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.
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.