Delta

ruins of Windsor Plantation

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 river from the bluffs at Natchez

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:

from:

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.

Here’s an amazing post about the sunken ruins of the plantation of Jefferson Davis.

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.

you may need this number

Here’s something weird we saw, near Natchez:

A topic of controversy.

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.

 


Same

Lost Horizons is the second studio album from the British electronic duo Lemon Jelly, released on 7 October 2002. Released by XL Recordings and produced by Nick Franglen, the album generated two charting singles in the UK, “Space Walk” and “Nice Weather for Ducks”; the latter has often been called the album’s stand-out track. The album, which is built around a mix of organic instrumentation and idiosyncratic samples, was met with largely positive reviews by music critics, although it was somewhat criticised due to its near-constant mellowness.


How to tell Bruce Springsteen bad news

silvio

DEADLINE: What parallels were there between Silvio and Miami Steve? You can see the affection between you and Springsteen onstage, and in the stories Bruce tells between songs about the old days.

VAN ZANDT: The common dynamic is, as a best friend you have an obligation to tell the truth and you’ve got to know when to do that and how to do that, and it’s never going to be easy when it’s bad news. But once in a while, hopefully rarely, but once in a while you’ve got to be the one to bring the bad news because nobody else is going to do it, so you’re obligated. That’s your responsibility as a best friend. Sometimes they will get mad at you and then, as happened on the show, you see occasionally Jimmy will be screaming at me over something and that’s how it is in real life.

It’s just one of those things that goes with that job, that relationship, in being the only one who’s not afraid of the boss because you grew up together and that puts you in a special category that is very, very useful and very helpful to that boss whether they like it or not. No boss likes to hear bad news or hear they made a mistake. You can’t do it every day or even that often, but when it’s really, really important, you pick your moment and you’ve got to take the consequences and you just have to live with that. That’s the job. And ironically, right after we filmed, Bruce decides to put the band back together that same year.

from this Deadline oral history of The Sopranos.


Anybody remember this one?

it’s possible attempts were made to record this song onto an audio cassette.


Sure

Thought this was fun.  via Jia Tolentino’s twitter!


Classical KUSC / soundless WW2 footage

found that playing Smithsonian Channel’s The Pacific War In Color while KUSC our local classical station was coming out of my old radio created a cool effect.


Woody Guthrie’s birthday

 

“Woody Guthrie’s childhood home as is appeared in 1979,” from Wikipedia:

source. Walter Smellings, Historic American Buildings Survey.

Man, you go to read Woody Guthrie’s wikipedia page, and next thing you know you’re looking at a photo of a 1911 lynching (warning: upsetting but are we obliged as citizens to look?)

Even the story of the photo of the lynching is haunting:

James Allen, an Atlanta antiques collector, spent years looking for postcards of lynchings for his Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). “Hundreds of flea markets later,” he wrote, “a trader pulled me aside and in conspiratorial tones offered to sell me a real photo postcard. It was Laura Nelson hanging from a bridge, caught so pitiful and tattered and beyond retrieving—like a paper kite sagged on a utility wire.”

The book accompanied an exhibition of 60 lynching postcards from 1880 to 1960, Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of James Allen, which opened at the Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York in January 2000. Allen argued that lynching photographers were more than passive spectators. They positioned and lit the corpses as if they were game birds, he wrote, and the postcards became an important part of the act, emphasizing its political nature.

Allen’s publication of the images encountered a mixed reception. Julia Hotton, a black museum curator in New York, said that, with older blacks especially: “If they hear a white man with a Southern accent is collecting these photos, they get a little skittish.”

All kinds of wild questions considered in this 2000 LA Times / J. R. Moehringer profile of Allen:

The man’s story enhances the beauty of the shack, Allen believes, and its value. The man’s story makes the shack more than a work of folk art; it’s a sort of monument. When Allen sells the shack, along with some furniture and art done by the old man, the asking price will be just under $100,000.

How about Bryan Stevenson’s project?

How did I get here again?

Oh right.

Learning about Woody Guthrie.