Found myself, for the second time in two years, driving Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta. I don’t feel like I intended this, exactly. Once was good. But there I was again. Something or another was drawing me back.
This map by Raven Maps was a breakthrough in understanding the Delta, what makes this region freakish and weird and unique. The Delta is low-lying bottomland. Thinking of the Mississippi in this area as a line on a map is inaccurate, it’s more like a periodically swelling and retreating wetland, like the Amazon or the Nile. Floods are frequent, vegetation grows thick, the soil is rich and good for growing cotton. That is the curse, blessing and history of the Delta. This year Highway 61 was almost flooded below Vicksburg.
The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta and many who are on the make.
So said David Cohn in his famous essay of 1935.
It’s been awhile since I was at The Peabody.
Dave Cohn was Jewish. Shelby Foote had a Jewish grandfather. The Delta was diverse.
So says Shelby. On the Delta fondness for canned beans:
Here’s something North Mississippi Hill Country man Faulkner had to say about people in this region:
Q: Well, in the swamp, three of the men that lived in the swamp did have names – Tine and Toto and Theule, and I wonder if those names had any type of significance or were supposed to be any type of literary allusion. They’re rather colorful names, I think.
A: No, I don’t think so. They were names, you might say, indigenous to that almost unhuman class of people which live between the Mississippi River and the levee. They belong to no state, they belong to no nation. They – they’re not citizens of anything, and sometimes they behave like they don’t even belong to the human race.
Q: You have had experience with these people?
A: Yes. Yes, I remember once one of them was going to take me hunting. He invited me to come and stay with his kinfolks – whatever kin they were I never did know – a shanty boat in the river, and I remember the next morning for breakfast we had a bought chocolate cake and a cold possum and corn whiskey. They had given me the best they had. I was company. They had given me the best food they had.
The Delta is a ghost town. In 2013 The Economist reported
Between 2000 and 2010 16 Delta counties lost between 10% and 38% of their population. Since 1940, 12 of those counties have lost between 50% of 75% of their people.
Another Economist piece from the same era has a great graphic of this:
“You can’t out-poor the Delta,” says Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. In parts of it, he says, people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation.
Everywhere you see abandoned buildings, rotting shacks, collapsing farmhouses. This gives the place a spooky quality. It’s like coming across the shedding shell of a cicada. There are signs of a once-rich life that is gone.
Every town that still exists along the river of the Delta is on high ground or a bluff. Natchez, Port Gibson, Vicksburg. Once beneath these towns there were great temporary floating communities of keelboats, canoes. But the river has flooded and receded and changed its course many times. Charting the historical geography of these towns is confusing. Whole towns have disappeared, or been swallowed.
Brunswick Landing, of which nothing remains.
The first time I ever thought about the Mississippi Delta was when I came across this R. Crumb cartoon about Charley Patton, who was from Sunflower County.
Something like 2,000 people lived and worked at Dockery Plantation. It’s worth noting that this plantation was started after slavery, it was begun in 1895.
At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black labourers.
In a way, the blues era, say 1900-1940 or so, was a kind of boomtime in the Delta. The blues can be presented as a music of misery and pain but what if it was also a music of prosperity? Music for Saturday night on payday, music for when recording first reached communities exploding with energy? Music from the last period of big employment before mechanization took the labor out of cotton? How much did the Sears mail order catalog help create the Delta blues?
We stopped at Hopson Commissary in Clarksdale, once the commissary of the Hopson plantation. (Once did someone run to get cigarettes from there?) Here was the first fully mechanized cotton harvest – where the boomtime peaked, and ended. If you left Mississippi around this time, you probably left on the train from Clarksdale.
If in Clarksdale I can also recommend staying at The Delta Bohemian guest house. We were company and they gave us their best.
Here’s something weird we saw, near Natchez:
We listened to multiple podcasts about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, that whole bit. The interesting part of the story (to me) is that, according to the memories of those who knew him, Robert Johnson did somehow, suddenly, get way better at the guitar. I like this take the best:
Some scholars have argued that the devil in these songs may refer not only to the Christian figure of Satan but also to the African trickster god Legba, himself associated with crossroads. Folklorist Harry M. Hyatt wrote that, during his research in the South from 1935 to 1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century said they or anyone else had “sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads,” they had a different meaning in mind. Hyatt claimed there was evidence indicating African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a “deal” (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with the so-called devil at the crossroads.
Does everybody in the music business sell their soul to the Devil, one way or another?
Is there something vaguely embarrassing about white obsession with old blues? I get the yearning to connect to a past that sounds like it’s almost disappeared, where just the barest, rawest trace echoes through time. But doesn’t all this come a little too close to taking a twisted pleasure in misery? And is there something a little gloves-on, safe remove about focusing on music from eighty years ago, when presumably somewhere out there real life people are creating vital music, right now?
I dunno, maybe there’s something cool and powerful about how lonely nerds and collectors somewhere and like tourists from Belgium connecting to the sounds of desperate emotion from long dead agricultural workers.
My favorite of the old blues songs is Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground. Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t even from the Delta though, he was from Pendleton, Texas.
During a speech in November 1957 Eisenhower employed the saying again. He told an anecdote about the maps used during U.S. military training. Maps of the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe were used during instruction before World War I, but educational reformers decided that the location was not relevant to American forces. So the maps were switched to a new location within the U.S. for planning exercises. A few years later the military was deployed and fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine: 2
I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
I remember learning at the Nixon library about Nixon’s writing routine when he wrote this book in a house in Apple Valley, CA:
He used a Dictaphone or wrote longhand, working in seclusion, according to Esquire Magazine.
For breakfast, he ate a bowl of Grape Nuts and drank a can of orange juice. He wrote until noon, then paused for a ham sandwich.
Believe I first heard Eisenhower’s quote from Jeff Melvoin at a WGA showrunner training like mini-camp. I’ve found it profound.
One time a female Uber driver told me the secret to winning over women is “plan ahead.”
A brief skim of Eisenhower images on NARA.GOV leads us to this gem
Purging some books from my collection.
This one no longer sparks joy. Perhaps because the cover itself is too busy, and also summons up a specific 90s period that now feels almost grotesque?
I got a lot out of this book. What an era – when the most popular TV show really was the funniest. On Frasier:
What a great, brilliant innovation. It really gave Frasier a different, quieter feel than some of the other shows of the era.
How about this story about Clooney on the first day of E.R.:
Noticed something about myself, but maybe it’s true for you, too. I am most productive when I am a certain level of “busy.”
When I have absolutely nothing to do, like zero, I rarely get anything done.
There’s a level of overwhelmedment where I am also useless.
But at just the right level of medium busy, my machinery hums and I get a lot done.
Surely there’s meaning in this!
(Image found by doing a search on NARA.gov for “busy.”
Original Caption: Older Citizens, Retired Persons and Those Unable to Care for Themselves Physically Are Cared for in Two Community Centers. This Man Lives at the Highland Manor Retirement Home, Keeping Busy with “Old Country” Crafts. New Ulm Is a County Seat Trading Center of 13,000 in a Farming Area of South Central Minnesota. It Was Founded in 1854 by a German Immigrant Land Company That Encouraged Its Kinsmen to Emigrate From Europe.
U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-15875
Photographer: Schulke, Flip, 1930-2008
New Ulm (Brown county, Minnesota, United States) inhabited place
Environmental Protection Agency
Persistent URL: arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=558325
Moving stuff around in my house I found the handwritten list of words I had to look up from Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, and their definitions.
Trull: a prostitute or a trollop.
Tellurian: an inhabitant of Earth.
Feels like I used to have a lot more spare time.
Suttree is set along the river in Knoxville, TN.
If you think Suttree might be for you, try the first sentence:
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
This was in today’s Economist newsletter, and I’ve seen it elsewhere too. Scary! But then again, what is the definition of psychosis?
Isn’t getting your thought and emotions so impaired that you lose contact with external reality the point of high THC content marijuana? Is this a feature not a bug? External reality can be rough.
The study, in The Lancet, used the ICD-10 Criteria (F20-33), so schizophrenia and manic/bipolar episodes. The study compared people hospitalized for that kind of thing versus a control general population. Here’s how the study worked:
We included patients aged 18–64 years who presented to psychiatric services in 11 sites across Europe and Brazil with first-episode psychosis and recruited controls representative of the local populations.
Then this part:
We applied adjusted logistic regression models to the data to estimate which patterns of cannabis use carried the highest odds for psychotic disorder. Using Europe-wide and national data on the expected concentration of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the different types of cannabis available across the sites, we divided the types of cannabis used by participants into two categories: low potency (THC <10%) and high potency (THC ≥10%). Assuming causality, we calculated the population attributable fractions (PAFs) for the patterns of cannabis use associated with the highest odds of psychosis and the correlation between such patterns and the incidence rates for psychotic disorder across the study sites.
“expected” and “assuming” are two words that do a lot of work here, but I don’t have time to read the whole study, I have to write cartoons.
In my neighborhood the most booming new shops sell either marijuana or cold brew coffee. Personally I wonder if drinking huge amounts of highly caffeinated cold brew might be more crazy-making than marijuana.
There is certainly ample psychosis in Los Angeles, so much so that it might be necessary to induce mild psychosis just so you can understand what’s going on with everybody. The chicken and egg, correlation and causation on psychosis / drug use is a tough one to unravel, as the study’s authors acknowledge. The study also notes that patients presenting with psychosis were more likely to have smoked ten or more cigarettes a day.
This isn’t content for everybody but watching Cornel West and Peter Thiel in convo is appealing to me.
Had a class with Professor Unger and what I most remember is him describing an infantilization he was perceiving among young people. Perhaps old people always think that the next crop of young people is infantile.