Marc Cohn is best known for his hit song Walking In Memphis. It was released back in the early 90’s. While Cher covered Walking in Memphis a few years later with minor change to the lyrics, her copy falls far short from Cohns original, in my opinion.

I suspect Cher’s retake of this song failed to charm me because it’s not her story to tell. It’s Marc’s. And it’s the story which gets me. Marc’s song “Walking in Memphis” tells the truth of his “spiritual awakening,” as he puts it, “one of those trips where you’re different when you leave.”

Pursuing a career in music yet having writers block Marc chooses to go somewhere a little out of the ordinary. Memphis. The city that gave start to music legends such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, W. C. Handy, Al Green and many more. Strait from the get go, Cohn sets the stage to take you on His journey to Memphis.

Put on my blue suede shoes and boarded the plane,

Touch down in the land of the delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain

W.C Handy won’t you look down on me

Yeah, I got a first class ticket, but I’m as blue as a boy can be

While Marc was quite literally walking in Memphis he visits the Full Gospel Tabernacle. There gospel singer and pastor Al Green (known as Reverend Green) sings gospel and preaches about Jesus.

Reverend Green, he’ll be glad to see you when you haven’t got a prayer

The spirit falls and Jewish born musician Marc Cohn weeps for hours. I love this. I love it because I share this encounter. The feeling of weeping uncontrollably in Gods presence, with no apparent reason, yet afterwards you are new. A touch from God. A softening of our human heart. Often God does this when he is healing us and that is exactly what happens to Marc.

He visits a roadside restaurant called the Hollywood on Highway 61 where he meets Muriel. A 70 year old African American Christian who sings gospel songs.

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?’
I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight.’

This encounter, for me, is what completes the song “Walking in Memphis”. Muriel plays piano for an hour or so, then, after her set Marc has a chat. Marc’s mother died when he was 2 and his father 10 years later. His childhood is a soft area and this comes across in many of his songs. Softened, I believe, by his encounter with Al Green and the Holy Spirit, Marc pours out his heart to this little old lady who changes his life forever.

In a 1992 interview with Q magazine he tells the story as follows:

“She was real curious, she seemed to have some kind of intuition about me, and I ended up telling her about my family, my parents, how I was a musician looking for a record deal, the whole thing. Then, it must have been about two in the morning, she asks me up to sing with her and we do about an hour, me and this lady I’d never met before, hardly a song I knew so she’s yelling the words at me. Then at the end, as the applause is rising up, she leans over and whispers in my ear, she’s whispering, You’ve got to let go of your mother, child, she didn’t mean to die, she’s where she’s got to be and you’re where you have to be, child, it’s time to move on.”

Walking in Memphis, for me, is about a broken man who finds his dreams as hurts are healed. It successfully communicates the freedom of letting go and beginning afresh. Isn’t that what so many of us want? We are terrible at identifying such currents in our life, but songs like this seem to bring them out. At least in me they do, and that’s why I love this song.


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