or born again but infers his "come to Jesus" moment with Muriel and music.

Full Lyrics for "Walking in Memphis"

"Walking in Memphis" by Cohn reached No. 13 in 1991 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is the only top 40 hit for Cohn. "Walking in Memphis" has since been remade several times, notably in 1995 by Cher, and in 2003 by Lonestar.

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy, won't you look down over me
Yeah, I got a first class ticket
But I'm as blue as a boy can be

Then I'm walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered 'round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room

When I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

They've got catfish on the table
They've got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you
When you haven't got a prayer
But, boy, you've got a prayer in Memphis

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said
"Tell me are you a Christian child?"
And I said "Ma'am, I am tonight"

Walking in Memphis
(Walking in Memphis)
Was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
(Walking in Memphis)
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Walking in Memphis
(Walking in Memphis)
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
(Walking in Memphis)
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain