These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, they became mammoths.
These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.
According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.”
Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”
“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains.
The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later.
What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.
McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.
Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”
However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.
According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.”
Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”
But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained.
“At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”
After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.”
Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”
“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “
“She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make $10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”
But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.”
After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”
The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues.”
“All of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”
In the summer of 1988, V.S. Naipaul visited Jackson during a tour of the American South that resulted in his travelogue A Turn in the South, which was published the following February. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, had by that time achieved international recognition with novels such as The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas, and had also become an important observer of post-colonial politics and societies in works such as The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness and Among the Believers.
It was in this vein, that of a writer exploring an exotic culture, that Naipaul visited the South, ostensibly to compare it to his own Trinidadian background. Though the issue of race was an obvious area of interest, the importance of race as a subject seems to move farther to the background as the work progresses, and Naipaul finds himself increasingly preoccupied with describing the culture of the South, including country-western music, strict Christianity, Elvis Presley and rednecks.
This shift of focus seems to take place largely in the section on Mississippi. Entitled “The Frontier, the Heartland”, his visit to the state is for the most part restricted to Jackson, though he does visit a cemetery in Canton, a catfish processing plant in Belzoni, the Presley home in Tupelo and a retired Supreme Court justice in (of all places) Eupora.
While in Jackson, he talked with many people—including Eudora Welty and William Winter—yet he seems most captivated with a character he calls Campbell, from whom he received a description of rednecks that fascinated and entranced Naipaul to the extent that he seems to become obsessed (he describes it as “a new craze”) with rednecks not merely as a group or class of people, but as almost a separate species; at one point, when someone tells him that “There are three of your rednecks fishing in the pond,” he “hurried to see them, as I might have hurried to see an unusual bird . . .” Naipaul’s obsession with working-class whites began with the interview I reproduce here in part because its several pages long for the benefit of those such as myself who are interested in how class distinctions work in our professedly democratic society. Naipaul writes:
I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was. Someone intolerant and uneducated—that was what the word suggested. And it fitted in with what I had been told in New York: the some motoring organizations gave their members maps of safe routes through the South, to steer them away from areas infested with rednecks. Then I also became aware that the word had been turned by some middle-class people into a romantic word; and that in this extension it stood for the unintellectual, physical, virile man, someone who (for instance) wouldn’t mind saying “shit” in company.
It wasn’t until I met Campbell that I was given a full and beautiful and lyrical account, an account that ran it all together, by a man who half looked down on and half loved the redneck, and who, when he began to speak of redneck pleasures, was moved to confess that he was half a redneck himself. It wasn’t for his redneck side, strictly speaking, that I had been introduced to Campbell. I had been told that he was the new kind of Young conservative, with strong views on race and welfare . . . Campbell was also the man who represented the other side of the religious South: the authoritarian side. And it was of family and values and authority that we spoke, all quite predictably, until it occurred to be to ask, “Campbell, what do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?” And—as though it had been prepared—a great Theophastan “character,” something almost in the style of the seventeenth-century character-writers, poured out of Campbell. It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan low-life writing, or John Earle’s Microcosmography (sic), or something from Sir Thomas Overbury . . .
Campbell said, “A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he is not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He is going to live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, and he’s going to smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and drink about ten cans of beer at night, and he’s going to be mad as hell if he doesn’t have some cornbread and peas and fried okra and some fried pork chops to eat—I’ve never seen one of those sons of bitches yet who doesn’t like fried pork chops. And he’ll be late on his trailer payment. He’s been raised that way. His father was just like him. And the son of a bitch loves country music. They love to hunt and fish. They go out all night to the Pearl River. They put out a trotline—a long line running across the river, hooks on it every four or five feet. They bait them with damn old crawfish, and that line’ll sink to the bottom, and they’ll go to the bank and shit and drink all night long, and they’ll get a big fire going. They’ll check it two or three times in the night, to see if they’re getting a catfish. It’ll be good catfish. Those redneck sons of bitches they they’ll rather have one of those river catfish than one of those pond catfish. They’ll say it’s got a better taste.
Religion? They’ll go to church when the wife beats the hell out of him. But he’s not going to put on a coat and tie or anything. He won’t do it. He’ll kick her ass.They’re not too sexual. They’d rather drink a bunch of old beer. And hang around with other males and go hunting, fishing. We’re talking about the good old rednecks now. Not the upscale ones. They’ve got the dick still hard. That’s damn true. If they’re young they got it hard, but the older they get they drink more, and then they don’t care about it any more. And she’s just there, getting some clothes washed down in the Laundromat once a week. Sit down and watch it and smoke some cigarettes—that’s right, that’s what she will do.
I’ll tell you. My son ain’t gonna fool with a redneck girl in Rankin County. Can’t hide it. Everybody knows everybody else. They talk different. And I want my children to stay in their social strata, and that’s where they’ll stay. I would say, ‘Keith,, you weren’t brought up like that. You get your ass out of that. You’re way above that, and we’re going to stay way above that.’ But Keith’s all right. He wants to dress nice; he wants to look good; he wants to make money. We run in the Northeast Jackson crowd. That’s supposed to be upscale.”
As DA of Lafayette County in October, 1962, my father refused to sign a subpoena on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace.”
He loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.
Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something.
Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
Soon after that, Charley made headlines as the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.
Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley.
It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.
Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans
8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained
Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat.
Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side ( Pelican Publishing, February 19, 2016) is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.
T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Professor Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then, and his descriptions of the badlands of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphian stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo.
What compels great writers to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.
In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:
‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.
Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’
But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well, and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.
The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought. The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”
On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.
Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.
The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.
Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.
As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and never that easy.
To have Angelo Mistilis teach you how to cook onions is on the level of having Yo-Yo Ma show you how to tune a bull fiddle. Angelo has without doubt cooked more onions than anyone in the state of Mississippi on that seasoned grill in his restaurant on College Hill Road in Lafayette County and served them up to generations of Oxonians, Ole Miss students and assorted riff-raff on his legendary hamburger steaks. Thanks Lisa for sharing this gem.
This old egg-and-bread dish goes by many names. At my childhood table, it was known as eggs-in-a-basket. Later I found it was hens-in-a-nest, toad-in-the-hole by Brits, and one version simply called egg toast. But when I published a recipe for eggs-in-a-basket some time ago, the actress Susan McPhail pointed out that, “Tennessee Williams calls them ‘Eggs Birmingham’ in Baby Doll.”
Well, I’ll be damned (I thought). You’d think growing up less than 200 miles from Birmingham (Alabama), I’d know of eggs Birmingham; moreover, you’d think a Southern food writer with a degree in literature would have found this blip on my radar decades ago. But no. Fortunately, I happen to know a lot of people—like Susan—who are smarter than I am, which is bruising to my self-esteem, but provides me with some assurance of being well-informed, or at least the comforting illusion thereof.
Baby Doll (1956), produced and directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, was shot on location at the Burrus House near Benoit, Mississippi, which at that time was in a state of considerable decay. Williams wrote the script, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Kazan claimed in his autobiography that Williams was only “half-heartedly” involved in the screenplay), drawing from his previous works 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a 1946 one-act play that Williams referred to as “a Mississippi Delta comedy, and The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, a moving short drama about the turning out of an old servant, published in 1946 along with 4 other one-act plays in American Blues: Five Short Plays.
In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Jake, a middle-aged, shady cotton gin owner with antiquated equipment burns down the mill of the Syndicate Plantation, a rival in the cotton business where Silva Vicarro serves as Superintendent. Vicarro, who knows what happened but cannot prove it, gets revenge by raping Jake’s young and voluptuous but childlike and naïve wife Flora.
The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, depicts the story of Archie Lee and his Baby Doll Meighan (parallels of Jake and Flora in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton) who are reluctantly providing a home to Aunt Rose, an elderly relation who has been passed around among the family to house. An “unsatisfactory supper” cooked by Aunt Rose, who neglected to light the burner under the greens she’d put on the stove earlier. She offers to make eggs Birmingham to appease him.
ARCHIE LEE. What is eggs Birmingham?
AUNT ROSE. Why, eggs Birmingham was Baby Doll’s daddy’s pet dish.
ARCHIE LEE. That don’t answer my question.
AUNT ROSE. (As though confiding a secret.) I’ll tell you how to pre- pare them.
ARCHIE LEE. I don’t care how you prepare them, I just want to know what they are.
AUNT ROSE. (Reasonably.) Well, Son, I can’t say what they are without telling how to prepare them. You cut some bread-slices and take the centers out of them. You put the bread-slices in a skillet with butter. Then into each cut-out center you drop one egg and on top of the eggs you put the cut-out centers.
. . .
ARCHIE LEE. (Roughly, his back still turned.) I don’t want Eggs Bir- mingham.
BABY DOLL. He don’t want Eggs Birmingham and neither do I. But while we are talking, Aunt Rose-well-Archie Lee’s wondered and I’ve been wondering, too. . .
AUNT ROSE. About what, Baby Doll?
BABY DOLL. Well, as to whether or not you’ve—made any plans.
AUNT ROSE. Plans?
BABY DOLL. Yes, plans.
AUNT ROSE. What kind of plans, Baby Doll?
BABY DOLL. Why, plans for the future, Aunt Rose.
Rose, in despair, with characteristically Williamsian pathos, rushes to the yard to gather roses in an approaching storm: The blue dusk deepens to purpleand purple to black and the roar comes on with the force of a locomotive as AUNT ROSE’S figure is pushed toward the rose-bush.
In Baby Doll, “Aunt Rose Comfort” offers to make Archie Lee (Karl Malden) “my Eggs Birmingham” when he rejects her undercooked greens. Vaccaro (Wallach) offers to hire her to cook for him in her home and make eggs Birmingham for him there, a much more humane fate for Rose, but a move designed to needle Archie Lee, who asks, “Anything else around here you wanta take with yuh, Vacarro?” insinuating Baby Doll herself.
This heartfelt essay is the introduction to The Yazoo River by Frank E. Smith, the forty-seventh volume in The Rivers of America, a landmark series of books for the most part written by literary figures. The series spanned three publishers and thirty-seven years, starting in 1937 and ending in 1974 with the sixty-fourth volume.
At the time The Yazoo River was published, Smith, was a U.S. Congressman from the Delta region. Rep. Smith’s congressional career ended when redistricting forced him into a contest with fellow Democrat Jamie Whitten in the 1962 primary.
“It was Smith’s refusal to ‘race it up’ in his 1962 campaign that paved his way to defeat,” reporter Robert E. Baker later wrote in The Washington Post. Bowing to political reality, Smith knew “he could not participate in the vital field of human relations as a legislator,” Baker wrote in a 1964 review of Rep. Smith’s memoir, Congressman from Mississippi.”
“I had a problem,” Smith said, “but it did not reach momentous proportions until internationalism in any form became synonymous in Mississippi with socialism, communism, one-worldism, or (worst of all) integration.” Smith noted that “it was hard to find language that would satisfy my constituents and still not stir up hate.”
His perspective on the Yazoo Delta Region, where he concentrated on the special problems of conservation and development of natural resources, is that of a native son. Smith was born in Sidon, Miss. After attending public schools there and in Greenwood, Miss., he graduated from what was then Sunflower Junior College, in Moorhead, Miss. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1941 from the University of Mississippi, where he studied history. He went into the Army as a private a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. He became a field artillery officer in Europe.
After the war, he was editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, and in the late 1940s, he served as legislative assistant to Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.). After holding a state senate seat from 1948 to 1950, he was elected to Congress in 1950. His district encompassed the Delta, from just north of Vicksburg almost to the border with Tennessee.
Smith’s Yazoo (1954 )was preceded by Hodding Carter’s The Lower Mississippi in 1942. Smith dedicated his work
“In Memory of my Brother Fred Cecil Smith
Who loved the Yazoo country
and died defending it
at Guadalcanal/Nov. 19, 1942.”
The first tributaries of the Yazoo rise where the Tennessee hills meet the Delta of Mississippi, and eventually they drain all of the western half of the state down to Vicksburg.
The actual Yazoo watershed includes a few miles in Tennessee, southeast of Memphis, but the river and its basin belong only to Mississippi. The Yazoo carries the waters of the Coldwater, the Tallahatchie, the Yalobusha, the Yocona, the Skuna, the Sunflower, the Quiver, and other sizable streams like Steele’s Bayou, Bogue Phalia, and Deer Creek, which somehow missed the dignity of being called a river. In late summer, before rains, they are clear, pale-green ribbons among the willows. In the winters and springs they are ever-widening seas of yellow mud, taking to the Gulf the wealth of the land they drain.
With its satellite streams, the Yazoo is one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi, outranked only by the Ohio among the streams which flow from the east into the Father of Waters. With the extreme limit of its watershed barely touching Tennessee, the Yazoo is entirely within the state of Mississippi, not even forming part of a state boundary line. Although confined to the northwest quarter of one state, the story of the Yazoo is, more than anything else, the story of the Deep South, a region that was an American frontier for one hundred and fifty years. The story of the Yazoo country is the story of the role of cotton and high water and their influence on American life.
Memphis, on the Mississippi, is the metropolis of the Yazoo country today and a likely starting point for any traveler who wants to go south to visit the area, but the Yazoo wilder- ness had a world-wide fame long before Memphis was even a flatboat landing. Today the Yazoo is still an agricultural region, with no towns of any size. Vicksburg, on the Mississippi at the mouth of the Yazoo, is the largest and best known. But the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, richest and broadest of all the Mississippi Valley bottom lands, is America’s most fabled fertile farmland, the last stronghold of King Cotton and the Southern plantation.
The river’s basic stream begins with the Coldwater, which becomes a respectable river long before it meets the Tallahatchie 220 miles down in the Delta. The Tallahatchie has already curved 190 miles through the hills as the “Little Tallahatchie” and is big enough to dominate at the merger and give its name to the new stream. The Tallahatchie moves south 111 miles through Delta land before it is joined by the Yalobusha, fresh from 165 miles in the upland hills. Together they become the official Yazoo, with 189 more miles to go before joining the mother Mississippi at Vicksburg. The 520 miles of the Coldwater-Tallahatchie-Yazoo make it one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi. For the purposes of this book, I have included all the streams of the Yazoo system, for they are all part of the same story of the cotton country of Mississippi.
The most accepted geological theory is that the Yazoo was once the Ohio. The wide, sweeping scars which have been left on the Delta land in the form of crescent lakes and bayous are too broad and big to have been cut by the Yazoo itself. The Mississippi is known to have been still in place to the west at the time these scars were in the making, and so geologists are convinced that once the Ohio came down the path of the Yazoo, before erupting earth changed its route from south to west and established the Tennessee River as another part of its old channel.
Our story will not be of that geological mystery, but of the people whose lives were influenced and fashioned by the Yazoo and those who today are attempting to better their way of life by refashioning the Yazoo itself. Of necessity the story has to be about cotton, for the fleecy staple has dominated all the history of the white man on the Yazoo, who so often has come to believe it a kind of white gold.
The bluffs and rolling hills of the upper Yazoo country were the great prizes to be wrested from the Choctaws and Chickasaws in the years immediately after Mississippi became a state. This was the frontier of cotton during the famous flush times of the Southwest. The planters of the region where cotton was so vigorously ruling were chief among the Secessionists in 1860, eager to preserve the system which had opened up new land for them, and which annually brought forth a heavy harvest from the fertile acres.
Postponement of the conflict for a few years might have greatly dampened their enthusiasm for the plantation system and slavery. The topsoil was thin throughout the upper Yazoo basin, and it began to wash away into poverty just as soon as farming returned to its peak after the failure of the War for Southern Independence. The evils of the cash-crop economy which the tyrant of the new plantation credit system soon shackled on the land were a major contributing factor to the rapid erosion of the land, but the decline in fertility was inevitable from the start.
Only the Delta land, the major portion of the Yazoo basin, was rich enough to sustain the new cotton system for a long period of time. Before the war the flat Delta country, which had fed to a richness surpassing the Nile Valley on the regularly overflowing rivers, was known as the Wilderness. Bold men willing to push out from the steamboat landings found it a morass of forest and swamp and cypress brake, seemingly all of it under water half the time. Pioneer settlement of both planters and squatters began even before the land was ceded by the Indians, but the Delta was still a frontier for years after the Civil War. This was the time for a new type of pioneer, one who could get the most results from the black laborers who were now free men and thus establish the last stronghold of the feudal plantation system, which did not change materially until it felt the impact of the economic revolution which got underway in the 1930’s.
The people of the Delta define their region as the Yazoo Delta, to differentiate it from the technical delta of the Mississippi south of New Orleans, and they have made the story of the Delta the principal part of the story of the Yazoo. Rich land makes the Delta richer, if the richness has only been by comparison with the poverty-stricken hill cotton country of Mississippi. The symbol of the richness has been Delta cot- ton, which traditionally commands a premium of at least two cents per pound because of its long staple quality. The Delta pattern of life for all of its people, black and white, has been richer in the same comparison, both for those who lived it and those who watched it.
Even though one or two small factories are now found in nearly all the towns of the basin with as much as two or three thousand population, cotton is still the dominant factor in the economy. There is an oil refinery on the banks of the river south of Yazoo City, near the site of the Confederate shipyard, but petroleum development has touched only a portion of the Yazoo country largely outside of the Yazoo watershed. Traditional Southern cotton production is shifting to California and the Southwest, but the Yazoo Delta will likely stay with cotton for a long time still to come.
The Delta is all sky and level lands that never fall beyond the horizon in any direction, for the high riding clouds are tumbled down behind the bayou cypress. No trees are in the cotton that shimmers white through the brown foliage in the September sun, but every field is broken by the lines of willows and cypress that follow a bayou. Delta sunsets bring the whole land into a blaze that gives the brownish light of fire to every object until the grayness of dusk moves in.
There are no theatrical Southern “mammies” here, dressed in store-bought bandannas and gingham for the benefit of tourists. The Delta has not attempted to sell the romance of cotton and the plantation instead of the staple itself. By the same token, the Delta has never known much of the provincialism of other portions of the rural South; the hard lessons of experience have taught Deltans never to let the struggle for livelihood interfere with the enjoyment of life.
In common with most of the rest of the South, the Delta makes a food specialty of barbecue and Brunswick stew, but nowhere else does every segment of the population share in the common institution of the fish fry. Game fish of considerable variety inhabit more than one hundred lakes left like scars on the land by the meandering rivers of other days, but the big cats from the Yazoo itself are standard fare for the best fish fry. True Delta catfish in its most delectable form is prepared by rolling large slices of the fish in meal and salt and frying it in hot pork grease. The very ease of preparation is deceptive, for only a true fish artist can know just the right sizzle for the grease and just the right golden tone that announces the finely done fish.
In the midst of the mechanized farms and the new commerce and industry of the towns, there is still enough left of the hurried combination of frontier and plantation eras to provide a distinctive flavor of both. Little more than a hundred years ago the Delta was a deep forest, with water oak, cypress, sweet gum, and pecan trees blending with walnut, maple, and cottonwood to hide the sun from the virtually impenetrable cane and brush. The Yazoo rose every year to spread a lake over the land, with a new film of rich topsoil left behind for the reservoir of fertility. In the summer and fall it had all the beauty of a placid lake. In 1821, while painting a great-footed hawk which he killed on the river, Audubon described “a beautiful stream of transparent water, covered by thousands of geese and ducks and filled with fish.”
With all the wealth and the lost beauty, the name in Choctaw means “River of Death.” The Indians supposedly gave it the name when they died by thousands from the unknown maladies probably left behind by the soldiers of Hernando De Soto. The death struggle of the Indians was continued by the white settlers who faced the same deadly scourges. The disease of malaria was eventually conquered, but not until the river itself, in combination with the cotton culture, was on the verge of destroying the new civilization in its basin through flood and erosion of both land and people. The people have fought back, however, and they are confident now that the Yazoo will never be death to them.