Notes On My Trip To Mighty Mississipp(i), Part Three

By J.S. Smith

09.07.2008

March 7, Corinth to New Albany, Oxford, & the Delta

Note: Part One is available here, and Part Two is available here.

It was a drizzly rain and a not-so-balmy 50 degrees; hardly ideal, but a fair sight better than the winter wasteland back in Lansing. I left Corinth in the morning. About twenty minutes outside of Corinth the terrain gets increasingly hilly and the physical indicators of economic well-being decline dramatically. It was also trash day in north central Mississippi. On the down side of a hill I saw what looked like a deep-freeze with some spray-painted scrawl on it. I stopped and turned my car around to take a closer look. It was indeed an ancient top-loading freezer. On the side facing the highway, in large black spray-painted letters, it announced “MY TRASH CAN.” Indeed.

I stopped at a local museum in New Albany, best known as the birthplace of William Faulkner. Not much of the museum is dedicated to him; it mainly has local history, including a large display dedicated to the furniture industry. Apparently, north central Mississippi is a traditional center of furniture manufacturing.

I spoke with the curator about the exhibits and the area. “So, have the factories down here been hurt by competition with China?,” “China” being a generic term for “global competition.” “Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of jobs, and we’ll probably lose them all in the next few years.” “So, what do you think you’ll do?” “We’re trying to get some car plants.” You don’t say. . . .

I told her, “I like Mississippi – it’s not ‘touristy,’ with lots of trinkets, souvenirs and stuff.” She smiled, “We’re just folks down here.” Later, when I said I was going to Oxford, she told me not to miss the ruins of the observatory telescope that the “Yankees burnt down.”

I made it to Oxford an hour or so later. Oxford is the home of the University of Mississippi and William Faulkner’s house. It’s not a large town or campus, at least in comparison with the sprawling infrastructure of Midwestern universities, but it is very charming. There’s also Square Books, which is brimming with high-brow, low-brow and even some mono-brow journals, books and other such scritti. By the way, this southern U of M has a massively good radio station that kicks out the latest underground music as well as the punk classics. Truly not to be missed.

As I left Oxford, I was looking forward to stabbing deep into the heart of the legendary Mississippi Delta, home of the blues and its storied mythology. The terminology, however, can be rather confusing. To most people who remember their geography, a delta is the low-lying land at the mouth of a river, which has been built up over centuries of silt deposits as the river meets its final destination. Look on a map, and you’ll notice a tree-shaped appendage jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico on which the City of New Orleans is located. This is the geographical delta of the Mississippi River.

The Delta, however, ain’t the delta. It is a low-lying flood plain on the Mississippi River that spans northwest Mississippi and southeast Arkansas. It has some of the richest farmland in the nation; at one time, it was the home to large plantations, later share croppers. As a result, it is also one of the largest, in terms of land area, majority-black areas of North America. And it is the birthplace of one of the world’s great art forms, starting a sonic revolution that can still be heard reverberating in the latest album by The White Stripes.

It is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. Leaving Oxford, the highway slowly flattens out. When it gets completely flat, you know where you are. The meager economic fortunes of north central Mississippi disappear altogether; in the realm of material affluence, all signs point to about 1932.

Dilapidated shacks set a hundred yards from the highway, with siding and roofing unmatched and from clearly different eras of manufacture.

About an hour and a half west of Oxford, on the side of the highway and thinly veiled by a line of trees on all sides, were about thirty or forty old cars, all of them neatly arranged in two rows in a semi-grass-and-mud covered field. By my estimation, these cars were made from the late thirties to the early sixties. They were not terribly rusty and the glass was generally intact. Clearly a junkyard. Or not. Junkyards typically have various types of automobile parts aggregated and marked for sale – windshields here, doors over there, etc. It is also quite advantageous for a junkyard to have some kind of place where you can pay for the parts you buy. Businesses often fail when they allow customers to take their stuff for free. Nothing of the sort here: only two lines of evenly spaced old cars. Chariots of the Gods?

A half hour later, I saw a similarly interesting sight off the highway: about fifty to a hundred bathtubs haphazardly arranged on a fenced-in field. There was a building that looked like an office of sorts, but, despite this being early on a Monday afternoon, no one was there.

I stopped at a small town to get some pop (Peach Nehi) and gas (87 octane unleaded). One thing that a person of Caucasian origin is sure to notice: everyone in the Delta seems to be African-American. Having grown up in the unbearable whiteness of being that is rural Michigan, I found this demographic contrast very interesting.

A while later, I finally reached the goal of the day’s journey: Clarksdale, Mississippi. Home of the Blues. On the corner of Highway 61 – yes, that highway 61 – and Highway 49, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for blues greatness. Or so I am told. Clarksdale itself apparently made no such deal; it doesn’t seem to have tasted prosperity in a great while. The downtown’s main denizens are boarded up one and two-story buildings, emblazoned with forties’ and fifties’ lettering. There is also the Delta Blues Museum – a must for anyone who appreciates American music – and some blues bars.

I stopped for a few hours at the museum. It has excellent exhibits documenting the evolution of the blues from the twenties through the sixties. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters – they’re all covered. The museum also covers the massive influence that the blues had on British Invasion groups like the Rolling Stones et al. Lastly, the gift shop has a variety of blues books and CD’s, although, sadly, I found no vinyl.

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Author: J.S. Smith

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  1. Pics are comine–I promise!

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