April 7, 2008 Impressions of the Mississippi Delta

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

The Mississippi delta is a legendary part of America.  The dark nights of lynchings and burning crosses; the gothic complexity of Faulkner’s stories; the tragic legacy of plantations and slavery; the sweet smell of wisteria on a spring evening; the hazy morning sun rising over vast fields of cotton; beaten down shacks that house the poor descendants of slaves; the riverbanks where cottonmouths and fire ants threaten; the lazy brown Yazoo and Tallahatchie rivers that rage like a mean drunk when flooding; the birthplace of the blues and vital to jazz and rock-and-roll; where mockingbirds jam in endless vocal experimentation all night long; and the civil rights movement had some raw beginnings.  All these are glimpses of the delta that is part of our national mythology.

On my way to the delta (specifically the flat and low-lying agricultural region of northwest Mississippi), I was listening to the car radio and heard the old line:  “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta da-a-a-ay.  I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ ha-a-a-ay.”  On my departure from the delta, I heard another old line:  “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar.”  The former song, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, explores the mysterious suicide of a young man who jumped from the Tallahatchie Bridge.  The latter song, Paul Simon’s Graceland, is a spiritual road trip pilgrimage to the home of Elvis.  The serendipity of hearing these songs on the radio was not lost on me, and both were running through my head for days.  Great songs that I grew up with (which gives you an indication of my age!).  About the same time as Ode to Billie Joe was playing on my transistor radio in the late ’60s, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s great album, Highway 61 Revisited, on the record player.  I didn’t understand until years later that US Highway 61 leads right through the Mississippi delta. 

In the delta I was struck by the sense of decay in small towns.  There were town squares where virtually every storefront was empty and people were just hanging out, as if waiting for something else to happen.  The liveliest places in many of these towns were the convenience stores.  Curious about the economy, I read a report in a Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/19/AR2007061902193.html?referrer=email which explained that basically the white farmers in the delta are well-off and receive huge government subsidies for growing cotton and increasingly, corn (to fuel the heavily subsidized and environmentally devastating ethanol economy–but I’ll leave that story for another time). In contrast, the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers endure lives of poor education, poor health, few opportunities, and high crime.  There are those who loudly proclaim that the poor of the delta should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” but such proclaimers have usually lived lives of relative privilege.  The desperate poor often don’t even have the boots … and the delta can be a trap.

The delta was significant in igniting the modern civil rights movement.  In 1955 a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, apparently whistled at a white woman while visiting Bryant’s Store in Money, Mississippi.  The shaken woman told her husband and in the deep night Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.  Later the accused were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury.  The story brought outrage across the country and was a tragic start to the march for racial equality over the decades.  The whole story can be read here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till.

I camp when I’m out photographing like this, and out in the delta there aren’t many places to camp.  I headed for a state park on the Mississippi River; actually, to paraphrase Don McLean’s song American Pie, “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levy was”–wet!  When I drove over the top of the levee and looked down to the park, the road was flooded and the entrance building was half-submerged.  So I changed my plans and headed for another state park up on Choctaw Ridge, crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge on the way.  Of course, “seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge”–to quote Bobbie Gentry again–but at least I found a beautiful ridgetop campsite.  Spring leaves were just emerging on the oak trees around camp, so I photographed several leaves at this early stage in their unfolding.  An armadillo snuffed around camp sometime in the night.

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

Explore posts in the same categories: americana, architecture, civil rights, delta, emmett till, emotion, history, mississippi, nature, photo, photography, politics, tallahatchie, travel

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2 Comments on “April 7, 2008 Impressions of the Mississippi Delta”

  1. Nick M. Says:

    Thanks so much for this posting. I’m looking into becoming a teacher in the Delta, and this gave me my first impressions of it. Your writing is as vivid as your photographs. Thank you!

    • leerentz Says:

      Hello Nick,

      The Delta is both a cauldron for American music and a deeply impoverished place. I hope that you decide to teach there and help the people escape from generations of sadness. And thank you for your kind comment about my writing; this was one of my favorite essays for the blog site.


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