Soulsville, USA: The History of Memphis Soul Student Workshop

April 09, 2013 | 01:08:10 | Public Domain

First Lady Michelle Obama hosts 120 middle and high school students from across the country for an interactive workshop event featuring a discussion about the origins and history of Memphis Soul, and a question and answer session with Ben Harper, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, Sam Moore and Justin Timberlake.

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Remarks by the First Lady at the Memphis Soul Workshop

State Dining Room

10:58 A.M. EDT

MRS. OBAMA:  Oh, watching you all’s faces -- priceless.  Priceless.  (Laughter.)  See, you never know what’s going to happen at the White House.  Okay, let’s breathe.  Come on.  (Laughter.)  Everyone, let’s breathe, even the moms.  (Laughter.) 

While everybody is getting settled, I just want to welcome you to the White House.  Hi, how are you?  (Applause.)  Good afternoon. 

So let me just say, the White House is buzzing with excitement today as we celebrate the rhythmic groove of Memphis soul.  Thank you, Daniel.  He’s taking care of my hometown girl, Mavis Staples.  We are just so thrilled so have you.

I want to start by thanking our wonderful guest for taking the time -- because we ask a lot from people when they come and perform.  I was just joking it slowly turns into an all-day affair.  But the degree to which everyone so graciously offers their time on a day like this, it just warms my heart, and we are just so grateful.

Let me introduce everyone on the stage for those of you who don’t know.  We have Bob Santelli from the Grammy Museum, who has been here a number of times with me.  (Applause.)  And of course these five incredible musicians:  Sam Moore.  (Applause.)  Mavis Staples.  (Applause.)  And I don’t know if you guys recognize this young gentleman in the middle -- Justin Timberlake.  (Applause.)  Charlie Musselwhite.  (Applause.)  And Ben Harper.  (Applause.)

Thank you all so much.  It is a true honor to have you all here in the State Room of the White House.  But in addition to these icons and legends, we are also thrilled to have with us today some other stars -- all of our young people, you all are our stars.  (Applause.)  Yes. 

We have students here from all over the country -- some folks from California, New York, Florida, Maryland, Virginia, right here in D.C., and the hometown crowd from Stax Music Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Applause.)  Yes!  Memphis is in the house! 

Now, over the past few years we’ve hosted workshops like these to give young people like all of you the opportunity to learn and explore everything from country and classical music to modern dance and poetry.  Just last week we hosted a group of young people here for the screening of the movie “42,” which is a story of Jackie Robinson’s life.  And afterward, the students had a chance to talk about the film with the director, the lead actors, as well as to hear directly from Mrs. Rachel Robinson, who’s the wife of Jackie Robinson.

So we have hosted many great conversations in this room.  This is also where we host state dinners, and diplomats and world leaders are here.  And you all are here, too -- right here.  So we are thrilled to have you all here today as we continue this tradition and turn our attention to Memphis soul. 

Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of both Elvis Presley’s rock and roll and B.B. King’s blues.  And while you can hear both of those influences in Memphis soul, this music has a style and a story uniquely its own. 

Back in 1957, a young man started a record label out of his garage.  The next year, his sister took out a second mortgage on her house to help him buy some new recording equipment.  And just a few years later, their company, Stax Records, was churning out nationwide hits.  And soon enough, Memphis had a few more record labels and its own brand of soul, thanks to performers like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, and of course, somebody my husband thinks he sounds like -- (laughter) -- the Reverend Al Green.  Let’s just tell him he does, okay?  (Laughter.)  Since he is the President, we like to boost him up a little bit.

But today, that music is still alive.  Ben and Charlie and teamed up on a new album from Stax that came out earlier this year.  But the best way to understand this music is to hear it and feel it.  So in a little bit, I’m going to turn it over to Bob and you’re going to have a chance to hear some stories and songs from these folks up here on stage who have so graciously given their time.

But, look, as you listen, I want you all to keep one thing in mind -- and I try to say this to every young person that I encounter that walks through those doors -- but realize that none of these folks up here arrived here on the basis of talent alone.  They’re here because they’ve been working hard to perfect their craft since they were at least your age and many of them even younger. 

Ben Harper first picked up a guitar at age six.  Mavis Staples and Sam Moore have both been performing since they were kids singing gospel music in church.  When Charlie Musselwhite was getting started, he had to fit in his gigs between shifts at his factory job.  And when Justin first started touring, he would immediately go to the bus to watch a tape of his performance, taking notes so that the next night he would be even better.

So for decades, these folks have been practicing until their fingers were numb and their voices were shot.  They’ve been in the studio for 12, 14 hours a day or more rehearsing and refining until they got every song just right.  And I know that most of you here are also involved in music as well, which means I know you spend a lot of time memorizing scales and learning theory.  And sometimes that aspect of music isn’t always that much fun. 

But I want to emphasize, and I think these people up here will back me up, that the only way for you to become the best musician you can be is pushing through those moments when something doesn’t seem fun -- by spending hours in the practice room, repeating those scales, and drilling into that theory.  And if you do all that, you do it over and over again, you might become a better performer than you ever imagined.

And even if you don’t go into music as a career, the skills you learn through music can stay with you your whole life.  And that was certainly true for me.  When I was young, I played the piano.  Now, as I try to remind my kids, I regret the fact that I didn’t keep it up.  I try to tell them that every single day. 

But I still remember the hours that it would take to learn just one section of a song.  The discipline, the patience, the diligence I learned through the study of music -- those are all skills that I apply every single day in my life.  I applied them as a student, as a lawyer, as a First Lady, and definitely as a mother.  So every moment of every day, you have the chance to commit yourselves to your craft.  And stick with it especially when those times -- it gets a little hard.  Just stick with it.

And also, you guys know that you have to educate yourselves.  That is first and foremost.  Learn from everyone you can.  Learn from everyone you can and take advantage of every opportunity that you find.  And right now, you’ve got an amazing opportunity to learn from some of the greatest musicians our country has to offer.  So I want you to relax, loosen up, be comfortable.  Ask a lot of questions.  Don't be shy.

The cameras will leave.  The lights will turn down a little bit, so I want you to take full advantage of being here.  Find out what it took for them to be who they are.  Find out what it takes for them to maintain who they are. 

But I want you all to remember that nothing happens without hard work, and I want you all to recommit yourselves to the work that you're going to do in your lives because we need you all to be the next generation of leaders in whatever you do.  And we have complete faith that you all will.

So it is an honor and a privilege for me to be here with you.  And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Bob so you all can get this party started.  (Laughter.)  Thank you all so much.  Have fun.  (Applause.)

11:09 A.M. EDT 

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