Richard Pryor once said in a stand-up performance that no one goes to Mississippi on vacation. “Who in their right mind would say, Let’s go to Biloxi!” Well, Mr. Pryor, I haven’t been to Biloxi, but I do go to Mississippi on vacation. So I guess I’m out of my mind.
I first went to Mississippi in 2005. What brought me there was the blues. I discovered the blues in my teen-age years through Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin and I always wanted to know where that music came from.
Since my first visit in 2005, I have been back to Mississippi four times. Mississippi is a fascinating place in so many ways.
Here are five reasons why Mississippi is such a special place and why you should go there.
1 The American Spirit
During the first half of the 20th century, the State of Mississippi was one of the richest in the union. By the end of that same century, it was one of the poorest. King Cotton had passed away and his kingdom had crumbled.
When I first visited Clarksdale, MS, in 2005, the town was like a ghost town. There was little activity going on and if you wanted to have a meal after five o’clock in the afternoon you had to go somewhere else. There were a number of people working to get the town to come alive again – The Delta Blues Museum, Cat Head, Ground Zero – but overall it was slow.
Cotton, Tunica, MS
Photo: EH Kern
On my visit last year, signs of revival could be seen all over Clarksdale. The early pioneers had been joined by others. Musicians, artists, writers, restaurants and cafés. Locals shaping their own destiny and people moving in from out of state. And tourists.
Clarksdale is not alone in this. Just north of Clarksdale is Tunica. Tunica was at one time the richest county in the United States, only to plummet to being the poorest. Today, Tunica is on the rise, too. Casinos have brought in money and Tunica is the third largest area for gambling after Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Median wages have risen and Hwy 61 is now a four-lane highway. And there are tourists.
The examples of Clarksdale and Tunica are examples of the American Spirit. No matter what hits you, you keep on fighting. It’s not a matter of how you fall. It’s how you get up.
2 The American History
Mississippi is what you could call a nexus. Here many of the threads and developments that shape the way America looks at itself and relates to itself come together. Mississippi was the scene of some of the most brutal fighting during the Civil War. Mississippi had some of the harshest Jim Crow-laws. Mississippi had some of the most violent Civil Rights-clashes.
If you want to know what makes the United States the United States, you will find the answer in Mississippi.
3 The American Storyteller
No one tells a story like a person from Mississippi. And they do it so well that you don’t mind having your whole day interrupted just so you can listen.
In Mississippi you will hear stories that involve William Faulkner, whiskey bottles and shotguns.
A blues musician and Vietnam veteran named Switch Blade will tell you the meaning of life.
A woman will preach love and compassion through Christ when you come looking for Pinetop Perkins.
And if you hang around long enough, you will be part of the story. That’s how I ended up participating in the recording of a blues album at a juke joint.
4 The American Music
To me one of the most important contributions of the United States to the world is music. It was music that originated in Mississippi that helped tear down the Iron Curtain.
There are a number of music genres that are indigenous to the United States. Of these genres the blues, country and rock and roll come from Mississippi. All of them stem from the musical expression of the African-American population.
Po Monkey’s . In front of the building is a Blues Marker. Markers of this kind are placed by the State of Mississippi at locations important to the history and development of the blues.
Photo: EH Kern
Can you imagine a world without blues, country and rock and roll? I can’t.
If you go to Mississippi you will find their origins and you will find how people play them today. Sometimes by blowing three trumpets at one time. Sometimes by playing the harmonica through your nostril. Sometimes by just grabbing your snare drum and sit in with whatever band happens to be playing.
Furthermore, the State of Mississippi is the birth place of Oprah Winfrey, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, William Faulkner, BB King, Robert Johnson, Tennessee Williams, Jim Henson (and consequently Kermit the Frog), and many many more.
5 Moving Forward
Mississippi is a fascinating place. It has a controversial history and many things are waiting to be corrected. There is still segregation in Mississippi. Not racial segregation, but economic segregation that often run along the same lines. There is poverty and limited opportunities for young people, most often African-American. However, since I went to Mississippi for the first time in 2005 much has changed. And for the better.
Just the fact that the state slogan now reads The Birthplace of America’s Music says a lot.
If you want ideas as to where to go when you visit Mississippi, Book Riot can tell you what to do in Oxford, MS.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Mississippi Quick Facts