Features

Mississippi and the Delta are the high-tar, full strength Deep South

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

My new friends and I are sitting outside what’s fast becoming my favourite bar in the world: the Under the Hill Saloon in Natchez, Mississippi. Already one man has held forth on the presidential campaign to anyone who’d listen — which, given how entertainingly he did it (‘Donald Trump? Pure white trash’) was most of us. Another has asked me if I’ve ever fired a gun and, if not, whether I’d like to see how much fun it is.

But by this stage it’s getting late, and I really should be going — except that the conversation has just turned to alligator hunting, a subject I’m unlikely to get the chance of ever discussing again. (The key, I now know, is to use rotten chicken as bait.) And all the time, we’ve been able to gaze at the Mississippi river only a few yards away.

These days, the American South doesn’t seem sure whether to market itself as bracingly different from the rest of the country or reassuringly similar. For the British visitor, though, there’s not much doubt about which is more convincing: because the South often makes other parts of America feel almost bloodless by comparison.

Apparently most Brits visiting the region tend to drive straight from Memphis to New Orleans. Yet, by missing out on Mississippi, they’re also missing out on the full-strength, high-tar South at its most compelling. Even the ritziest children’s clothes shops have window signs reading ‘No Guns Allowed’ — and even the sweetest middle-aged female tour guides refer to the American Civil War as ‘the War of Northern Aggression’. Meanwhile, at the average gas station, you’ll search the well-stocked bookstands in vain for anything not Bible-related.

Mississippi plantation house

Mississippi plantation house


For those who want to explore Mississippi more fully, a good first stop from Memphis is Tupelo, where the house Elvis was born in has pride of place — and, as it consists of two tiny rooms, takes only a few minutes to tour. (The 50 miles from Graceland suddenly seems a very long way.)

There’s also Elvis’s favourite local burger joint, Johnnie’s, with an impeccably southern sign on the door saying ‘Closed on Sundays — Gone to Church’; and, for the true disciple, the hardware store where he got his first guitar — an ‘X’ now marks the spot where he was standing at the time.

If it’s more highbrow culture you’re after, another 50 miles brings you to William Faulkner’s grand southern house in Oxford, which still has the phone that brought him the news that he’d won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. The nicely indiscreet guide will also point out the -various neighbouring houses where his mistresses lived.

As the home of Ole Miss University, Oxford has an unusually bustling central square that, as the locals naturally tell you, had to be rebuilt after the Yankees burned it down. It’s different from many nearby towns in another way too — not so much in boasting of its many upmarket bars and restaurants, but in actually having them. This difference is especially marked once you reach the Mississippi Delta.

In recent years, the area has made serious efforts at rebranding — but fortunately, these haven’t been entirely successful. (After all, who goes to the Delta in search of a ‘fine dining experience’?) On the one hand, there are definite pockets of hipsterdom, as well as a national Grammys museum opening this March in what’s officially sanctioned as ‘the birthplace of America’s music’. On the other, the generally down-at-heel atmosphere is an evocative reminder of why the Delta gave birth to the blues — as opposed to say, show tunes.

And if you want to learn how, there’s an extremely handy blues trail. This includes, for example, the Dockery Plantation, which winningly retains the bleak feel of its cotton-picking days, but also has a button you can press that allows you to hear Charley Patton singing just as he did in that very spot 100 years ago. The stirring B.B. King museum not far away starts with King being born into utter poverty, and ends with him meeting popes and presidents.

After the Delta, Natchez initially seems impossibly wealthy, with its unsurpassed collection of staggeringly opulent plantation owners’ houses which somehow escaped that northern aggression. (Before the civil war, the town had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America.) Fans of symbolism should especially seek out Longwood, which in 1861 was on track to be one of the most opulent of all — until the war broke out and the northern craftsmen downed tools and headed home, leaving time so frozen that today the bare upper floors contain only boxes of unused 19th-century building materials.

But all that’s on top of the hill where Natchez mostly stands. Head down to the banks of the Mississippi and, in another piece of neat symbolism, you’re in a place where the less salubrious riverside activity that underpinned the town’s wealth (with the help, admittedly, of all that slavery) is commemorated on the walls of the aforementioned world’s best bar.

To end your trip in more conventional holiday style, there’s always Biloxi on the Gulf Coast. With its perfect (man-made) beaches, terrific seafood restaurants and, if you’re that way inclined, vast casinos, you’d be hard pressed not to have a good time there. The only trouble is that it’s the kind of good time you could have almost anywhere — which, I still maintain, is not what you go to Mississippi for.

For more information, please visit: www.deep-south-usa.com or www.visitmississippi.org

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free


Show comments
  • Emily

    “Admittedly”… How can this by the only tiny bracket acknowledging the fact that the wealth, music and so much of Mississippi’s character is built from the enslaved backs, blood loss and tears of its millions of trafficked humans? And actually it would be useful to note that it remains an inhospitable place for non-white tourists.
    This article reads somewhat like a 19th century Brit obliviously surveying the state’s rich pleasures for his amusement.

    • polidorisghost

      The article is describing what it is like to visit the area now. There are no slaves to whom one can be oblivious and there are many places in the world where visitors of a different ethnicity are not particularly welcome.

      • Peter Simple

        Emily could go to Saudi Arabia, for example, where slavery is still all the rage and visitors of different ethnicities and religions are, decidedly, unwelcome, unless they come bearing gifts. But she won’t. No bash-the-whitey mileage to be had, there.

      • Callipygian

        As a matter of fact, P, her comment about welcomeness is a load of right royal hogwash. I’ve been more than once to Mississippi and all over the South generally (Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, S. Carolina, etc.). She is simply making things up.

        • polidorisghost

          In my previous existence i met many students from The South. They were, without exception, extraordinarily well mannered. It was the locals who couldn’t speak coherent English or deploy a knife and fork without stabbing their own faces

          • Callipygian

            Chuckle! : )

          • Callipygian

            Well whaddaya know: it turns out that our scoffer ^ is a tedious Leftist, who can only see the world through boring and indeed soul-crushing indices as drawn up by statist bureaucrats. Such people are incapable of enjoying places other than their own — irony of ironies, they cannot appreciate ‘diversity’ in the true sense of the term. They are also snobs: our scoffer is apparently obsessed with healthcare (as if there isn’t any in MS: perhaps also people in the South aren’t so sickly that they need an MRI scanner every five feet in all directions!); similarly he mentions education, as if everyone in MS is still going to a wooden schoolhouse. Again, note the snobbery. As for social justice, he evidently still thinks it’s 1965! Leftists are real weirdos.

          • Skyeward

            Mississippi’s lack of opportunity is simply their way of providing diversity, eh?

    • Richard Baranov

      Might I award you the worlds smallest violin!

      • polidorisghost

        Catty, but I like it.

    • Alex Williamson

      ^^^Virtue Signalling^^^

      • Callipygian

        Ignorance signalling, actually: see her lie/fantasy about tourists.

  • Callipygian

    I spent Christmas in Natchez one year (and went round the plantation owners’ homes, as the article mentions). One of the highlights was when the mayor and various councillors rode through the main streets in their cars, tossing hard-boiled sweets (‘hard candy’ my American husband corrects me) to the passersby.

  • Skyeward

    Mississippi is a dump. Spectator writers should never write about America.

    • Callipygian

      No it isn’t. Ignorant people shouldn’t bother commenting.

      • Skyeward

        Which metrics does Mississippi lead in – Education? Healthcare? Environmental protection? Economic health? Social justice? Social mobility? I’d be happy to provide stats across many sources and then there is actually what I can see with my own eyes. It’s a terrible place – the worst in our country, actually. But please tell this American again how I’m ignorant with regards to my own country.

        • polidorisghost

          Then get on the Greyhound honey.

        • Callipygian

          You’re applying standards that have nothing to do with what really matters — it doesn’t have to lead in anything, it simply has to be a great place to live, and for those that like it, it is. It ‘leads’, since you’re obsessed with that concept, in historical significance, not least battlefields of the Civil War. It ‘leads’ in atmosphere, which is quite distinctive at times for a visitor. And it’s the birthplace of Elvis Presley, who undoubtedly ‘leads’ in the history of popular music. So as far as I’m concerned, you can take your ‘leads’ and shove it. — Love, A Fellow American

          • Skyeward

            Of course, a typical tea bagger with no interest in math. Whatever. Ignore the state’s lack of performance if you wish but a few Civil War sites and the birthplace of America’s third greatest early rocker fail to mask the sad truth that Mississippi lacks hope. Maybe the Spectator is just trolling Americans and knowingly chuckling to themselves over this article.

          • Callipygian

            I’m a patriot and a lover of freedom. Whatever you are is your business.

          • Skyeward

            Yes, yes. You’re a patriot, i.e., full of emotion, short on logic and facts. Too bad America’s patriots have such little interest in using small c conservatism to actually improve lives and strengthen communities. Conservatism will be dead for generations.

  • Violin Sonata.

    I’ve read books about the Mississippi, I doubt it’s my kinda place.

    • Callipygian

      It might not be your kind of place — I’m not very fond of Indiana, myself — but that doesn’t mean that it deserves the obloquy of a couple of the commenters here. And Natchez in particular really is fascinating, for those with open eyes and open minds.

      • Skyeward

        Indiana possesses a real city and fine universities. But yes, majorities in both states share the crazy belief that conservatism means perpetual warfare, huge subsidies for corporations, and policing who loves whom.

    • Skyeward

      Your books – which American tea baggers view suspiciously (save one) – are right on. Texas is a fun place to visit if you get the chance. My favorites are San Antonio, Austin and the Texas Hill Country.

      • Callipygian

        Her books are NOT right on, you simpleton. I lived in Texas for five years, too. Your crass slights and vulgar language show you up: not the South.

        On another note, I make it a point to speak well of America whenever I can, wherever I can. We are under attack, and I am grateful for what I have. I consider your attitude ungentlemanly — and that applies just the same whatever you ‘identify’ as.

        • Skyeward

          I think it’s far more admirable to speak realistically of problems and try to solve them than to dwell in fantasy-land. Why not quit the bluster, start learning, and get to work to help improve your state? Or is that just too hard? Much easier to pretend you aren’t ranked 51st in education for example.

  • Itinerant

    ‘Donald Trump? Pure white trash’

    Just trying this out- Barack Obama? pure black trash.
    Oh wait one’s allowed the other isn’t?

    • Col McGillveray

      Aw..Poor you…Poor, poor,Whitey..

      • Itinerant

        Who said I was white?
        and I couldn’t care less about melanin levels.
        You missed the point by some distance there to get your racial slur in.
        Aw poor wee race-obsessed ‘progressive’.

      • Itinerant

        Gone all silent racist?, did someone help you with the big words?
        Have they gone back to to the nurse’s station?

  • Callipygian

    Thought I would mention that James Earl Jones (wonderful name!) is also from Mississippi. A very poor, hard beginning — and the American dream realized:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LkdNls4bw

Close