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.

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

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.  

Attendees arrive from across the Delta and beyond to enjoy the dinner and a night of dancing, drinking and music.

 

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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“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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.

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. 

 

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.

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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).

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

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.”

Attendees arrive from across the Delta and beyond to enjoy the dinner and a night of dancing, drinking and music.

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.

The first adults take to the dance floor, thus begin a long night of dancing and fellowship

A member of the Court of Honor waits for the formal dance to begin.

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. 

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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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.

(L) Family, friends and the Court of Honor Arrive at the Army National Guard Armory in Cleveland. (R) Also traditional in some regions is the ceremony of the last doll, which is donned in a dress similar to the Quinceañera. The doll is presented to her by her father.

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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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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.

The walls are covered in old photographs, many of them polaroids of Willie’s closest friends and family.

 

The entrance to the restrooms feature the largest toy monkeys in the building.

 

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The walls are adorned with the gifts, photos, notes, and posters from the many visitors from around the world.

 

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.

 

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

 

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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.

 

 

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

Attendees arrive from across the Delta and beyond to enjoy the dinner and a night of dancing, drinking and music.
 

(L) Family, friends and the Court of Honor Arrive at the Army National Guard Armory in Cleveland. (R) Also traditional in some regions is the ceremony of the last doll, which is donned in a dress similar to the Quinceañera. The doll is presented to her by her father.

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 first adults take to the dance floor, thus begin a long night of dancing and fellowship

 

A member of the Court of Honor waits for the formal dance to begin.

The walls are covered in old photographs, many of them polaroids of Willie’s closest friends and family.

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

The entrance to the restrooms feature the largest toy monkeys in the building.
The walls are adorned with the gifts, photos, notes, and posters from the many visitors from around the world.

 

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, directed by Dr. Luther Brown with the help of Dr. Henry Outlaw, recognized the importance of Willie Seaberry and in 2003 formally recognized him for his contributions to culture and tourism in Mississippi.
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

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

 

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.

A member of the Court of Honor waits for the formal dance to begin.

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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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

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

 

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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.
 

(L) Family, friends and the Court of Honor Arrive at the Army National Guard Armory in Cleveland. (R) Also traditional in some regions is the ceremony of the last doll, which is donned in a dress similar to the Quinceañera. The doll is presented to her by her father.

 

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. 

A member of the Court of Honor waits for the formal dance to begin.

The first adults take to the dance floor, thus begin a long night of dancing and fellowship

 
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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

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

 

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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.

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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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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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.

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.

Retired teacher, local historian and storykeeper Julius Harris is a mouthpiece for Panola county arts and culture.

Otha Turner was a fine musician but Turner’s genius was his ability to understand the importance of music picnics to the hill country.

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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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.