What's more mythic than the Mississippi?The towns that line its banks

Eve Fowler
| Credit: Eve Fowler

On the Mississippi River just below Memphis, you can sit on the bank all day and not see a single canoe, or much of anything afloat that isn't a tug or a barge. We read about Huck and Jim, and are fed visions of idyllic riverbank beaches, but the Mississippi is a working waterway: 67 percent of the grain that gets shipped by boat in the United States goes down it. Between Memphis and Natchez, the famed river town in southern Mississippi, there is only one recreational marina, in Greenville. Just big industry, and the strangely retro faux-paddleboat casinos. The Mississippi Delta—the sprawling cotton land that begins in Memphis, Tennessee, and fans south, spilling over Baton Rouge and New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico—has always been defined less by what people do or don't do than by a massive river that is fast becoming more man-made canal than natural waterway.

It's nearly impossible to find a piece of the Delta that is untouched by human hands, except for the no-man's-land strip of jungle inside the levee. More than 3,000 miles long, the Mississippi River Levee might be the baddest thing man has ever made, almost as big as the Great Wall of China, a thing visible from outer space. The biggest human response to the titanic power of the river, it has shaped the history of the region. To cross the Mississippi River Levee is to enter a wilderness that, every spring, drowns in snowmelt from the Rockies and the Alleghenies, from the northern woods of Canada. This river, the third largest in the world, drains 41 percent of North America. Bears and panthers live here. The fact is, the Delta is land that should be out of business. Rivers snake and swell. The Mississippi's flooding has caused two national catastrophes, in 1927, when hundreds of farms were drowned, and again in 1973, when the control system failed. The flooding in 1993 and this spring was pretty severe as well. In Darwin's world the Delta's cotton fields would be underwater much of the time, not farmed. But since the '27 flood, the Mississippi has been the epicenter of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The government, vigorously lobbied by the Delta Council, a cotton-heavy organization with the lineage and the tactics of 19th-century cotton barons, has turned the river into its own economic laboratory.

In the Delta, 50 percent of the Mississippi's banks are now concrete. What the river wants to do is slide west. If it had its way, its mouth would be at Morgan City by now, and New Orleans and its massive seaport would be strangled in mud. Whether you're in a canoe drifting with the lazy current, or in the towns and anonymous intersections along Highway 61 (the busy two-lane that shadows the river and connects the Delta's historical and cultural dots), it's easy to see that the contest between river and man, and even between man and man, is at best a standoff.

SOUTHERN LORE HAS IT THAT the gateway to Highway 61 is the lobby of Memphis's Peabody Hotel. Memphis and its environs sit astride the river at a wide, lazy bend, once the center of Native American river culture. In the 19th century, the Peabody was where the cotton barons ate, slept, traded, and generally ruled the known universe. In those days the Delta was what California would become: the place for a fresh start or a last chance. Today the Peabody is an upscale tourists' pit stop and convention hall. The gilded lobby reverbs with mechanical schmaltz from a computerized player piano.

As with Rome or Athens, you hear the name Memphis and you conjure the city's past: Elvis and W. C. Handy and Beale Street. All of it is more legacy than reality. Mulberry is an unremarkable street in a part of Memphis no visitor would hear of, let alone go to, but for the Lorraine Motel, resting place of canceled expectations. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot through the neck while standing on its second-floor balcony, outside room No. 306, on April 4, 1968. I am tempted to say that the gates of Highway 61 have been moved to the Lorraine Motel, but even that feels tidy.

Minutes from the Peabody, the modest Lorraine, the hub of the "wrong" side of the tracks, was where African-American royalty ate, slept, and traded. Cab Calloway, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin. Now it's part Hollywood set, part attempt at a national conscience. The elements of the motel's exterior—the stark architecture, the letter-box sign, even the shark-fin cars in the parking lot—have been frozen in the assassination moment. King's room has been preserved, from the bed he slept in to the nightstand he ate his last meal on. The rest has been re-outfitted as the National Civil Rights Museum, an exhaustive, and sometimes jumbled, archive of recent African-American history.

ACROSS MULBERRY, IN A LAWN CHAIR, sits an African-American woman in her mid-forties. Her name is Jacqueline Smith, and she has spent her days and nights there on the street for the last 13 years. She refused to leave her long-term rental in the Lorraine when it was sold to the museum, was eventually evicted by court order, and has been protesting the irony ever since. (King, she says, would never have stood for it.) She fans herself with a glossy pamphlet that bullets her talking points—she is well organized and, apparently, well funded—and glowers across the street. If there is to be a monument to civil rights, she says, let it be a real place where real people live. Like subsidized housing, or a newly vitalized neighborhood. She waves at the museum. "That's just melodrama," she says. "It's just emotionalism. That's not authentic." True enough. When you come upon the eerily preserved exterior of the Lorraine, you can't be sure that it isn't a diorama constructed to resemble the famous picture of King's body slumped on the balcony with Jesse Jackson pointing into the path of the bullet.

Smith explains how the ramshackle neighborhoods around the Lorraine are about to be gentrified. "Let me assure you, it's not black folks moving in," she says. I take a quick drive around the block and find that Smith is right: broken-down mills are being sandblasted, transformed into airy lofts. As far as history goes in Memphis and destinations south, you're never sure whether what you're seeing is the beginning of something or the end.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission decrees that its casinos must be on the Mississippi River proper or the Gulf of Mexico or moored to their banks. Or, curiously, on a body of water navigable to any of the above. It doesn't say navigable by what. Though it's technically possible, you'd be hard-pressed to paddle a canoe from the river through the reedy murk to the surreal casino moonscape of Tunica County, Mississippi. Forty miles south of Memphis, Tunica County was once the poorest in America, with swamp and soggy cotton and a total of 20 hotel rooms. The passage of gaming laws in the early nineties attracted more than $3.5 billion in development. The church elders in Robinsonville and neighboring towns fought the proposed legislation, but the congregations couldn't wait for the casinos to open.

Now there are 10 casinos in the county—with names like Harrah's and Bally's and Gold Strike—and 6,000 hotel rooms. Gleaming bronze towers rise behind the fields; vast halls are done up in garish Western motifs; the swamps are covered over by asphalt parking lots. They call it a gambler's paradise. Inside, in the oxygenated air, you might for a moment mistake the Sam's Town Tower or the Grand Casino Tunica for Vegas: the carnival clang of the slots, the crack of dice and the tinkle of chips, that bunkered, timeless isolation of the rooms.

Inland Mississippians flock here, along with road warriors in RV exile pit-stopping their way to the gulf. But it's not just Tunica they're flooding. On the highways into Vicksburg, 170 miles south, billboards that once marketed the town as a Civil War theme park now herald casinos dressed as old paddle wheelers. The Mississippi Gaming Commission talks up the courthouses and jails and schools built and improved with casino money. But, as one Vicksburg native told me, "For the first time in a hundred years, Vicksburg is less about the Civil War than it is about 'going to the boat.' " A woman from Clarksdale, a town of wide porches and a long history of storytelling, complained, "I know a lot of ladies who used to play bridge at home; now they just go up to the casinos and play blackjack."

But word is that the casinos are sinking. How couldn't they be?In this swamp, anything but a pontoon would. You reach for the obvious metaphor until you realize that the casino folks must have known that tossing $3.5 billion worth of construction into the swamp is still going to pay. And stepping back outside into the glare of the marsh, and the big silence, you know it will—on the outskirts of town the pawnshops are waiting. The shelves are stocked with last-chance possessions: watches and rings and car stereos.

A FEW MILES FARTHER SOUTH, PAST THE LAST OF THE BILLBOARDS beckoning all of humanity to Tunica, the Delta flatscape becomes visible for the first time. It is a place where nothing seems ever to have been new. Elsewhere, the Technicolor farms of fantasy—the New England of the bed-and-breakfast circuit, the Pennsylvania of the Amish buggies, the manufactured quaintness of the shabby-chic farm stands of eastern Long Island—all of it has been fetishized to postcard images and glossy brochures. Not here. I failed to find a single postcard of a Delta scene anywhere. Perhaps there's a conscious effort to avoid sentimentality—or maybe it's just the landscape. Rail yards and Indian mounds and trees blasted by the weather; flooded fields and iron bridges; cemeteries shrouded in Spanish moss, filled with headstones of poured concrete, sunken and tipped. The grave markers are lettered with the end of a twig, just names: Taft Cloud, Charlie Cheese, Jagger Post, Pricelea Noble, Alvin Sweetwyne. But the names— say them aloud—feel like whole sentences, sketches of people with stories to tell. The lopsided barns along Highway 61 look abandoned though they are not. At their padlocked entrances stand lone and hopeful dogs. Angry religious messages glower from hand-printed signs. Old-time gas pumps, their guts exposed, take on almost human shapes.

The Delta is what the entire Deep South might have been 50 years ago, or 100: the vast, flat distance that separates one place from another, and the mobile-home parks and field-worker tenements in between. Tired cotton fields, general stores. The cars here are as decayed as the graves and the barns. The result is a kind of jerry-built homage to the automobile. Old Buicks are checkerboarded with unpainted doors from even older cars of various models.

Along the river, in plantation territory, Sid Law awaits my arrival at the general store in Chatham, south of Tunica, in sight of the levee. Law wears camouflage and a waxed handlebar mustache and stands six foot four. A third-generation plantation owner, he carries two guns, one big and in the open and one small and pocketed, and he is not the only one to do so, which he makes clear inside of a minute. Law's elderly mother still lives in the family's antebellum mansion. He and his wife have moved into the sort of single-level ranch that could be found in Iowa or Maine, the family's grandiosity replaced by a proud and stubborn middleness. Law leads me to the tractor port. On either side of us are the New Hope and Everhope plantations. They are still working farms, though at a shabbier level that belies their names. "To live in the Delta you have to be unusual," he says. "You have to learn to be the master of all you see." He heaves bricks up in the air and shoots them into pieces. Then he starts flipping quarters, and blows them out of the sky. He breathes hard, his shoulders covered in red brick dust.

History plays a distorted, fun-house function in the Delta. While Mississippi's modern towns seem born into decay, slave-era mansions in Natchez—some nearly 200 years old—are frozen in their pre—Civil War lavishness. Elderly white women in hoopskirts take tour groups around the gargantuan houses, praising the furniture and the carpeting, telling tales of the bravery of the ladies of the house during the Union Army's bombardment. Downriver, pre-casino Vicksburg was known for the sprawling military cemetery and national park commemorating the Civil War, all of it spread on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Countless rows of numbered headstones follow the undulating contours of the land.

Vicksburg almost perished in a 47-day siege by General Grant's army, and some of the older residents stoke the city's 140-year-old grudge against Natchez, which, to save its homes and its women, couldn't surrender fast enough. (Two-thirds of America's millionaires in the mid 1800's lived in Natchez's fortresses along the Mississippi, and all of them were cotton sheikhs.) Today's Vicksburg and Natchez are struggling, windblown, and quiet. Their largest industry, after the casinos, is not cotton but nostalgia. "They're living in the past," says Ron Nassar, 54, who works for the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife. "My generation isn't nearly as enamored of history; you don't see this obsession with the past at all. And you don't see it in the Delta's smaller towns," he adds, where the business of daily life makes reflection a luxury.

Every summer Vicksburg commemorates the Civil War with "living history exhibits" of key battles. "The war is still in people's frontal lobes," says Eric Banks, a 35-year-old Vicksburg native. As a teenager he played various Southern soldiers in the re-enactments, suffering in Confederate wool in the sweltering Mississippi summer. It was less propaganda than harmless theater, he says, and Vicksburg's African-American community certainly sees the absurdity in it all. "The re-enactments aren't alarming to us," says Gary Baldwin, the 36-year-old editor-in-chief of The New Times, whose readership is mostly black. "Whites have a heritage. But when I see them with their Confederate guns, and their horses and carriages, I think they just look nutty."

ON MY WAY BACK TO MEMPHIS, I put into the Mississippi about 15 miles north of Clarksdale. John Ruskey, bluesman and river guide, in the canoe's stern; me in the bow; mosquitoes everywhere else. The sun rises behind us. We eat breakfast on a sandbar as tugs shoving four football fields' worth of barge tip the canoe with their wake. Ruskey is the gatekeeper to Clarksdale's blues scene, former director of the Delta Blues Museum, a link between the real and the replicated. He sings and plays and paddles, lives in a cavelike basement beneath a bar on the Sunflower River, a Mississippi tributary, 50 feet from the hotel where Bessie Smith died. In his gentle drawl, he describes the river's eddies and boils and what is underneath. The truest source of the Delta's character, he says, is down there and nowhere else. The river's surface mirrors the shape of the universe, the watery nebulae and gurgling star bursts, and the long dark stretches of night.

At the intersection of Route 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to be able to play guitar like the devil—or so they say. Today there are four corners of fast food and shabby cotton fields. But the blues does still live where it was first played, in broken-down juke joints that are ramshackle sheds by day, flooded with sound and beer and unromantic jubilation at night. Clarksdale is where Robert Johnson, Eddie "Son" House, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters lived. Rightly, it thinks of itself as the home of the blues. It was, and in the most important ways, it still is. The juke joints here, and in nearby towns like Shelby, don't advertise. They don't necessarily know who is playing what or when. The buildings themselves—sheds, garages, old restaurants—can hardly stay erect. They have names like Do Drop Inn and Sarah's Kitchen.

The blues began not as a thing to perform but as a thing to do, a way to express what was important: love lost and gained and lost. With Ruskey, I head to Red's, on the Sunflower River, to hear Wesley Jefferson and his band.

Jefferson doesn't begin until 10 p.m. Red's leans way back, feels about ready to slide into the Sunflower River. High in a corner, a TV set is tuned to a baseball game. There's a pool table in back of the bar and an old pinball machine, and up above a flickering fluorescent light. The drinkers talk above the band and the band plays above the talk. Everyone is on a first-name basis, and aside from Ruskey, who's on keyboards, I'm the only white face around. There are curious looks and nothing but welcome.

The night I'm there an unknown guitarist named Michael James plays so fluidly you think of the mythical greats, and that this is how they began, unknown and brilliant and without a hope of discovery. But if this were Beale Street, Memphis's Disney version of the blues, you know James wouldn't be playing his own tunes; he'd be covering the songs the tourists know. Here he stretches out his own licks, without showing off. He's wondrous, and there are a dozen others in town just like him. At 2 a.m. the band is still going strong, Jefferson is calling out the refrains in his strained, smoky voice, the bar is littered with bottles, and a few dozen men and women are clapping and singing and gossiping. The ball game on the TV is long over, and the screen is playing nothing but snow.

Memphis and Natchez are about 300 miles apart. You can drive it in a day, but take five. The best route is the famous Highway 61 (soon to be renamed Blues Highway), which winds along the Mississippi River.

Peabody Hotel 149 Union Ave.; 800/732-2639 or 901/529-4100, fax 901/529-3600; doubles from $180.
Lorraine Motel & National Civil Rights Museum 450 Mulberry St.; 901/521-9699.

Harrah's Tunica Casino & Hotel 1100 Casino Strip Blvd., Robinsonville; 800/427-7247 or 662/363-7777; doubles from $99.
Isle of Capri Casino & Hotel 1600 Isle of Capri Blvd., Robinsonville; 877/711-4753 or 662/357-6500; doubles from $59.
Gold Strike Casino Resort 1010 Casino Center Dr., Robinsonville; 888/245-7829 or 662/357-1111; doubles from $59.
Grand Casino Tunica 13615 Old Hwy. 61 N., Robinsonville; 800/946-4946 or 662/363-2788; doubles from $39.

Cedar Grove Mansion Inn 2200 Oak St.; 800/862-1300 or 601/636-1000, fax 601/ 634-6126; doubles from $130, including breakfast and afternoon tea.
André's Restaurant at the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn; dinner for two $50.
Vicksburg National Military Park and Vicksburg National Cemetery 601/636-0583. The battlefield includes 1,325 monuments and markers, 20 miles of restored and original trenches; the cemetery contains the graves of more than 17,000 Union soldiers.

Red's (395 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale; 662/627-3166), Do Drop Inn (Third and Lake Sts., Shelby; 662/741-2475), and Sarah's Kitchen (208 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale; 662/627-3239) are good places to hear the real thing.
Delta Blues Museum 1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale; 662/627-6820.

The Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/647-6724 or 601/446-6345) and Natchez Pilgrimage Tours (800/647-6742 or 601/446-6631) can provide information on custom tours of the antebellum buildings in town. For guided bus tours of the pre—Civil War South, with stops in Natchez and river cruises on the Mississippi, contact Tauck World Discovery (800/788-7885 or 203/226-6911). The Mississippi Division of Tourism lists a suggested "Highway 61" itinerary on its Web site (800/927-6378 or 601/359-3297; www.visitmississippi.org).

—Robert Maniaci