Avalon and Valley: Mississippi John Hurt’s Blues Base

Avalon and Valley: Mississippi John Hurt’s Blues Base
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage

 

 

 

 

All Photography by John Zheng.

 

 

 

 

Mississippi John Hurt, a world-famous blues musician, was born on March 8, 1892, in Teoc, Mississippi. In a letter to Tom Hoskins, Hurt wrote that when he was two or three months old he moved with his mother and siblings “5 miles north off Teoc” to live in the Avalon and Valley area, 1 which was ten miles away on the eastern edge of the Delta. In 1900, the Avalon and Valley communities together had a population of 3,486. These towns remain today, but Avalon, which once had a railroad depot, a gas station, a post office, and general stores, has dilapidated into a ghost place of abandoned buildings with only two or three dwellings by Mississippi Highway 7 and a small wooden church, Jeremiah MB Church, by Avalon Road. The post office burned down one night some twenty years ago, as far as I can recall. 

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

Among these structures is the John Hurt marker erected by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) on July 7, 2004. It stands by Highway 7 as if to tell a story of long ago. John Hurt was born in 1892, but there is an uncertainty of his birth date. Philip R. Ratcliffe provides some interesting information in his biography, Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues: “He was reportedly born on March 8, 1892 (grave marker), March 16, 1892 (Social Security Death Index), May 7, 1893 (some family members), or May 8, 1895 (draft registration).” 2 In addition, two historic markers that commemorate John Hurt adopted 1893 as his birth year: the MDAH marker by Highway 7 and the John Hurt blues marker by the Valley Store, erected by the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC) on February 25, 2008. The reverse side of the MBC marker provides an interesting line about the specific date of Hurt’s birthday: “According to a family bible, Hurt was born on July 3, 1893.” 

A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create

Irrespective of his birth date’s uncertainty, Hurt is an irreplaceable icon in the tradition of the blues. Both markers highlight a landscape, a culture, and a history of his birthplace, workplace, personal life, and community. On both sides of the MDAH marker is the same brief biographic note in 53 gilded words: 

John S. Hurt (1893-1966) was a pioneer blues and folk guitarist. Self-taught, Hurt rarely left his home at Avalon, where he worked as a farmer. Although he recorded several songs in 1928, including “Avalon Blues” and “Frankie,” he lived in relative obscurity before he was “rediscovered” in the blues revival of the 1960s.

On the front of the MBC marker is a summary of his role as a blues musician in 78 gilded words: 

World-renowned master of the acoustic guitar John Hurt, an important figure in the 1960s folk blues revival, spent most of his life doing farm work around Avalon in Carroll County and performing for parties and local gatherings. Hurt (1893-1966) only began to earn a living from music after he left Mississippi in 1963 to play at folk festivals, colleges, and coffeehouses. His first recordings, 78 rpm discs released in 1928-29, are regarded as classics of the blues genre.

 While both markers provide somewhat similar information, the latter points out John Hurt’s status as a world-renowned acoustic guitarist and his importance to the blues genre with his first recordings in 1928. It also mentions his performances after his rediscovery in 1963. On the reverse side of the marker there continues a lengthy, three-paragraph narrative alongside captioned images. As the narrative asserts, the characterization of Hurt’s difference from other blues musicians is that “Mississippi John Hurt’s delicate vocals, inventive fingerpicking on guitar, and warm personality endeared him to generations of music fans.”

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival

John Hurt had a smooth, gentle voice. His vocal style is different from other blues musicians because, as the music scholar Ted Gioia points out in his highly praised book, "Delta Blues":

Hurt aimed for precision and refinement, a sense of control and restraint. His delicate stylings were almost the opposite of the Delta tradition…. He sang with a marked sensitivity to enunciation, diction, and volume, mostly eschewing the shouting and hooting, yodeling and growling, testifying and whispering that, in the Delta tradition, sometimes make performances seem less songs than ecstatic monologues. 3

Stylistically, Hurt’s voice was unique through its juxtaposition with his plucking melodies. He was skillful with his fingerpicking, which looked simple but were technically difficult. 4  

Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead

Geographically, Avalon seemed to be at the junction between the country songs of the hills and the blues of the Mississippi Delta. Hurt learned to play guitar at age nine and began to perform in early 1920s at parties and square dances with Willie Narmour, a local white fiddler and school bus driver at the time. Influenced by an amalgamation of music including blues, folksongs, country songs, rags, and spirituals, Hurt became a musician who welcomed and calibrated different music styles to enrich and develop his own. 

When the agent from OKeh Recording Company asked Narmour about other musicians in the area, Narmour recommended Hurt. This was the first discovery of John Hurt in 1928. Invited to travel to Memphis and New York to record his songs, he began to use Mississippi John Hurt as his stage name, which was printed in the OKeh’s advertisement for his songs, “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” recorded and issued in 1928. His stage name, as well as some of his first OKeh songs such as “Avalon Blues” and “Sliding Delta,” identified his connection to the place where he lived and worked. According to Ratcliffe, Hurt’s songs, which were initially marked as “Old Time Music” on OKeh’s file cards, were “marketed as blues, presumably to boost sales, but were actually not at all, including ‘Candy Man Blues’ and ‘Stack O’Lee Blues.’” 5  

Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot

During the blues revival of the 1960s, Tom Hoskins, a blues aficionado, set on his journey to rediscover Mississippi John Hurt after he listened to Hurt’s songs “through two tracks on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and a bootleg tape that another avid blues collector, Dick Spottswood...” 6  Fortunately, a line of words from “Avalon Blues”—“Avalon my hometown always on my mind”— revealed Hurt’s location and gave a clue for Hoskins to track the musician down in 1963. 7  This rediscovery indicates that Mississippi John Hurt’s first recordings in 1928 did not bring him a financial change during the Great Depression. After his temporary stay in New York City, Hurt decided to go back to Avalon and live the country life that he was used to. His decision to return home also revealed his philosophy of life, which might be reflected in these words from “Avalon Blues”: “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine.” 8  For thirty-five years after his first recordings, Hurt lived in Valley, doing farm work and other physical jobs, including working at a local gravel pit and making crossties for Illinois Central Railroad. As a little known blues musician, he played at local venues. He frequently visited the Valley Store, which was established in the 1880s, to play blues or buy daily necessities. 

Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner

In fact, Mississippi John Hurt was a grounded musician who lived a local life, played for local people, and survived with his music through working in local communities. As reminisced by Mary Frances Hurt, one of Hurt’s grandchildren, and Ed Levine, “hearing the music of Mississippi John Hurt feels like sitting on a porch in the old south listening to a warm, caring grandfather tell stories.” 9  Yet, Hurt still possessed the capacity to reemerge as one of the most popular and admirable blues musicians in the 1960s.

The rediscovery, on the other hand, brought Hurt an opportunity to jumpstart his music career after he turned seventy-one years old. Ready to be recognized worldwide, Hurt signed a contract with Music Research Incorporated represented by Tom Hoskins and Richard Spottswood. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to cut albums and have his songs recorded for the Library of Congress. This rediscovery also shows Hoskins’ admiration for Hurt’s unique musical voice. In his letter of February 12, 1982, to Alex Haley, Hoskins wrote that Hurt had “the gentle sounding voice and the unique complex, finger style guitar style, who was known only by the name on a couple of rare, old, battered 78s ‘Mississippi John Hurt.’ Of all those old musicians he had impressed me the most…” 10

After a three-year sojourn in Washington, D.C., Hurt moved back with his wife to Mississippi and settled down in Grenada, which is about 20 miles east of Avalon, but he often went back to visit his blues base. On November 2, 1966, Hurt died of a myocardial infarction in the Grenada hospital, and on November 13, he was buried in the Hurt family gravesite on top of the Valley hills. With the direction given by Charles Spann, who owns the land, I paid a visit to John Hurt’s grave in 2011.

Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus

In 1999, Mary Frances Hurt founded the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, “a non-profit organization devoted primarily to preserving the musical legacy and history of Mississippi John Hurt, while providing musical and educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth.” 11  The foundation established the John Hurt Museum, which was converted from his shack house and now holds an annual John Hurt Music Festival. 

Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.

While it is doubtless that John Hurt, as a musician with a unique style, has influenced the blues, to me he has served as a resource for my creative writing. In 2011, I wrote an “Avalon Blues” haiku and published it in Modern Haiku. In 2018, I wrote “Mississippi John Hurt,” which consists of two tanka prose poems, “Relocation” and “Memento,” and published it in Haibun Today. 12  Here’s “Memento”:

Mississippi John Hurt used to cut crossties with his axe for the railroad back in Avalon. That axe had been his old friend. Without it beside him any longer, his new life in the crime-ridden inner city of D.C. became filled with anxiety.

summer night

the sirens grow louder

and louder

he looks out at the street

strangely quiet now

When someone shipped the axe to him, John treated it as a reminder of his past experience in Mississippi. With the axe in his hands, he felt a sense of fulfillment even though he could not regain the energy to split logs for firewood.

in the dark

the couple reminisces

about old days

chirping crickets

sparkling stars 13

While John Hurt’s life has attracted me to present him in a poetic way, his home base has attracted me to go many times to take pictures. I feel that photographing this place is like communicating with history and culture, giving me many moments to see the landscape through the lens. These trips have resulted in this photo essay, which I hope offers a glimpse into the two locations related to Mississippi John Hurt’s music and personal history. These include abandoned buildings in Avalon and Valley where he once lived and worked, the surrounding fields and church in mist, two historic markers, a vernacular museum converted from his house, and his gravesite tucked away on a shaded hilltop—all of which appear historic as Avalon and Valley refuse to fade in the passage of time. 

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Footnotes

  1. ^ John Hurt, Tom Hoskins Collection, 1963-1967, AFC 2011/026, Library of Congress, accessed March 20, 2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/05/when-a-song-became-a-road-map-the-tom-hoskins-collection-and-mississippi-john-hurt/.
  2. ^ Philip R. Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011, 8.
  3. ^  Ted Gioia, Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (New York: Norton, 2008), 357.
  4. ^ John Sebastian and Happy Traum, “The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt: A Spoonful of Classic Songs” (Woodstock, NY: Homespun Music Instruction, 2004), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwya-_QbYIc.
  5. ^ Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt, 28.
  6. ^ Caspar Llewellyn Smith, “Blues Greats Re-emerge from the Pages of History,” The Guardian, June 15, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/16/blues-greats-re-emerge.
  7. ^ Marcia Segal, “When a Song Became a Road Map: The Tom Hoskins Collection and Mississippi John Hurt,” Folklife Today: American Folklife Center and Veterans History Project, May 8, 2018, https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/05/when-a-song-became-a-road-map-the-tom-hoskins-collection-and-mississippi-john-hurt/.
  8. ^ Norm Cohen. American Folk Songs: A Regional Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008) 1:339.
  9. ^ Mary Frances Hurt and Ed Levine. “‘Today!’—Mississippi John Hurt,” 1966, accessed February 25, 2020, www.loc.gov/static/ programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/MississippiJohnHurt.pdf.
  10. ^ Ratcliffe, Mississippi John Hurt, 123.
  11. ^ Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, “Mississippi John Hurt Tribute Page,” accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.mississippijohnhurtfoundation.org/.
  12. ^ Tanka is style Japanese poetry where genre dictates the structure of the poem and the number of syllables per line.
  13. ^ John Zheng. “Mississippi John Hurt.” Haibun Today 12, no. 4 (December 2018), http://haibuntoday.com/ht124/TP_Zheng_Mississippi.html.

John Zheng

John Zheng

John Zheng resides in Greenwood, Mississippi. He has published photo essays on Robert Johnson, Emmett Till, The Lower Mississippi River, rural churches, African American hospitals and clinics in the Delta, and a few others on Delta shacks, ruins, and abandonments. Several of his photos were used for book and magazine covers. He also publishes photoku (photos accompanied with haiku).

Rodney

Rodney

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Maria Zeringue

Maria Zeringue

A native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Maria Zeringue moved south from Bloomington, Indiana, to serve as MAC’s Folk and Traditional Arts Program Director. She has master’s degrees in French and Folklore from the University of Louisiana Lafayette and Indiana University, respectively, and a bachelor’s degree in French from University of Louisiana Lafayette. Maria previously served as research and curatorial assistant at Traditional Arts Indiana. She also served as an associate instructor of folklore at Indiana University. Maria has published articles in Journal of Folklore Research Reviews and Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.

Due South

Due South

Some say that Meridian was called the Queen City because it stood equal in Mississippi to the capital of Jackson. Yet the collapse of the railroad industry in the 1950s still reverberates, as the roughly 40,000 person strong outpost continues to transform itself in the 21st century.  Blocks which were for years abandoned or crumbling have new tenants alongside a giant farmer’s market and a thriving branch of Mississippi State University. The neon sign of Weidmann’s buzzes again on 22nd Avenue. 

Despite this hopeful moment, Meridian still does not have the cultural magnetism of other parts of Mississippi—places which have lured photographers for a century.  (Even one of Meridian’s most famous children, the musical legend Jimmie Rodgers, has long been eclipsed in the pantheon of country stars by his sideways descendants Hank Williams and Johnny Cash). 

Yet it was just this out-of-the-way-ness which led a newly minted group of artists to spend time in Lauderdale County. This group, Due South, is a co-operative of five photographers, David McCarty, Ashleigh Coleman, Ellen Rodgers, Katie Steed and Ryan Steed, who create work about the American South. When the Due South co-op formed in 2018, their inaugural trip together was to Meridian. As member David McCarty explains:

“We will often meet in a city and then spend a day or two creating work there, peering around the corners and cobwebs.  We attempt to just feel out a new place, and use the work to kickstart new projects. Imagine a jam session for a band. Our first trip was to Meridian, a place I'd often derided--I just didn't ‘see anything’ in Meridian.  But after two trips there with our group, we began to develop a beautiful body of work centered on the Queen City.”

Over the course of a few visits and many hours, they endeavored to find a particular type of faded beauty within the city limits. The images which follow aren’t the only story of Meridian.  It is just one story of a place which deserves to be known and loved. 

 

Katie Steed

Raised in a north Mississippi town you’ll never find, Katie is lead creative for the co-op. She’s an art director at Archer Malmo and teaches branding at her alma mater, Memphis College of Art.

Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
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Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus
A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry

 

David McCarty

Born into a family of Alabama coal miners, David McCarty now calls Jackson his home. In the ether of past and present, his use of instant film situates the image between the uncontrollable and precise. An inherent contradiction, David’s polaroids immortalize the forgotten.

 

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    Several times while walking the route I saw strangers catch beads that their neighbor was hoping for and the person laid the beads around their neck like a Hawaiian lei.
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    People moved over from prime spots to let late coming families fit in together. Friends were made fast and easily.
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    In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon. The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.
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Ashleigh Coleman

Ashleigh Coleman was born in the mountains of Virginia, reared in South Carolina, and for the last decade has lived in a rural Mississippi hamlet. Her graceful images showcase the complexities of the South by capturing the beauty and brutality of rural life.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

 

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Ellen Rodgers

Ellen Rodgers was born in the Mississippi Delta and grew up on the land her family has farmed for generations. Hasselblad in hand, Ellen builds a relationship with every person she meets— so that any portrait is more like a visit from a family member or an old friend.

Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue

 

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Ryan Steed 

Grandson of a cotton farmer and son of a literature teacher and undercover cop, Ryan Steed has spent years exploring and rediscovering the American South. He unearths contradictions and hidden meanings with both his images and titles.

Take a close look at the ceiling and you’ll spy currency from around the world, as well as prophetic reminders of Willie Seaberry’s contribution to music and culture.
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.
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Photographer Will Jacks and Willie Seaberry together at Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

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The Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival

The Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival

Taj Mahal once referred to Mississippi John Hurt  as the “musical grandfather” he had been looking for throughout his life.  And, though I hate to insert myself into a story involving such illustrious company, I have to agree: I’d been looking for him without even realizing it. This is not my story. This is the story of the man who has become the “musical grandfather” of many, and how his legacy is celebrated annually at the Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival near his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi.

 
Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus
 
Photo by Sam Ellis.

Born in Teoc, Mississippi, John moved to Avalon as a child. Picking up the guitar at the age of ten, his self-taught fingerpicking style would come to inspire many a musician. Starting in 1928 with his first recordings for the Okeh label, and continuing through his “rediscovery” by Tom Hoskins and Dick Spottswood in the early 1960s, he became the breakout star of the Newport Folk Festival and the burgeoning folk revival.

Established in 1999 by Mary Frances Hurt, John’s granddaughter, the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation has worked to sustain this esteemed songster’s legacy, while providing educational and outreach opportunities for the community. The Mississippi John Hurt Festival is one of these forms of outreach. For nearly twenty years, a small (but steadily growing) gathering of fans has been able to participate in an event that in many ways resembles the country dances and fish fry dinners John played during his formative years--an impromptu gathering of musicians and friends. Saturday is dedicated to John Hurt’s blues, and Sunday, naturally, is dedicated to his gospel work. Fans come to play and listen to music, and to peruse the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, John’s renovated shotgun shack filled with memorabilia related to his career. Some fans even bring offerings. Maxwell House coffee cans and railroad spikes are in abundance, in honor of two of John’s more famous tunes, “Coffee Blues” and “Spike Driver’s Blues.”

 
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
 
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead

I had been into electric blues for some time, but something about my first experience with Mississippi John Hurt’s music was significant. It was probably a recording of “Candyman” off of some no-name bargain bin blues compilation disc, but it made my heart leap and my feet dance. I had to learn how to play like him! As it turns out, it takes more than a big heart and a steady thumb. It takes practice. Lots of practice. And, after what I thought was enough dedication, I packed my guitar into my car and headed to my first Mississippi John Hurt Festival. This was 2013. The Festival was a revelation in many ways. So many people were there! And, so many people played so much better than me. So, imagine my surprise when Mary Frances Hurt invited me to play at her grandfather’s graveside. I felt woefully unprepared, both musically and for the transformative experience that would follow. At first, I felt my fingers turn into jelly. Mary Frances remained an inspiring, reassuring presence. Somehow, I pulled together a version of “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor,” a song I’d rarely played before that experience; and one I’ve never played as well since. I was part of the family now. I was an acolyte.

I’ve been going back every year since.

Photo by Sam Ellis.
 
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage

How many people can tell their own version of this same story? During my yearly visits to the Festival, I’ve met folks from Wales, New Zealand, Belgium and Japan. A family from Texas. Middle-aged ladies from California with ukuleles. A thirteen year old girl with a ukulele. A guitar duo from New York City. A classically trained musician from New York State who took a left turn into the blues, and an apprentice luthier from Alabama.  What was it about Hurt’s music that inspired such a disparate bunch to come such a long way to visit his house and his old stomping grounds? To me, Hurt’s music represents a dichotomy; it sounds old fashioned and different, yet somehow fresh and exhilarating. Something is vitally alive in the bouncing, syncopated rhythms and Hurt’s sweet, honeyed voice.

 
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
 
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry

From its earliest inception, this event in honor of Mississippi John Hurt has been called everything from the “MJH Memorial Blues/Gospel Jamfest” to the “Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival.” In 2018, Mary Frances officially changed its name to “Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival.” No description is more apt. Mary Frances has opined on multiple occasions that “everyone who should be here, is.” Mary Frances regards those who make the pilgrimage to her event as family, connected by a shared love of her grandfather’s music. Fans sit in the shade outside of Mississippi John’s old home and share tunes and stories. They eat barbecue and participate in the open mic, playing originals and covers of Mississippi John Hurt classics. The difficulty of the journey these people made is yet another testament to Hurt’s legacy. The portion of Carroll County Hurt called home is a labyrinth of winding dirt roads, dense forest, and kudzu covered bluffs. The running joke is that you can’t join the Hurt family until you’ve gotten lost out there at least once.

 
A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
 
The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.

For the last two years, local acoustic bluesman, Ben Wiley Payton, has been the Festival headliner, giving not only his talent but also a great deal of time to the event. Alan Lighty, from Tarrytown, New York, remarked that he’d “never stopped appreciating what a special player [Hurt] truly was.” He also regarded the event itself as something that “will forever be in your heart and soul.” Marc Borms, a Belgian gospel/blues musician who counts himself as being one of Hurt’s biggest fans, said “John taught me to follow your dreams, and so I did.” The festival was “two amazing days that should’ve been two weeks.”

The 2018 Homecoming Festival was particularly significant, as Sunday was the day St. James Church had its rededication ceremony. St. James was the center of the Avalon community before being abandoned and falling into disrepair. Mary Frances and a group of dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly to move the church to her property and renovate it. This was the first church service held inside these walls for nearly two decades. St. James was where Mississippi John Hurt played music and worshipped, and eventually had his funeral when he passed away in 1966. To see so many people from different races and religions come together under one roof echoes a powerful sentiment of Mary’s: through the work of the Foundation, the word “Hurt” can come to mean something other than pain.

 
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
 
Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.

Mississippi John Hurt, in his own quiet way, made an immeasurable impact on these people and many more across the globe. Mary Frances refers to music as the “panacea for all the ills of the world.” Music was Mississippi John Hurt’s refuge and his gift to others. Through the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation and the Homecoming Festival, John can--and will--continue to give this gift nearly sixty years after his passing.

The 2019 Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival will be held on Saturday October 5 and Sunday October 6 at the Mississippi John Hurt Museum. The address is 1973 CR 109 Carrollton, MS 38917. Events start at noon both days. Tickets are available at www.mississippijohnhurthomecoming.com. All proceeds go to the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation. Please check out Mississippi John Hurt Foundation on Facebook for more information.

 
Photographer Will Jacks and Willie Seaberry together at Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 
 
Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue
 
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photo by Sam Ellis.
 
Photo by Sam Ellis.​
 
Photo by Sam Ellis.
 
Photo by Sam Ellis.

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Sam Ellis

Sam Ellis

Sam is a graduate of the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he studied Fine Art. He enjoys photography, trains, and blues, in no particular order. He has been a volunteer with the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation since 2013.

Aerial Delta

Aerial Delta

Viewed from the ground, the Mississippi Delta is striking for its flatness. The fertile soil produces stunning crops organized much like the perspective drawings I practiced as a beginning artist, with lines receding to a vanishing point. That is the Delta's iconic landscape — a tree line in the background with rows of crops fading into it.

My aerial photography project goes beyond the classic Delta image.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
 
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage

My love for the aerial perspective started because of a newspaper story I wrote and photographed about mosquito abatement spraying in Cleveland, Mississippi. The pilot offered me a seat in his plane, so I eagerly went up to see how it was done. From above, the Delta became so much more complex — those flat rows of trees became thick, curving tree lines along the edges of bogues and creeks.

 
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
 
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
 
 
  

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

 
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead

My aim with this ongoing project is to show that the region's landscape is neither a simply natural landscape nor man-made — it is both at once. It has been cleared, leveled, and planted, a fact that is legible in those uniform lines of crops. From above you see the curves in those rows dictated by the subtlest slopes in the land. On the highway, you might believe that the old river swamps are all but eradicated, but from the sky you see how much water still stands. We can live on this land, we change it and we shape it — but the land itself, and its own wildness, still persists.

 
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
 
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry
Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus
A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
Take a close look at the ceiling and you’ll spy currency from around the world, as well as prophetic reminders of Willie Seaberry’s contribution to music and culture.
The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.
Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.

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Rory Doyle

Rory Doyle

Rory Doyle (USA, 1983) is a working photographer based in Cleveland, Mississippi — the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Doyle’s editorial work highlights populations in the region that are often unnoticed or underserved. Recent projects include documentation of African-American Delta cowboys, and the growing Latino population in an area most known for its black and white history.

Full-time, he is a university photographer, providing marketing imagery for Delta State University. Additionally, he works for a number of editorial and commercial clients. Doyle’s publication list includes The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, ESPN’s The Undefeated, Bitter Southerner, Getty Images, Vox Media and Financial Times.

Cast Down Thy Bucket

Cast Down Thy Bucket

Artist Statement:

There is a narrative people tell each other about Jackson. It is fearful. It is hopeless. It passes from one person to another to comfort or confirm decisions. It gently poisons the resources enough to distract from a truth about our capital city—we are all created in God’s image. We are all worth fighting for. We are all loved.

A close friend told me the story of a ship lost at sea, its water supplies run dry. After many days another ship appeared on the horizon. Signals were sent repeatedly, asking for fresh water. Again and again, the new ship responded, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Upon lowering and raising their bucket, the lost ship discovered fresh water. Though originally from Herman Melville, when I researched the story I discovered that Booker T. Washington had evoked it in his Atlanta Compromise speech, saying:

“Cast down your bucket where you are. Cast it down, making friends in every [...] way of the people of all races, by whom you are surrounded.”

This resonated with me as an important facet in changing Jackson’s narrative. Who are the people committed to seeing Jackson succeed? Who are the people watering their community roots?

It has been fifty-four years since the Freedom Riders arrived in Mississippi; thirty-eight years since schools were integrated; twenty-four years since Bryon De La Beckwith was held accountable for the assassination of Medgar Evars in 1963; thirteen years since Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of orchestrating the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in June of 1964; ten years since James Ford Seale was incarcerated for the lynchings of Henry Dee and Charles Moore in May of 1964.

Yes, there has been growth. There has been change. It is naive, though, to think that there is not work left to do. This work requires humility and investing in lives of people across the street and across the tracks. This work requires uncomfortable conversations that involve asking questions and listening to the answers. It is work that is slow and sometimes stilted but good and necessary.

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

I acknowledge that I do not have the answers. I acknowledge that I am white. And female. And middle class. Yet, I can no longer ignore the desire to ask questions, to search out answers, and to encourage all Mississippians to take pride in their capitol city by investing in Jackson’s communities and businesses and by supporting those who work for this change.

This is a call for us to cast down our bucket.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry
Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus
A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
Take a close look at the ceiling and you’ll spy currency from around the world, as well as prophetic reminders of Willie Seaberry’s contribution to music and culture.
The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.
Photographer Will Jacks and Willie Seaberry together at Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

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Ashleigh Coleman

Ashleigh Coleman

Ashleigh Coleman was born in the mountains of Virginia. She received her BA in Art History and English from the University of South Carolina. Since 2010, Ashleigh has lived in rural Mississippi where her work explores the complexities of family life, her relationship to the landscape, and what it means to have a southern identity.

Mississippi Stoke: Surfing Along the Mississippi Coast

Mississippi Stoke: Surfing Along the Mississippi Coast

You won’t see much in the way of waves along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In fact, the only place you can really catch one is off the barrier islands. But you will be hard pressed to find someone to take you the fifteen-mile boat ride out there in the kind of weather that brings waves. As a result, most Mississippi surfers turn to Dauphin Island, off the coast of Alabama, which is about an hour drive from my home in Ocean Springs. Wherever we have to go to catch a wave, Mississippi surfers get stoked when the tide calls.

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

It’s the early spring along the coast and on this day, the weather is volatile. There is a front coming to cool down the warming air. Up north, they are predicting snow and ice. Through most of the central and southern parts of the country, it’s rain, maybe some severe thunderstorms.  

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival

 

Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage

Among my friends on the Mississippi Gulf Coast something else in in the air. Phones ping with text messages. Weather cams are being surveyed. The app that watches buoy reports and weather patterns, Magic Seaweed, is being monitored. Suspense is building. Is this storm going to bring a swell?  Meaning, can we go surfing?  

 

Audio:

Romy Jacobs, Charlie Batten, and Jessie Zenor talk about surfing Dauphin Island and their favorite seasons to catch a wave. (Speakers are listed in their order of appearance in the audio). 

LENGTH: Approx. 3 minutes
DATE: Recorded by Jessie Zenor in 2017.

 

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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“The days leading up to a swell tend to induce an emotional state of limbo. Within just a few hours, the forecast can take a turn for worse or the better,” says Cameron Troutman, who has been surfing for about five years. “The day before the swell is always full of emotions but, ultimately, you just have to wake up early on the day of the swell and see what has arrived!”

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

Most of the time, especially in the summer, the Gulf of Mexico is pretty calm. But every once in awhile, the weather is just right. The wind builds up waves, pushing them to the shore, and then turns to push them tall and clean: ride-able. When this happens, the flurry of texts and phone calls to friends reaches a fever pitch. “You've really got to schedule work around it,” says Charlie Batten, who has been surfing since he was fifteen but didn’t get serious until he was twenty-four, when he became his own boss and could drop everything to chase a wave.

We load up the boards and hit the road. The ride continues with more anxious and excited phone calls. When we make it to the Dauphin Island, a bit of scouting is needed.  It is time to check the breaks—the locations where favorable waves are usually found. Since the bottom of the Gulf is made of sand, breaks migrate over time. There are several of them on the island, and unique weather makes different locations better for the day. 

 

Have Deltans finally come to recognize the origins of their particular take on tamales, albeit in kitschy, dollar-store fashion?

 

When a spot is chosen, a final text goes out to broadcast the location incase anyone else wants to join us, and then the phones are put away.  We suit up, carry the boards to the water, and start to paddle out. The goal is to paddle out past the breaks, where you sit and watch the waves roll in, waiting for a good one. When it comes, you paddle hard towards the beach, either with your hands or with a paddle, if you are on a paddleboard. If you time everything just right, you catch it and ride it out. Every wave is different. There is no predicting what you will find once you are in it.  If you are off on your timing, you wipe out and have to battle your way back past the waves, called the outside, and do it again. And again. And again. Until everything comes together and you hit the sweet spot.  “When you catch a wave, there is a flow state you enter where there is nothing else that exists outside of that moment,” says Cameron. “And once that moment is over, you just want to have another moment just like it!”

The spirit of the surfing world is one of spontaneity but also focus. You have to constantly pay attention to the fact that you are playing with Mother Nature in a very real way. You may not catch a wave. You could get seriously hurt, or even killed. But if you are smart about what you are doing—and lucky—you get to feel like my friend, Chris Stebly, who has been surfing for thirty-five years. “It makes me feel free!” he says at the end of our day on the water. “It’s heaven!”  

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Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor is co-owner of the Greenhouse on Porter, a coffee, biscuits, and beer shop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Originally from Auburn, Alabama, she moved to Mississippi after earning her degree in architecture and a year after Hurricane Katrina. For seven years, Jessie worked at MSU’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, designing low-income housing in response to the storm. While working at MSU, she picked up a few shifts at Sweet’s Lounge. Jessie is an award-winning paddle-boarder and a beginner surfer.

A Chicken Walks Into A Bar

A Chicken Walks Into A Bar

There’s a tiny old house on Porter Avenue in Ocean Springs that has a fresh coat of blue paint holding together the miss-matched siding. Around 1972, the windows were boarded up, and it became a beer joint called Bunk Terry's. (The original Bunk Terry’s opened in 1943 and was in an old gas station.) The place went through a few other name changes but, since 1987, it’s been Sweet’s Lounge. When considering all of its previous incarnations, the place is arguably the oldest watering hole in continuous operation in this small Gulf Coast town. The parking lot is littered with bottle caps. Inside, there are seven seats at the bar, a few side tables, a jukebox, and a pool table. They only serve beer, mostly domestic. Corona is the exception, along with a few regional craft brews. There’s a limited assortment of bar snacks that they’ll gladly warm up for you in the large toaster oven behind the bar: frozen pizza, egg rolls, corn dogs. The walls are adorned with vintage beer signs, a dartboard, and some artist-made lightboxes depicting scenes from the bar. There are four televisions and a Wii console that is yellowed from tobacco smoke. The clientele is a mix of young and old, mostly locals. Their occupations range from lawyers to public works employees, waiters and aldermen, retired or jobless. The owners throw birthday parties for their regulars and hold benefits to raise money for friends in need. But there’s one event that outshines all the rest.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

About four times a year, a vinyl banner appears on the exterior of Sweet’s, announcing the next Chicken Drop Contest. (This tradition is better known as a Chicken Sh*t Contest, but the beer company that provides the banner won’t print swear words.) For regulars, this is cause for anticipation, and people start buying two-dollar tickets—little paper raffle tickets—by the handful in the weeks leading up to the big day. If you wait too long, they sell out. This year, the tickets sold out in four days, so they decided to sell second batch, and those sold out in a week and a half. Each ticket is a bet and, on the day of the contest, you hope it’s your number that gets, um, called.

The Chicken Drop Contest is not really unique to Sweet's, but the scene inside this tiny bar is definitely one of a kind. They open at noon, as they do every Saturday and Sunday. But on Drop Day, the air hums with the same kind of excitement you would expect before a big football game on a college campus. The owners, Ron Blanton and Terry Franklin, along with their wives, buzz around to make sure everything is in place. With help from a few of the eager regulars who arrive right at opening time, they pull out a large sheet of plywood that has a grid of 220 squares marked on it. Kevin, a former bartender at Sweet’s, and Ron worked together to create the board a few years back. They work together to staple the tickets onto each space on the grid. This year, because of the high demand, there are two tickets per square. Once they’re ready to begin, the board will sit atop the pool table but, for now, they set it aside until it is time for the show. 

Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
 
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create

Calvin Brown, a regular at Sweet’s, arrives with the chicken—his chicken—and sets her in the shade.

Even though it is a gray and rainy Saturday, the crowd arrives early enough and most bring dishes for the potluck spread: deviled eggs, homemade barbecue, pizza, casseroles, chips and salsa—the hallmarks of a special event at Sweet’s. Folks are loud with excitement, happy to be together for this community’s version of a church picnic but with cold beer and cash prizes.

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

At 1:30 p.m., the pool game is stopped, and the balls are pushed into the pockets. A comforter is laid over the table to protect the felt, and the ticket-covered board is put into place. Calvin brings the chicken into the packed bar and sets her onto the pool table. Feed is then scattered over the board, from corner to corner, and everyone gathers around to watch and wait—and to make sure the hen doesn’t decide to make a run for it. This happened once. The hen ran right out the door, and it took half of the bar to catch her.  

The jukebox is roaring old country songs, new country songs, classic rock, and a few bouncy pop songs that everyone seems to know. Folks are rooting for the chicken, giving her words of encouragement, and begging her to “pick” their ticket. But no one knows which ticket is theirs because names are written on the underside.

  • image
    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
  • image
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
  • image
    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
  • image
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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After about an hour or so, the bar breaks out into cheers. The chicken pooped on a square! Armed with latex gloves and plenty of paper towels, Miss Amy, Ron’s wife, picks up the lucky tickets. There are two third-place winners, and each of them gets $135. The suspense builds, and now they must wait to see who will win second ($145) and then first place ($160).

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

The whole show took about two and a half hours—this time. “It all depends on the chicken,” says Ron. “We’ve had them run from forty-five minutes for all three drops to eight hours.”  

Once the chicken has finished her business, all of the winners celebrate. Those who didn’t get chicken poop on their ticket are still happy to have been a part of it all. Maybe they’ll have better luck next year.  The crowd stays well into the evening, riding the wave of excitement and enjoying the potluck supper. “It’s a big party,” says Ron. “We don’t have chicken, but we have a cook-out of some sort.”

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival

The Chicken Drop Contest has been going on for at least thirty years, maybe longer, according to the best guesses of the owners. The game is only partly about chance. Mostly, it’s about community—the community of Sweet’s Lounge. “Its all about the people, baby, you know that,” exclaims Ron. “The customers, we have a great group of people coming in here.  A lot of them have been coming in here their whole lives. Some of them drank their first beer in here.” “I played Hot Wheels here, grew up here,” recalls Raymond Bennett, a longtime customer who had his first drink at Sweet’s. “Daddy used to bring me up here. About three hours after [he] died, once I pulled myself together, I came up here and drank to his memory.”  A lot of people have similar memories associated with Sweet’s Lounge, but the Chicken Drop Contest can be a life-changing experience in itself, just ask Amy Blanton: “I came up here for the first time to see the chicken sh*t and ended up marrying Ron.”

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Sweet’s Lounge Chicken Drop Contest Dates (A Rough Estimate)

* The weekend after Memorial Day

* The weekend after Labor Day

* The last weekend of October

* Somewhere around Ron’s Birthday (January 22)

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Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor is co-owner of the Greenhouse on Porter, a coffee, biscuits, and beer shop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Originally from Auburn, Alabama, she moved to Mississippi after earning her degree in architecture and a year after Hurricane Katrina. For seven years, Jessie worked at MSU’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, designing low-income housing in response to the storm. While working at MSU, she picked up a few shifts at Sweet’s Lounge. Jessie is an award-winning paddle-boarder and a beginner surfer.

HIGHWAY MEMORIALS

HIGHWAY MEMORIALS

I first became aware of what I call “Highway Memorials” in Mexico in the early 1970s, when I left the University of Mississippi to attend the Instituto Allende, an art school in San Miguel de Allende. As a nineteen-year-old kid with little direction other than possessing a camera and having the support of my parents, Mexico was the first “foreign” place I had ever been. My mother and I flew to Mexico City where we spent a week at the grand but faded Hotel Geneve, visited Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s studios, as well as several museums. Then we took a bus to San Miguel de Allende. Our fellow passengers were the chickens that flew up from third class in the back of the bus to the first class section in front. All along the treacherous mountain road, with its hairpin turns, were quite elaborate and seemingly permanent roadside shrines to the people who had been killed on the highway. Most were enclosed, glass-fronted boxes and contained the Virgin Mary or a cross—or both—and plastic flowers, though some had fresh flowers. I also recall seeing children’s shrines that had teddy bears or toys, and I noticed drops of condensed moisture on the interior of the glass. These shrines made quite an impression on me, as we did not have anything like it in the States.

Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson

Years later, when I left New York City to return to Mississippi to reside in my old hometown of Sumner, I noticed when driving around the Mississippi Delta—and in the South in general—that roadside shrines were being erected and were uncharacteristically left in place, as they had in the past, usually been removed in a matter of weeks. Had there been some order by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) not to plow them under? I wondered about that, and though I never fully investigated why this change had occurred, the poignancy and the sheer number of roadside shrines inspired me to start photographing them. 

  • image
    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
  • image
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
  • image
    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
  • image
  • image

    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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In the Delta, one spends a lot of time on the road, so this just seemed like a natural thing to record. (I must confess, though, that getting out of my car to photograph some of these shrines almost caused my own demise.) I started calling them “Highway Memorials,” about as direct a name as there is, and over the years I amassed a large number of photographs. The images featured here are from the 1990s and early 2000s. They were taken during my Rolleiflex years, and I particularly love seeing them in the square format. Recently, I noticed that roadside memorials are not being left up as long, and there seem to be fewer permanent shrines being erected. And now I know why: MDOT began removing the memorials for “safety and maintenance reasons” beginning in 2013.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead

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Maude Schuyler CLay

Maude Schuyler CLay

Maude Schuyler Clay was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. After attending the University of Mississippi and the Memphis Academy of Arts, she assisted the photographer William Eggleston. Maude’s work is in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Museum for Women in the Arts; and the High Museum in Atlanta, among others. The University Press of Mississippi published her monograph Delta Land, in 1999, which received the Mississippi Arts and Letters Award the following year. Maude’s second book, Delta Dogs, received the same award in 2014. From 1998 to 2002, she served as the Photography Editor of the literary magazine The Oxford American. Maude’s most recent book, Mississippi History, with a foreword by Richard Ford, was published by Steidl in 2016. She continues to live and work in the Delta.

Mississippi Hamburger

Mississippi Hamburger

The name for a Northeast Mississippi hamburger changes, according to the café that is making it. At Borroum’s Drug Store in Corinth or BJ’s Corner Café in Iuka, you will hear it called a slugburger. Wally Rakestraw at Latham’s Hamburger Inn in New Albany and David Kidd at The Butcher Block in Pontotoc serve what they call doughburgers. In Booneville, inside a trailer converted into a café called Weeks Diner, they’re called hamburgers, although they used to be known as Weeksburgers. Willie Weeks says that his grandfather brought the recipe down from Chicago to Mississippi in the early twentieth century.

A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.

A Mississippi hamburger—or slugburger or doughburger or Weeksburger—contains various origin stories, and most of these stories point to the town of Corinth as the beginning of the tradition. This is likely because Borroum’s Drugstore on the town square has been frying up slugburgers just about since it opened in 1865, making it the longest continually operating pharmacy in the state. Though it cannot be confirmed whether the state’s slugburger tradition started at Borroum’s, Corinth can claim the annual Slugburger Festival, which takes place in late July and includes a slugburger-eating contest. While banners dotted around downtown depict a garden slug between two hamburger buns, it can be confirmed that the town’s famous sandwich doesn’t contain any of these slimy creatures. Rather, the name refers to the slang term for a nickel, which came into usage during the Great Depression. Back then, the burgers were sold for a nickel, thereby giving them their memorable name: slugburgers.

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

No matter what they’re called, hamburgers in North Mississippi have one thing in common: the patties are mixed with a little bit of meat and mostly filler, like soymeal, bread crumbs, flour, or potato flakes. The patties were—and still are—extended with grain so that it lasts longer, makes your money go farther, and fills your belly longer. Necessity was really the mother of the invention of this enduring local foodway.

Oh, and they’re fried. More often than not, you will find them dressed with just mustard, pickle rounds, and slices of white onion.

While the name may vary from town to town and café to café, there is a lot of cultural history that binds this Mississippi burger’s story together. Hard-working people in working-class counties consume slugburgers in small downtowns where railroads howl through daily. The hours of the establishment usually work around a typical first-shift factory schedule: open by six when the sun comes up, closed at two after a lunch rush that’s contained within a thirty-minute break from the shop. The number of textile factories and chemical plants that once made these towns boom in the middle of the twentieth century has dwindled, but this unique sandwich still sustains the people—who continue to find value and sustenance in a burger that has become an icon of Northeast Mississippi.

Janice Milligan’s story reflects the history of this working-class food tradition. Hers is a testament to the struggle and the strength of how people work hard and hold their lives and those around them together, doing everything they can to keep a roof over heads and food on the table.

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

Janice helps her son, Robert Hudson, run BJ’s Corner Café in Iuka. She was born into a farming family in 1948 in nearby Burnsville, Mississippi, the middle child of five girls. Ms. Milligan spent her early school days in split sessions, meaning that during the cotton harvest she’d work the fields when her family instead of sitting in a classroom. Janice has spent her life working: on the line in textile factories and window pane plants, welding sheet metal, and driving truck trailers from New Orleans to Detroit. She describes her work history as a testament to her late father, Thurman Braddock, who passed onto Janice a piece of advice that serves as the spine of her own work ethic. “He said, ‘Sister’—that’s what he called me—‘Sister, if you cannot cover the ground you stand on, you get the blank off of it,” Janice recalled during my interview with her. “That meant if you can't do what you’re supposed to be trying to do, let it go and find something you can do. So I was a firm believer that if I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t do it, but I could do it. I never tried nothing except one thing that I could not do and that was crochet. [Laughs].”

After a year recording oral histories about these hamburgers, I have come to believe that they are not simple products of nostalgia. Instead, they remain a constant in small Mississippi towns. When people endure both economic despair and prosperity, they don’t forget the cooks or the meals that sustained them. Or, as David Kidd of The Butcher Block in Pontotoc told me,  “A doughburger is cheaper than anything else, but I don’t believe people would buy them if they didn’t like them. There’s something about a doughburger. If it’s hot and if it’s got the mustard, pickle, and onion, it’s just something that never goes away with you.”

Today, you can still take your pick of cafés around the northeast part of the state that serve Mississippi hamburgers. Or, if you happen to be invited to someone’s home in Corinth and get a peek into their refrigerator, you might catch a glimpse of a pound of pre-mixed slugburger meat that they purchased from their neighborhood grocery store. The tradition still runs so deep that people fry their own.

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Sara Wood

Sara Wood

Sara Wood is the oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance. She documented stories of slugburgers, doughburgers, potatoburgers, and hamburgers for the SFA in the project, A Hamburger by Any Other Name.

Every Step is a Prayer

Every Step is a Prayer
 

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

 

 

 

This photo series documents the 2015 Our Lady of Guadalupe procession and celebration at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Following the procession, I spoke with St. Peter’s Cathedral Dancers, Maria Torres and her son, Enrique.

The Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle began hosting its celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1979, but this dancing tradition was incorporated into the festivities within the last decade. In the Catholic faith, the procession commemorates the 1531 apparition of the Virgin Mary to an Aztec man, Juan Diego, in present-day Mexico City. The 2015 procession and celebration took place on Sunday, December 13.

Drawing on Aztec tradition, the Cathedral Dancers employ their bodies and attire as a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their performances are full of symbolic choreography and high-energy footwork, amplified by the jingle of their beaded apparel and the chatter of ankle and wrist rattles. At the time, Maria and Enrique had been practicing and performing with the Cathedral Dancers for about four years. After relocating from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, fourteen years ago, this traditional art form enables Maria and her family to remain connected with Aztec cultural traditions. This annual procession also serves as an opportunity for members of Jackson’s Mexican and Mexican-American communities to celebrate their cultural heritage.

Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue

 

Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner

 

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry

 

The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.

 

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

 

Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
 

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Kaitlyn Berle

Kaitlyn Berle

Kaitlyn Berle is a public folklorist. An Ohio native, she currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, where she directs the Wisconsin Arts Board’s Folk & Traditional Arts Program. In 2015-2016, she documented music and dance traditions in Central Mississippi for the Arts Commission’s Bicentennial Folklife Survey. Kaitlyn earned her MA from Western Kentucky University in 2015.

NO LOITERING

NO LOITERING

There was a time when every sign was handmade. Whether the letters were shaped by brushes dipped in jars of paint, carefully bent neon tubes, or from inked wooden blocks, the sign was created by someone’s hand.  Yet as machines became better at reproducing type, your local hamburger place no longer had a painted sign with a cartoon burger, but a fade-resistant banner strung over the door. (That’s if you even still have a local hamburger place). Here in Mississippi we still have the hallmarks of a handcrafted past.  Sometimes the sign is little more than an echo of the past, peeling letters on a faded concrete block wall—a car wash over a beauty salon over a hardware store, all of which no one remembers.  Then you will round a corner and see fresh black paint, asking you to “Try Our Chitterlins,” or a smiling cartoon catfish, or an elegant silhouette next to a barber pole.  

People are still putting brush to board in Mississippi, and making beautiful art. The art is sometimes used to sell tamales or talk about religion, and a whole lot of times to remind you that there is NO LOITERING.  Perhaps since it is art meant to sell something, or yoked to the performance of a business, and certainly because it’s out in the sun and rain every day of the year, these signs disappear and appear at a dizzying pace.  I have been using the medium of instant film now for well over a decade.  Using decades old Polaroid cameras, and relying upon film that can be as ephemeral as the signs themselves, I have worked to preserve these flashes of art throughout Mississippi.

Even though some of these signs have disappeared, I hope these physical artifacts prolong the effort and care of people and times past.  Through these images of hand painted signs I can bear witness to a unique part of Mississippi.  

The following photo essay features a collection of 14 Polaroid images alongside field notes written by David McCarty.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

 

Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage

 

A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
 
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot

 

Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue

Have Deltans finally come to recognize the origins of their particular take on tamales, albeit in kitschy, dollar-store fashion?

Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry

 

Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus
A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.

 

Take a close look at the ceiling and you’ll spy currency from around the world, as well as prophetic reminders of Willie Seaberry’s contribution to music and culture.
 

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.
Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.
 

 

Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.

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Resources

Links

David McCarty - Find more work by McCarty online at TUMBLR , @gorjusjxn and McCartyPolaroids.com.

Gloria's Kitchen - soul food and southern cooking - 2430 Bailey Avenue Jackson, MS 39213
(601) 362-0009

Ashley Gates - Mississippi-born photographer living in New York City. Find more of Gates' work online at @cosmopsis and ashleygates.org.

Maude Schuyler Clay - photographer living and working in Greenwood, Mississippi. Clay has spent more than three decades documenting Mississippi and the lives of Mississippians. Follow here: The New YorkerFacebook, and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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David McCarty

David McCarty

David McCarty is an artist & lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi. Born in Alabama, his Polaroid work has been featured at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, PhotoNOLA, and Light + Glass Gallery in Jackson, Mississippi. In 2015, he co-curated the exhibition Best Before: Instant Photography by Southern Artists at the Blaylock Photography Gallery in Jackson. David is also one of the 2017 SlowExposures artists in residence through the exhibition’s annual SlowAIR program. His Polaroid diptych “Biloxi Hotel” is in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum.

David uses primarily Polaroid cameras, shooting with a Polaroid SX-70, a Sun600, a modified Model 250 Land Camera, and a Spectra. He uses Impossible and expired Polaroid and Fuji films.

Po’ Monkey’s Lounge

Po’ Monkey’s Lounge

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

 

For the last eight or so years, I spent many Thursday nights at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, a juke joint outside of Merigold, Mississippi. In the last twenty years, this iconic location became the biggest marketing piece used by the state in its quest to promote - and economize - the rich musical heritage of the region. Lauded as “the last of the rural juke joints,” Po’ Monkey’s somehow managed to keep a loyal local following while increasingly attracting tourists from around the world. Blues purists bemoaned that the marketing push undermined the juke’s authenticity, but the core crowd that had been coming since the 1960s was still very much around in 2016. I went in search of a story, but what I found was so much more. I found a home, I found friendships, and I found the most unexpected mentor. Willie Seaberry, known to most as Po’ Monkey, was one of my greatest teachers.

When I first visited Willie’s juke joint I was intrigued by its myth. I’d heard stories, and even visited once or twice in the early 90s while in college. On those early trips I wasn’t seeking to understand anything. I just wanted a beer or two. I was young, stupid, and clueless as to the significance of the place and the man that ran it. By the time I returned, years later, I mostly wanted to understand why the rest of the world had added a visit to their bucket list.

What I found was a deeper connection to my home. I reconnected with classmates from high school, most of whom I’d lost touch with despite the fact that as adults we lived only a few minutes away from one another. I realized that without the formal structure of school to bring us together, we’d allowed life to retreat us into smaller and smaller worlds. Willie Seaberry provided a new structure for our reunions, and just as I forged a bond with the classmates of my youth, so, too, did I form deep connections to those who visited the Lounge regularly.

Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson

Those are the bonds that made Po’ Monkey’s special. We came because we enjoyed each other. We came to laugh and celebrate and dance and sing together. We drank together. We ate together. On July 14, 2016 we cried together. Now we are all seeking that joyous space that closed the night Willie left us.

A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
 

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

 

Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.

In the month since Mr. Seaberry’s passing I’ve realized what it all meant, and why we were so lucky. On the Thursday following his death a celebration was held at Sky Box in Shelby. When I entered the club, the space was certainly different, but the people were the same. The following week we moved to Annie Bell’s in Clarksdale, and the week after that we gathered at The Old Time Blues Place in Marks. We talked about Mr. Seaberry. We toasted his life, and we were grateful for him bringing us all together as a family.

This was the magic of Po’ Monkey’s Lounge and why so many wanted to visit - because of the family. The place was regularly filled with tourists and first-timers, but it was always anchored by a family with Willie Seaberry as our patriarch. It wasn’t the same if that family wasn’t there. We loved him, and we loved each other, and when a room is filled with that much unconditional love, how could you not want to be a part of it?

 

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
  • image
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Photographer Will Jacks and Willie Seaberry together at Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

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Resources

Links

Find Po' Monkey's Lounge on The Mississippi Blues Trail .

Follow more of the work and photography of Will Jacks at http://whjacks.com.

Driving the Juke Joint Trail by Alex Crevar at The New York Times

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Will Jacks

Will Jacks

Mississippi native Will Jacks is a photographer, curator, storyteller, and educator of culture and relationships in the Mississippi Delta and the lower Mississippi River region. He began documenting Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in 2007. In 2018, University Press of Mississippi will publish a monograph of his work.

Delta Quinceañera

Delta Quinceañera

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

 

Latino immigration, difficult to track with concrete numbers, appears to be increasing in the university town of Cleveland and throughout the Delta. Weekly Spanish masses are now offered at the Catholic church in town, and it’s becoming more common to receive an invitation to a traditional holiday celebration. On and off over the past three years, I have been attending masses, joining the holiday ceremonies, and visiting with the community in their homes that are intentionally secluded outside city limits. While their presence may not be overly obvious to the community at large, the population is growing. 

In March of 2016, I was invited to document a quinceañera, the celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday. The event, common throughout Latin America, marks the transition from childhood to womanhood. I documented the event from the outside looking in, not interfering with the event photographer hired by the family. A mass was held in the young woman’s honor, followed by a grand dance party and a meal of tacos at the local Army National Guard Armory. 

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
 
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
 

Hundreds of attendees arrived to watch the traditional choreographed dances and enjoy the sounds of home performed by a hired Norteño band. The party went on through the late hours of the night. Documenting the Latino immigrant experience here has become increasingly important due to the changing political atmosphere, and I will continue to make efforts to connect with the community.

 

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
 
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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create

To see more work by photographer Rory Doyle, go to www.rorydoylephoto.com @rorydoylephoto

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Rory Doyle

Rory Doyle

Rory Doyle (USA, 1983) is a working photographer based in Cleveland, Mississippi — the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Doyle’s editorial work highlights populations in the region that are often unnoticed or underserved. Recent projects include documentation of African-American Delta cowboys, and the growing Latino population in an area most known for its black and white history.

Full-time, he is a university photographer, providing marketing imagery for Delta State University. Additionally, he works for a number of editorial and commercial clients. Doyle’s publication list includes The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, ESPN’s The Undefeated, Bitter Southerner, Getty Images, Vox Media and Financial Times.

Delta Hot Tamale Festival

Delta Hot Tamale Festival

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

 

For generations, the Mississippi Delta’s tamale culture was localized, and people outside of the state had no idea that a century-old culinary anomaly was thriving in a place that, one would think, shouldn’t know the first thing about this ancient Latin American foodway. But in the Delta, tamales have been around as long as anyone can remember. Even in 2005, when I set out to collect the fieldwork for the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, an online archive of oral histories and the go-to resource for historical context on the subject, and I asked vendors how or when they think tamales arrived in Mississippi, their answer was usually the same: They’ve always been here.   1   2  

And they’ve been a well-kept secret, until now.

Ten years after Larry Lee made his exclamation, Delta tamales have arrived. These unique bundles of meat and masa have found the spotlight, due in no small part to a new spin on an old event held annually in Greenville, Mississippi.  3  

Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends.

Back in 1990, a lawyer in Greenville had an idea: promote the Delta and its tamale culture by hosting a cooking competition. Frank Carlton was the mastermind behind the first-of-its-kind World Championship Hot Tamale Contest, held annually in Greenville and attracting home cooks and retail vendors, mostly from around town. For fifteen years, his contest supported tamale makers with cash prizes, inspired some healthy competition, and celebrated all things Delta and tamale. The last World Championship Hot Tamale Contest was held in 2005. Carlton was proud of what he set in motion, but the event never quite blossomed into the economic boost for his hometown that he had imagined. That, and he was simply too tired to keep it going. Frank Carlton passed away in 2009, but his vision lived on. 4

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

Valerie Lee, Anne Martin, and Betty Lynn Cameron were inspired to organize not just a cooking contest, but an entire festival devoted Delta tamales. In the spring of 2012, with their enthusiasm generating a newfound momentum, then-Mayor Chuck Jordan proclaimed Greenville as The Hot Tamale Capital of the World, and the first annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival was held later that fall. The one-day event included a parade with a festival king and queen, live music, an eating contest, the crowning of a Miss Hot Tamale, and what they dubbed “The Frank Carlton Hot Tamale Cooking Contest” in honor of their departed neighbor and tamale patron.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

Have Deltans finally come to recognize the origins of their particular take on tamales, albeit in kitschy, dollar-store fashion?

In just a few years, the Delta Hot Tamale Festival has grown into a three-day event.  Writer and Greenville native Julia Reed threw her support behind the festival by adding the Literary/Culinary Mash-Up to kick off the weekend and recruits the support of notable chefs from around the country to participate in a gourmet version of the tamale cooking contest. The event has been featured in Garden & Gun, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian Magazine. Tamale makers come from neighboring states to show off their wares. But even with all of this growth and recognition, the Delta Hot Tamale Festival is still a small-town to-do. Local Blues musicians perform, you might spot a craft vendor advertising funerary arrangements, concession stands are filled with jars of Kool-Aid pickles, and political candidates ask passersby for their support in upcoming elections. 

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
  • image
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
  • image
  • image

    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Curiously, there are now sombreros and piñatas decorating vendor booths. Have Deltans finally come to recognize the origins of their particular take on tamales, albeit in kitschy, dollar-store fashion? When I asked the sombrero-clad Raymond Scott Sr. of Scott’s Hot Tamales about this new trend, he said simply, “You got to give the people what they want.” 

At this growing festival, what local vendors want is to be noticed, to stand out from the crowd. Because in the Delta, they know tamales.

You got to give the people what they want.

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    Several times while walking the route I saw strangers catch beads that their neighbor was hoping for and the person laid the beads around their neck like a Hawaiian lei.
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    People moved over from prime spots to let late coming families fit in together. Friends were made fast and easily.
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    In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon. The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.
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Footnotes

  1. ^ Larry Lee was a tamale cart vendor for Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville, MS, in 2005. Visit his oral history interview. 
  2. ^ For more on how tamales arrived in the Delta and why they stayed, read An Introduction: Hot Tamales & The Mississippi Delta, part of the Tamale Trail and written by the author.
  3. ^  The biggest thing that sets Delta tamales apart is that they’re simmered in water, not steamed. For more on what makes Delta tamales different from traditional Latin American tamales, visit the Tamale Recipe page on the Tamale Trail.
  4. ^ Oral history interview with Frank Carlton.

Amy C. Evans

Amy C. Evans

Amy C. Evans is the Custom Editor at Mississippi Folklife. She is also an artist, writer, teacher, and documentarian based in Houston, Texas. Amy built the oral history program at the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and was the chief architect of the award-winning Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, which was published online in 2005. In 2011, marker #138 on the Mississippi Blues Trail was unveiled in front of Joe’s Hot Tamale Place in Rosedale, MS: “Hot Tamales and The Blues.” Read more about Amy under the Editors tab, and follow her @artandpie.

Gulf Coast Mardi Gras: Tammy Mercure at the 85th Pass Parade

Gulf Coast Mardi Gras: Tammy Mercure at the 85th Pass Parade

Last Carnival season we sent New Orleans photographer Tammy Mercure out into the field to document a few Mardi Gras parades on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With a little guidance from our Coastal friends, we're happy to present the second installment of her photo series, this time capturing the 85th Annual Pass Christian Mardi Gras Parade of the St. Paul Carnival Association — the "Pass Parade."

Happy Mardi Gras, Mississippi!

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

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    Several times while walking the route I saw strangers catch beads that their neighbor was hoping for and the person laid the beads around their neck like a Hawaiian lei.
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    People moved over from prime spots to let late coming families fit in together. Friends were made fast and easily.
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    In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon. The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.
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The 86th Annual Pass Parade is on Sunday, February 7th, 2016. The parade rolls at noon, starting at the corner of Davis Avenue and Second Street in Pass Christian, then proceeds to Scenic Drive, then west to Henderson Avenue, north to St. Louis Street, east to Church Street, south to Second Street, then east to Davis Avenue.

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Jennifer Joy Jameson

Jennifer Joy Jameson

Jennifer Joy Jameson is a public folklorist and cultural organizer with an interest in documenting the ways culture shapes creativity, especially in rural spaces. She directed the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the Mississippi Arts Commission from 2014 to early 2017 and now works with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts in Los Angeles. From 2015-2017, Jameson partnered with local people in McComb, MS for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s current exhibition of Loy Bowlin’s Beautiful Holy Jewel Home called ‘The Making of a Dream: Loy Bowlin + Jennifer Joy Jameson’ (2017-2019). More about the work and writing of Jameson at www. jenniferjoyjameson.net

Heartbeat from the Hills: Pat Jarrett Photographs the 65th Turner Family Picnic

Heartbeat from the Hills: Pat Jarrett Photographs the 65th Turner Family Picnic

Otha Turner farmed to make a living. Raised five girls with his wife Ada Mae in a sweet little porch-fronted house in the Gravel Springs community outside Como, Mississippi. He had been introduced to music early as it was always around him: in the fields, in the pews, on the porches. He explained that he pretty much taught himself how to make and blow a cane fife by observing, same with the guitar and drums he played.

I can’t help but use the word religion  when I describe the Turner Family Picnic. 

It’s a soft August night when I escort a couple dozen cultural workers to the Turner Family Picnic this year, which marked the 65th anniversary. The picturesque setting on the Turner farm came with a full supermoon. Pat Jarrett’s transportive photos you see here were made that weekend.

I can’t help but use the word religion (from the Latin root ligare, which means “to bind”) when I describe the Turner Family Picnic to people.  At today’s picnic, one may witness the banker standing next to the farmer standing next to the teacher standing next to the visitor from France. The annual picnic, by some combination of grit and miracle, is still hosted by the Turner family. The Turners run the entire event themselves - sisters serving goat sandwiches, great-grandbabies putting on wrist bands, grandchildren greeting visitors at the gate.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers

In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

Otha’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren now play drums and granddaughter Sharde Thomas leads the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Otha started teaching Sharde to play when she was nine. She is the most accomplished fife player in the world and one of the only ones still playing traditional African American style fife and drum which predates the blues in Mississippi.

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the Hill Country. He identified and met the community’s need to celebrate the music spilling out of the area’s greatest musicians. Moreover, Otha Turner raised his family to understand the magnitude of what really happens at a Turner Family Picnic – the connecting again that happens to everyone who attends. The chance we all have to discover ourselves again through this unique experience.

The drums are a-callin’ is what the old folk used to say. The sound of the drums still travels far in the hill country and settles in the sloughs and river bottoms where river cane still grows wild. In the Hill Country it is our religion, this Turner Family Picnic.

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    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
  • image
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
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    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
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    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

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Pat Jarrett is a photographer and editor for the Virginia Folklife Program. More of his work can be found at patjarrett.com.

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Alice Pierotti

Alice Pierotti

Alice Pierotti is the award-winning librarian at the Como Public Library which houses a collection of local Hill Country recordings, photos and memorabilia.

Gulf Coast Mardi Gras: Tammy Mercure Captures the Krewe of Nereids

Gulf Coast Mardi Gras: Tammy Mercure Captures the Krewe of Nereids

This Carnival season we sent New Orleans photographer Tammy Mercure out into the field to document a few Mardi Gras parades on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. With a little guidance from our Coastal friends, we're happy to present her photo series capturing the 48th Annual Krewe of Nereids roll in Bay St. Louis. 

Happy Mardi Gras, Mississippi!

  • image
    On a beautifully clear Sunday, the 48th annual Krewe of Nereids paraderolled down Interstate 90 starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in Waveland, Mississippi. About 20,000 people lined the road ready toparty and get some beads.
  • image
  • image
  • image
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    While there is plenty of loud, the striking thing about the parade is how much people from all walks of life were able to physically touch each other.
  • image
    The most popular group, amongst the groups like Krewe of Southern Misfits and the Krewe of Unpredictables, was the Ole Biloxi Marching Club. The men in the club, who started the hike with brightred lipstick kisses on their cheeks, handed out flowers in exchange for kisses from the crowd. Some young girls squealed with disgust andsome women shouted “me, me, me”.
  • image
  • image

    Most floats blared songs with thumping bass. Several hundred young adults bounced on truck beds chanting, cheering, and chugging. A couple with necks heavy with strands holler, “we’re getting married tomorrow!” 

    One of the royalty with the card “Madam” on the pick up truck shouts down at me, “you seen Best Little Whore House in Texas? That’s who I am!” It is rowdy and fun and the “Wild Wild West” theme is fitting.

  • image
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In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon.

The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.

  • image
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    Several times while walking the route I saw strangers catch beads that their neighbor was hoping for and the person laid the beads around their neck like a Hawaiian lei.
  • image
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    People moved over from prime spots to let late coming families fit in together. Friends were made fast and easily.
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    In Greek mythology, Nereids are sea nymphs and often seen beside Poseidon. The name is appropriate for the Gulf communities wherepeople have often come to help each other in times of distress like the goddesses of the sea did.
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Jennifer Joy Jameson

Jennifer Joy Jameson

Jennifer Joy Jameson is a public folklorist and cultural organizer with an interest in documenting the ways culture shapes creativity, especially in rural spaces. She directed the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the Mississippi Arts Commission from 2014 to early 2017 and now works with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts in Los Angeles. From 2015-2017, Jameson partnered with local people in McComb, MS for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s current exhibition of Loy Bowlin’s Beautiful Holy Jewel Home called ‘The Making of a Dream: Loy Bowlin + Jennifer Joy Jameson’ (2017-2019). More about the work and writing of Jameson at www. jenniferjoyjameson.net

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival

Chapters:

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival

On the first weekend of August every year, tourists and locals alike gather for the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, one of the longest-running festivals in Mississippi. Dozens of musicians gather on the banks of the Sunflower River for three days of music, dancing, food, and fellowship. The following images were taken on Saturday, August 8, 2009 by Mary Margaret Miller.

A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
A display of sunflower-themed artwork made by festival-goers
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
Cadallad John Nolden and Bill Abel on the acoustic stage
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create
A watercolor station was open for festival-goers to relax and create

The festival's acoustic stage is located at Third and Sunflower Streets nextdoor to Quapaw Canoe Company literally on the banks of the Sunflower River. This is a favorite stage of festival-goers not only because of the traditional acoustic blues music but also because of the ample shade in the courtyard setting. John Ruskey, proprietor of Quapaw Canoe Comapny, provides watercolor paints and paper for people to express themselves as they listen to the music. After the paintings dry, they are hung on the acoustic stage as inspiration. The duo of Bill Abel and Cadillac John Nolden is a staple of the acoustic stage featuring Nolden on vocals and harmonica and Abel on percussion and a variety of handmade guitars.

Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Pat Thomas shows off the program for the festival
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Original Pat Thomas artwork displayed on the sidewalk depicting his most recognized motif, the cathead
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Portrait of Robert Belfour outside of the Clarksdale Historic Passenger Depot
Fans with Big Jack Johnson
Fans with Big Jack Johnson

Early morning blues can be seen at the Issaquena & Blues Alley Othar Turner Acoustic Stage located inside the Clarksdale Station. On humid summer mornings, visitors retreat into this air-conditioned venue for a three-hour session featuring seven different blues groups. Following their performances, Robert Belfour, Big Jack Johnson, and Pat Thomas greeted fans and sold CDs. Pat Thomas came armed with an arsenal of cathead drawings which he sold to the crowd.

Terry
Terry "Harmonica" Bean performs his one-man show in front of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc. on Delta Avenue

In addition to seeking out performances on the organized stages, you will also run across impromptu performances in local businesses and on sidewalks. Cat Head Blues and Folk Art always has a rotation of musicians performing in front of the store.

Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Chyna, niece of Sharde Thomas and granddaughter of Otha Turner
Bill
Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry
Foster
Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie and Jimbo Mathus

The main stage on John Lee Hooker Lane at the Delta Blues Museum stays busy all day. Artists from young to old perform on this stage. Many, like young Chyna on fife, make their Clarksdale debut during this festival. Folks like Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry, on the other hand, are resident musicians in the Delta Blues Museum apprenticeship program. Both Jimbo Mathus and the late Foster "Mr. Tater" Wylie have roots in Clarksdale, making their impromptu duet lots of fun for the locals.

All photos by Mary Margaret White.

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Resources

Links

Official website of the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival: http://www.sunflowerfest.org/

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Mary Margaret White

Mary Margaret White

Mary Margaret White is based in Jackson, Mississippi, and manages the Bureau for Creative Economy and Culture at Visit Mississippi. Before that, she served as the Folk and Traditional Arts Director at the Mississippi Arts Commission, where she was instrumental in bringing Mississippi Folklife back to life as a digital publication. She has an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.