Fifth annual Soulsville USA Festival celebrated history and legends of iconic neighborhood

The fifth annual Soulsville USA Festival was held Saturday, October 19, to celebrate the musical heritage of the historic Soulsville neighborhood. It drew several thousand people and offered music, food, activities, free museum tours and more. 

Soulsville is one of several distinct communities in what is collectively referred to as South Memphis. The stretch along McLemore Avenue is home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Soulsville Charter School. 

What is now the museum was once the Capitol movie theater before it was converted into Stax Records. The studio would give rise to some of the biggest legends of soul music, including Issac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, The Bar-Kays, The Staple Singers and Otis Redding.

“[The festival] was started, basically, as a way to celebrate the Soulsville neighborhood and the rich musical heritage; to have a celebration of black culture in Memphis and just have a prominent neighborhood festival that was specifically dedicated to that,” said Tonya Dyson, executive director of the Soulsville Festival.

Two stages and the Stax Museum’s amphitheater served as venues for an eclectic mix of hip-hop, jazz, soul and gospel music. Ten musical acts performed, including J. Buck, Emily Seacrest, Kashief, Memphissippi Sounds, Porcelan and the Sensational Barnes Brothers.

“This year kicked off the first aspect of our homecoming, where we are looking to bring in different soul artists that have kind of migrated away from Memphis but are doing big things,” said Dyson. “And then we had neighborhood favorites. Mr. Henley Ford, who is a staple of the neighborhood [and] a long time member of the neighborhood association, has a band called the Jazz Brothers.”

The festival also included local performers of all ages from children to seniors. 

The Stax Music Academy's young musicians were featured. A beat battle was held for college students, which Dyson said was organized by her college intern.

"She attends [the University of Memphis] and works at the Blue Tom record label. She put together a showcase of aspiring soul artists that are in that program,” said Dyson.

The Sassy Steppers, a senior stepping team, entertained festival-goers with their stepping dance routines.

“Ms. Betty is the president of the neighborhood association. She has a dance team. Every year they come and dance," said Dyson.

"We have this huge presence of not only of people who built that legacy of soul music in the neighborhood, but also people who are from the neighborhood that live there, that go to school there, that work there, that participate,” Dyson continued. 

Festival-goers at the fifth annual Soulsville USA Festival took part in a drum line near the festival's kid zone, sponsored by Knowledge Quest. (Kim and Jim Coleman)
Several sponsors supported the event, including the Stax Museum, Memphis Rox, We Are Memphis and the South Memphis Farmers Market. Knowledge Quest sponsored the kids zone with games, face painting and an inflatable slide. The Soulsville neighborhood association always plays a significant role, working together to do something big for the neighborhood.

“One of the most important things to me is community, and the Soulsville festival is a chance for me to be out in my community and meet my neighbors. For profit, nonprofit, whatever it is, we are a family," said Christopher Dean, director of outreach for Memphis Rox nonprofit climbing gym located adjacent to Stax.

"I think we should help each other out, be a part of each other’s life and help each other in our mission,” he added. 

Twelve food trucks, dozens of vendors and local businesses set up shop to provide snacks, drinks, sundries or information about their businesses.

The Stax Museum also provided free admission to visitors.

Among its exhibits are instruments, clothing and other personal items from some of the most notable musicians to come from Stax Records and subsidiary labels like Volt Records. 

“We just think it is so cool that Memphis puts on events like [this] that celebrate their history. That’s why we’re here, to participate in all of that,” said Jacki Taylor, as her three children entertained themselves in the Knowledge Quest kids zone.
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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.