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'Tell me are you a Christian, child?", and I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

 Music and song are so important. Probably more than even a medium such as film, a particular melody or a song can move us, inspire us, define us, ground us and the very, very best of them can bring us closer to God.

For me one such composition is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Walking in Memphis’ written in 1991 by the American folk-rock singer Marc Cohn. So, why this song?

Well, Cohn has said it is “100% autobiographical” and soulfully tells of his spiritual awakening and how he was transfixed and transformed through it. He wrote it after going through a very difficult time. He was 28 and working as a session singer, ached to get a recording contract, but never thought it would happen as he had not been able to write a “great song”.

Then he was encouraged to visit the city of Memphis to find inspiration, being told that there were two places there “that would change me forever”.

The first place he visited was the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Rev Al Green preach. Now Al Green is probably better known as ‘The last of the Great Soul singers’ (‘Let’s Stay Together’ is his best-known hit), but Green felt God had called for him to change his life, he then became Born Again and he established his church near Graceland.

This is what happened during that church service: “I soon had chills running up and down my spine. 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. There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after 3 hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better. I sat there crying in the church, aware of the irony of how I used to cry in Synagogue in Cleveland as a kid- but because I wanted to get the heck out of there! Al Green’s service was one of the great experiences of my life”.

Cohn wrote about that service in the song:

“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”

The next miracle happened when he visited the Hollywood Café in Mississippi and saw a retired schoolteacher by the name of Muriel Wilkins playing Gospel and Marc Cohn was again enraptured: “I felt an immediate connection by her voice, her spirit, her face and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music. During her breaks, the two of us would talk, she asked me why I was there, I told her about my childhood (his mother had died suddenly when he was just two, and he had never quite been able to move on from dealing what loss), and by Midnight she asked me to join her on stage. The very last song we sang together that night was ‘Amazing Grace’, people applauded us, and Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear “Child, you can let go now”.

Marc Cohn said that incredibly generous, maternal, and Christian act of Muriel’s “was almost as if my mother was whispering in my ear”. He had been transformed twice and he knew he had a great song he had to tell the world about.

“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”

The song became Marc Cohn’s signature tune (and was later covered by Cher) and was enormously successful, spending 23 weeks in the ‘Billboard’ Top 100, it was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1992 Grammy Awards and he won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

When ever I feel that I need to centre myself or be at peace, I just listen to ‘Walking in Memphis’ and I feel closer to God. You can see why below.

Tags: Christian, Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis, Elvis, Graceland, Muriel Wilkins, Al Green, Memphis