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About Memphis In May

Bringing the World to Memphis... & Memphis to the World

Memphis in May hosts the city's largest events like the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Memphis in May also produces extensive education, international, and economic programs for the city.

Memphis in May International Festival is more than its events. It's also a 501-C(3) not-for-profit, community-based organization that contributes to the economic growth of the community, fosters civic pride, promotes awareness of Memphis heritage and builds international relationships.

Memphis in May: At a Glance

  • Generates more than $70 million in economic impact.
  • Improves the quality of life in the region.
  • Promotes tourism like no other event in the city.
  • Develops diversity and cultural pluralism.
  • Remains Memphis' largest and most dynamic consumer event time and time again.

The Festival is governed by a Board of Directors and operated by the full-time MIM Staff.

Visitor Information

For a list of Lodging options, see Hotels & Travel.

Coming to Memphis? How to get here! See Directions.

Parking or Transportation questions? See Getting Around Memphis.

For information on what's going on in Memphis, visit DowntownMemphis.com or MemphisTravel.com.

Inquires for patrons with disabilities? See Accessibility.

Our History

In the early 70’s, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce developed plans for a festival, which would serve as a promotional umbrella for the numerous events Memphis hosted each May, including the Cotton Carnival, the Danny Thomas Golf Classic, the annual visit by the Metropolitan Opera and others. The festival, originally incorporated as the “Memphis in May International Festival Society”, also coordinated the grand opening festivities of the Cook Convention Center and the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

With “Society” dropped from its official name, a new 501c3 nonprofit status, an initial $52,000 budget (including $32,000 surplus dollars granted to the festival by the Bicentennial event and another $20,000 from sponsors, such as First Tennessee Bank, Datsun Forklift and Federal Express), Lyman Aldrich and a group of civic minded young executives reorganized the Memphis in May International Festival and presented its first salute, honoring Japan in 1977.  Martha Ellen Maxwell was the festival’s first Executive Director.

1977: First Beale Streat Music Festival and Sunset Symphony

The very first Beale Street Music Festival was held in 1977 at the corner of Beale and Third. The same year, the very first Sunset Symphony was held, with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing on a smaller, unshaven and seldom used Tom Lee Park.

1978: Fireworks, Canada and Barbecue

It was not until the second year when the Beale Street Music Festival was turned over to Memphis in May to produce, as the festival organized its month-long salute to the honored country of Canada. The Sunset Symphony added a firework display and a spectacular grand finale featuring the “1812 Overture”, which became an event mainstay. Also in 1978, Memphis in May added its third signature event, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which started with 20 teams and $1,000 in prize money on a vacant lot by The Orpheum Theatre.   

1980: Fine Arts Posters

In 1980, a tradition of producing a Fine Art Poster commemorating each year’s honored country was begun. Many of the Mid-South’s greatest artists have contributed their talents to these works of art, including Burton Callicott, Carroll Cloar, George Hunt, Mary Simms, Nancy Cheairs and others.  

1990: Guiness Book of Records

In 1990, with continually increasing acts, sponsors and attendees, the Beale Street Music Festival moved to Tom Lee Park.

Since its early beginnings, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest has truly earned its reputation as the “Super Bowl of Swine”. Teams filled Tom Lee Park, even after the city expanded the park’s size, allowing more than 250 teams to compete for more than $55,000 in prize money. In 1990, the Guiness Book of World Records bestowed the honor of “the largest barbecue-cooking contest in the world” to the contest. With its growth, the event has attracted national media coverage, including “Good Morning America”, “The Today Show”, “CBS This Morning”, “Primetime Live”, The Food Network, USA Today, A&E, The Wall Street Journal, and others.

1995 - 2001: Growing Each Year

By 1995, the event had grown to more than 50,000 attendees, by 1997, the number had doubled, and in 2001 the crowds swelled to 165,000 with all three days posting sell-out attendance for the very first time.

1996: 20th Anniversary

In 1996, during the festival’s 20th anniversary, Vice President Al Gore and the Olympic torch honored the Sunset Symphony with visits, making its way to the Atlanta summer games. Gore joined “Mr. Ol’ Man River”, James Hyter, to light the Olympic cauldron.

During this year, Memphis in May honored all of its previously honored countries, and hosted Ambassadors from each country during its International Gala at The Peabody.

International Salute

Internationally, through the years, Memphis in May has played host to Ambassadors, exhibits and performance troupes from 35 countries, including Japan (1977 & 1986), Canada (1978), Germany (1979), Venezuela (1980), Egypt (1981), The Netherlands (1982 & 2001), Israel (1983), Mexico (1984), Australia (1985), China (1987), The United Kingdom (1988), Kenya (1989), France (1990), New Zealand (1991), Italy (1992), Russia (1993), Cote d’Ivoire (1994), Thailand (1995), Brazil (1997), Portugal (1998), Morocco (1999), India (2000), Argentina (2002), South Korea (2003), South Africa (2004), Ireland (2005), Costa Rica (2006), Spain (2007), Turkey (2008), Chile (2009), Tunisia (2010), Belgium (2011), The Philippines (2012), Sweden (2013) and Panama in 2014.

Programming for each year’s salute varies depending on all the country has to offer, but has included extensive Education Programs, historical and cultural exhibits, performances and commercial programs. The International Salute has included many firsts throughout the years such as, the first time France’s famous Lido dancers performed outside their country during the French salute in 1990, a visit by the Maori queen during 1991’s salute to New Zealand, North America’s largest military tattoo at the Pyramid during 1993’s salute to Russia, and the planting of 120,000 tulip bulbs during the second celebration of the Netherlands in 2001.

The organization, which began 38 years ago with a modest budget of $52,000 has grown to become a 7.0 million dollar non-profit organization, which is recognized across the country and around the world as one of North America’s leading festivals.

Green Efforts

We Have A Dream And It Is Green!

The Memphis In May International Festival is committed to sustaining its ongoing greening efforts. Memphis In May strives to be a local leader in green events. Beyond simply recycling, Memphis In May continues to implement green business practices and policies.


Memphis In May and our green program partner, International Paper, will focus its greening efforts to include:

- Festival-wide recycling of cardboard, cooking oil, aluminum and plastic

- Require vendors to use recyclable or biodegradable food service items

- Implement greener policies for the Memphis In May office and warehouse

Our Commitment

Memphis In May will continue to create programs and implement policies that are directed towards greener business practices.  The festival will participate in green and sustainable practices year-round with a specific focus on greening activities during the events in May.  As a part of these practices, Memphis In May will continue to look to its staff, volunteers, vendors, contestants and patrons to each year's greening and sustainable programs a success.

Did You Know?

- While solid waste has increased, from 3.66 to 4.50 pounds per person per day since 1980, the recycling rate has also increased – from less than 10% in 1980 to over 33%

- The paper industry hopes to recover 60 percent of the paper Americans consume by 2012

- The amount of paper recovered for recycling averages 340 pounds for each man, woman, and child in the United States

- 87 percent (268 million) of Americans have access to curbside or drop-off paper recycling programs

- Office-type paper recovery rose last year to about 71% or 4.3 million tons

- Recycling just 1 ton of aluminum cans can save the energy equivalent of 1,665 gallons of gasoline

- More than 7 million tons of metals were recycled last year, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions totaling 25 million tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of removing 4.5 million cars from the road for one year

- Every ton of mixed paper recycled can save the energy equivalent of 185 gallons of gasoline

- Last year Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled 83 million tons of municipal solid waste (33.2% recycling rate), the energy equivalent of 10.2 billion gallons of gasoline

- Approximately 8,660 curbside recycling programs exist nationwide, down from 8,875 in 2002

- About 3,510 community composting programs are operational, an increase from 3,227 in 2002

- About 32 million tons of materials or 12.7% were combusted for energy recovery last year