I had been wanting to take a long weekend and travel the backroads of Mississippi for quite some time, so when the opportunity came up to attend a photography retreat up in Oxford, I jumped at the chance. The last time I had visited Oxford was in the fall of 2003 when Eli fell down in the fourth quarter and handed LSU the SEC West. We would go on to win the National Championship. I almost got killed that night for rooting for the wrong team, but I survived. Good times, but I digress.
The week was organized and hosted by the great Danny K., who led our trip down in Cuba last year. The timing was perfect. Beyond the workshop, I had envisioned a road trip visiting all the little towns and filming locations of one of my all time favorite movies, O, Brother Where Art Thou? If you haven't seen that movie in a while, do yourself a favor and watch it tonight. It's brilliant.
So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on the state of Mississippi.
Mississippi is a place stuck in time. Most of it is dead or dying and the evidence is everywhere. It is a beautiful state, but most of these once thriving little towns are barely hanging on. There's crippling poverty everywhere, especially in the Delta. It is a place that is in constant struggle with itself and its past. It is full of great people, some of the best, that all want to move on and look forward, yet in an effort to attract tourists and showcase the Blues, it is now promoting itself as The Birthplace of America's Music. Being from New Orleans, I have my own opinion on "America's Music", but I'll let it slide for now.
This newfound cultural tourism brings the tourists and their money, but their money insists that things stay in the past. Everyone wants to see the B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf version of "the Blues"...you know, the old black man singing about pain on a beat up guitar. Truth be told, this version of the Blues would've probably died out some time ago if it wasn't for this recent revival of sorts. The Delta crowd is now into hip hop, R&B, and DJ's, not old black men on a guitar. One could argue that a bunch of white foreigners (and Morgan Freeman) saved the Blues from extinction. I think this is a good thing, but it does beg the question: what is authentic?
Will Jacks, a photographer we met on the trip, is actually writing a book on this very subject. He lives in Clarksdale and has spent countless hours documenting Po' Monkeys and other juke joints and their ever changing social scenes. It's actually a very complicated subject. I can't wait for this book, his photography is fantastic.
I am right in the middle of the book Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant, a British journalist who was living in NYC and decided to buy a plantation and move to the Mississippi Delta. His book is a fascinating and honest account about life and race relations in the Delta, as only an outsider's point of view can provide. This book is a must read if you are curious about life in Mississippi, I can't recommend it enough.
Perhaps the best quote to sum up the book is actually from author Richard Rubin: "Nothing in this world is a matter of black and white, not even in Mississippi, where everything is a matter of black and white."
A note on the photography
All of these images were shot on 35mm film. I used two stocks, Ilford HP5 (shot at box speed) and Kodak Portra 400 (which I overexposed and shot at ISO 200). Enjoy.
On the road to Clarksdale
Our time in the Delta was brief. We didn't get to see much outside of Clarksdale. If there's anything left in Clarksdale, I didn't see it. The whole town seemed closed for business. People were few and far between, other than the British tourist trying to find their way around.
Unfortunately we didn't get to any juke joints, just another reason for a return trip.
Marty's Barber Shop
I was walking by myself downtown when I passed an old barber shop. At first glance I thought it was just another abandoned relic, but then I noticed the lights were on. I peaked in and saw an old man in the corner, just sitting there passin' time. Not wanting to make it awkward, I nodded and moved on my way. About half a block down the street I realized that talking to this gentleman would be the highlight of my week. I went back and looked in the window again. There he was, waving me in. We talked for the better part of an hour. He told me everything about growing up in Clarksdale.
Born and raised, picking cotton from the age of two. Hell, that's why people had so many children. See that giant on the wall? He's 8 foot 2. Local legend...been in a couple of movies. You recognize this fellow? Yep, that's me, lot younger back then. That's the finishing line at the Boston Marathon...used to run in a lot of those. Look at this- you ever seen a cash register like that? They don't make 'em like they used to. One guy came in and offered me $400 for it. I said, what am I gonna do with that money? It'd be gone and so would my register. It only goes up to $1.90. Can you imagine?
I asked him if he thought the town could ever come back. Oh no, he said solemnly, it would take a whole lot.
It was fascinating. Just as I was about to ask him if he ever got any business, old George walked through the door, handed him a $10 bill and said, "Hey Marty, need my ears lowered." Marty introduced us and began cutting. George was an old Delta crop pilot. Still flies. Like Marty, he was born and bred, out in the cotton fields as a toddler. The whole cut and shave took about 3 minutes. Just like any good barber shop, we talked for a while before he had to go.
The whole experience was like stepping back in time. I got Marty's address and promised to send him some photos.
Emmett Till. Hopefully you know the name. He was a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting a cousin in Mississippi. He was hanging outside a store when he supposedly whistled at a white woman. Her name was Carolyn Bryant. That simple interaction was enough to be beat within an inch of his life, mutilated, tortured, shot in the head and dumped in a river.
His body was found three days later and shipped back to Chicago. In a moment of great clarity or forward thinking, his mother insisted on having an open casket funeral, exposing his mutilated and bloated body to the press and the world. Those photos galvanized the Civil Rights movement and Till rightly became a symbol, the catalyst for a movement that many didn't think was needed.
Of course, an all white jury acquitted the two men, Roy Bryant and J.M. Milam, who proudly and openly admitted to the murder. On her deathbed, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she had lied under oath...that boy had never even flirted with her. Bryant nor Milam ever expressed any remorse. When asked about it years later, Roy Bryant said: "Emmett Till is dead. I don't know why he just can't stay dead."
This courthouse in Sumner is where these men were acquitted. A plaque was erected in 2007, right across from a Confederate monument honoring "Our Heroes", ereceted in 1913.
Yazoo City is about as much of a ghost town as you're gonna find. Like so many small towns in the south, whatever industry kept it up and runnin' died a long time ago. Downtown is a shell of itself, maybe one or two businesses still around, but of course, nothing was open. The beautiful homes around downtown have seen better days. It just ain't there no more.
The Bank of Yazoo City below was the very same that Baby Face Nelson holds up in O Brother.
we're from the same soil.
"This ain't Mississippi," our fixer Wayne told us on his back porch, "this is Disneyland." (I call him a fixer because there's no doubt he could get you anything you wanted in Oxford. He'll have a good laugh at that.) In any event, he was right, although I would have gone with "Pleasantville." No one locks their doors. People smile and wave in the street, stop just to ask how you're doing. All of the old houses have a fresh coat of paint and a perfectly manicured lawn. Things are being built, not torn down. It is a culinary destination with a booming nightlife...it is a college town, after all.
Oxford is an idealistic version of itself, and it gave me an entirely new appreciation of Mississippi. It was everything that these small towns in the south have the potential to be- a beautiful old town square bustling with sleepy action, one of the coolest bookstores I've ever stepped foot in, and of course, it's lifeblood, the University of Mississippi. Without the influx of coeds every fall, I'm not sure this town would look much different than the the rest of them. It was refreshing to realize that not all is lost is the state of Mississippi.
It was a fantastic week. We met some fabulous photographers in Ashleigh Coleman, Will Jacks, and Michael Foster, all doing fantastic work in the state. Do yourself a favor and check them all out. Danny K. and his wife Lauren were the perfect hosts. I really can't wait to get back up there.
Vicksburg is another sad story. A town with a huge history, it's been living on his laurels for the better part of a century. Buildings on buildings of abandonment. Huge hospitals, entire blocks, abandoned. Yet, like a little Detroit, there is so much potential to be had there. It would take a helluva lot to realize it's full potential, but with the right industry to fuel it, Vicksburg could be cool again. You don't find this location, history, and architecture everywhere. One can dream.
If you've seen any movie filmed in Mississippi ever, then you've seen Canton. A Time to Kill, My Dog Skip, Mississippi Burning, O, Brother Where Art Thou, to name a few. The town square looks like a movie set...I'm not even sure half the stores were real. I couldn't even find a coffee shop. C'mon Canton! Pop music played from a speaker system hidden around the square. It knows why people are here. Once you leave the square, its back to the real Mississippi.
We end with the sleepy town of Edwards, population of 1,006, according to the 2016 census. Where these thousand souls exist, I do not know. I guess they're hiding somewhere. You might recognize the first photo from the final scene of O Brother.
So long from Mississippi, I'll be back soon!