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The Mississippi Delta’s Small-Town Culture

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Photo: Caroline Allison

Something in the soil of the Mississippi Delta, an alluvial floodplain spreading out from the banks of a slow-moving river, seems to produce not only high cotton but also hereditary genius. Lying well below the Mason-Dixon Line, this area, with its history of hardship and strife, has delivered some of our greatest American folk heroes. Medgar Evers. William Faulkner. Muddy Waters. And would the Mississippi Delta really be the same without the “Old Man” himself? For the best portraits of that storied waterway, we have Mark Twain’s memoir Life on the Mississippi.

The heritage of the Deep South is celebrated here in various ways: music, food, and architecture, whether of the antebellum or tar-paper variety. Juke joints, bottle trees, and barbecue pits are just a few of the cultural signifiers visible from the roadside. But as a daughter of the South, on my own weeklong journey through the Magnolia State, I found that the rhythm of the region was embodied in three small towns—Clarksdale, Greenwood, and Oxford, all about a 90-minute drive apart—that tell the rootsy story of Mississippi best.

Clarksdale: The Blues Capital

Duwayne Burnside was on fire. Even from the back of the house at Ground Zero Blues Club, where concert promoter Roger Stolle and I stood next to a couple of pool tables, it was hard to carry on a conversation as this ferocious guitarist, the son of a famous hill-country bluesman, wailed on stage.

“Why in heaven’s name doesn’t this guy have a recording contract?” I shouted.

We were witnessing an artist with an uneven past suddenly finding his groove. Perhaps it helped that his minister and members of his congregation were representing down in front. Stolle shrugged, then pulled on a Lazy Magnolia longneck beer. “Maybe I’ll book him for the Juke Joint Festival,” he said.

Bigger cities in the South—Memphis, Austin, New Orleans—have laid claims to musical greatness, but block for block, tiny Clarksdale beats them hands down. From the Depression on, this Mississippi Delta town has been the heartbeat of the blues. The crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 is where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to Satan. Bessie Smith breathed her last at what is now the Riverside Hotel. Ike Turner was a native son. Nearby Parchman Farm, an infamous state penitentiary, deserves dishonorable mention for its chain-gang work chant and field-holler traditions. (Elvis Presley’s father served time there.) And Red’s Lounge, on Sunflower Avenue, remains one of the last true juke joints, where old-school acoustic musicians like Robert Belfour play almost every night as owner Red Paden turns rib tips on his pit smoker outside the front door.

Originally from Ohio, Stolle quit his job in advertising more than 10 years ago to produce documentaries on the Delta sound. We became friends after I saw his 2008 film M for Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues. (I’ve been a genre devotee ever since I received a Hohner Bluesband harmonica for my 12th birthday.) Stolle also owns a store in town called Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, an amalgam of fan clubhouse and rare-recording library. After Burnside’s set, I begged him to curate five must-have CD’s from his collection and promised to stop by to pick them up.

Wandering around downtown Clarksdale doesn’t take long. From my hotel, the Lofts at the Five and Dime, it’s a quick walk around the corner to Stolle’s store; on the way I passed an old-fashioned barbershop, blues-memorabilia galleries, and Miss Del’s General Store, which is stocked with everything from Grit Girl cornmeal to shotgun ammo. Cat Head is on Delta Avenue opposite the WROX radio museum, which has its own Mississippi Blues Trail historical marker. I poked through boxes of new vinyl until Stolle could break away from the phone to hand me a stack of limited-edition recordings, including tracks from his newest documentary, We Juke Up in Here. I asked if he had anything by Burnside.

“He only cut a couple of CD’s, and they’re long out of print,” Stolle apologized.

Oh well. Guess you just had to be there.

Greenwood: Good Eats

During midday service at the Crystal Grill, a waitress stopped by to top up my sweet tea. “Excuse me, ma’am,” she said, “want another slice of that pie?”

I looked down at the remnants of my lemon icebox, baked in the kitchen that morning, and reluctantly shook my head. In another hour I had to attend a cooking class and was already, in the words of my Nana, “fit to burst.”

An old-timey lunch spot, Crystal Grill specializes in such staples as fried chicken livers with stewed lima beans and candied yams. But the days when Southern food could be easily categorized by a greasy prefix are done and gone. Successive waves of immigrant workers have introduced Sicilian “pasta gravy,” Lebanese kibbeh, Vietnamese pho, and Mexican tamales to the region. Greenwood alone has seven listings on the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail.

The town is also home to the Viking Range Corporation. Local building contractor Fred Carl first adapted a commercial range for residential use back in the 1980’s; now period buildings house satellite ventures funded by the appliance giant, including the Alluvian Hotel, where I was staying; Giardina’s restaurant; and the Viking Cooking School, which holds weekly classes. One popular demonstration is based on dishes from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. (Major sequences of the movie version were filmed around Greenwood.) After my lunch, I walked into the sunny classroom as a waiter poured glasses of white wine for a tailgate-party recipe lesson.

The locals sitting behind me were enjoying themselves immensely, not paying particularly close attention to the artichoke-and-crab dip being prepped on the stove top up front. Later that evening, as the fun moved across the street to Giardina’s, class attendees Ashley and Stephen “Big Sexy” Farmer invited me into their private dining booth, a speakeasy tradition left over from the restaurant’s Prohibition days. “Greenwood is a big drinking town,” burly chef Lee Leflore said, parting the booth’s curtains to deliver a platter of baked oysters topped with sizzling Benton’s bacon. “You can get loud and act up in here.”

Delta agriculture, as it happens, isn’t just about cotton. As Leflore explained, this is also a corn-growing area, and farms in the broad plains surrounding Greenwood grow tomatoes, field peas, eggplants, and peppers for his kitchen. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Leflore trained at the Culinary Institute of America, in California’s Napa Valley, and worked for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans. But Giardina’s, where he’d cooked in high school, beckoned. “I missed it so much,” Leflore confessed. “Greenwood just draws you back.” I ordered his breaded Mississippi catfish cakes with comeback sauce, a spicier local variation on Creole rémoulade. Stephen Farmer poured me a glass of champagne and urged me to join him and his wife on a tour of locations for The Help the next day.

“How did you get your nickname?” I asked him.

“I used to be a lot bigger before going on a diet,” he said, winking as he spooned a shucked tamale onto my plate. “But I’m still just as sexy.”

Oxford: Ole Miss Spirit

“What’s a Hotty Toddy?” For some reason, I thought it must be a cocktail, because most Southerners of my acquaintance are fond of strong drink. Annie and Brittany Zeleskey, a pair of twentysomething sisters who run a sweet little bed-and-breakfast near the center of town called the Z, looked at me and started giggling.

“Don’t you ever watch football?” replied Annie. “It’s our school cheer.”

Technically, Oxford is in Mississippi’s hill country, not the Delta. The music has a little more twang to it, and the food (thanks to chef John Currence of City Grocery) is slightly more refined, but this college town has become a crucial repository of Deep South customs. The University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, was a key antisegregation battleground during the 1960’s civil rights movement and is now home to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC), which documents the region’s touch points, from racial integration to county fairs. It’s also the setting for America’s most elaborate tailgate parties. The Zeleskey sisters, both recent grads, run a brisk sideline as pregame squatters; fans slip them big bucks to stake out real estate in the Grove, a 10-acre campus lawn where tents pop up on game day complete with groaning buffet tables, full bars, and flat-screen TV’s.

The Zeleskeys grew up in Texas but decided to stick around after graduation to manage the three-bedroom guest bungalow that their parents bought and renovated so they could have a place to stay during gridiron season. Since the Rebels weren’t playing on my visit, my hosts steered me instead to the town’s central square, bounded on four sides by coffeehouses, bars, and shops that stock the sort of Ole Miss merchandise guaranteed to make any former homecoming queen happy. It turned out that the sisters were also fans of Duwayne Burnside, the musician I’d heard back in Clarksdale. “He plays the clubs here now and then,” Brittany said.

The university’s intellectual spin-off is evident everywhere in the community. Films, lecture series, and symposia underwritten by the CSSC draw a diverse crowd of academics and enthusiasts. The Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual fall gathering sells out in minutes, possibly because copious amounts of bourbon and bacon are involved. The Thacker Mountain Radio show broadcasts live from the square every week. Rock band the Black Keys—whose label, Fat Possum Records, is based here—turns up for gigs at the Lyric. R. L. Burnside, Duwayne’s daddy, was one of Fat Possum’s original artists.

For my last breakfast, the Zeleskeys baked cheddar-cheese biscuits and served them to me as I sat in a swing on their front porch. That’s when I noticed some late-night celebrant had left an Ole Miss go-cup on the trunk of my car.

I kept it.

Shane Mitchell is T+L’s special correspondent.

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