For a long time I’ve lived uneasily with the assumption that most of the people I know who love music (and I know a lot of them) either don’t know that the state song of Mississippi is an embarrassment or just shrug it off as one of life’s ironies.
Well, it’s time for all that to change. People, let me tell you the ugliest open secret in Mississippi: the official song of our state is former Governor Ross Barnett’s campaign ditty. Let’s not get into how it happened; suffice it to say that when the legislature made “Go, Mississippi” the state song, the Old Guard was still in place, and for them Governor Barnett was symbolic of a poor, downtrodden state standing up to the might of the federal government. Still and all, Barnett was an icon for all the wrong reasons, and for us to wear his campaign doggerel on our chest is no badge of honor. The members of the Mississippi legislature are for the most part concerned with far more pressing issues than the selection of a state song. Not only that, while deciding what our state song should be seems innocuous, it’s actually fraught with potential controversy. But since this decision ultimately rests with legislators, it’s up to us as citizens to continually bring the issue to their attention.
Before we get into deciding what it should be, let me point out that our sister state Tennessee has no less than six state songs. Both Arkansas and Louisiana have two each. Some state songs you already know by heart, many you’ll know when you hear them. Our state song is obscure (for good reason) and singular, an astonishing fact in the home state of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis Presley. I mention these three because to me they represent the three main currents in Mississippi music: blues, country and rock. Oh, we can bring in any number of other artists, and we could bring in bluegrass, hip-hop, what have you. The point I’m trying to make, and it’s important, is that Mississippi takes a great, great deal of pride in her music, and for us to have this blot on our escutcheon makes us look bad. It’s a minor point; God knows we have other things to work on, but this is something we all, and I do mean all, can take pride in changing. It’s going to take time, but let’s tune up.
I began working at the Hoka in the summer of 1977. The theater opened in 1974 and was was housed in a long corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people (usually much less). The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny, spectacularly untidy office. The concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. A bare concrete floor sloped up to the ticket stand, which was nothing more than a rough-hewn pulpit with a top shelf that held a cash box and a roll of tickets. The projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with levers and foot pedals to run a seamless show. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later on we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were quite profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three spools of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projector reels. These movies were hardly ever first-run, of course. Ron showed a lot of great movies, including ones by John Waters, Russ Meyers and William Castle along with hundreds and hundreds of cinema classics. The Hoka reintroduced film as an art form to Oxford.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. When my friend and fellow projectionist Joe Cupstid and I took an impulsive road trip to the Smokies late one summer, he gave us both a hundred bucks and told us to have a good time. We did, and I’ll never forget that kindness.
A decade after the trauma of the Sixties, Oxford had become a laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the 80s was seeded in that time. Those years were halcyon days for me, as they were for many, many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.