MISSISSIPPI DELTA, May 2014—What could I ever understand about growing up in the Delta, that peculiar and heavy mix of guilt, rough pride, obstinacy, sentimentality, and cynicism?
(Answer: Next to nothing)
Let me be honest about this right up front: Before I started traveling the world extensively, seeing many foreign countries and cultures very different than my own, I would never even have considered visiting Mississippi.
As a New Yorker with a drearily predictable worldview of my tribe, I took a dim view of Mississippi. Mississippi was the Deep South. It was where they shot Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider,” wasn’t it? The history was not pretty—a fact reinforced by just about every film ever set in the state. And it’s nearly the poorest performer on every metric of a state’s health: income, education, and healthcare.
But I have long since learned to find myself comfortable in as “foreign” an environment as Saudi Arabia, Liberia, or Cambodia. Why can’t I get to know and love this part of my own country?
Particularly when what we love about our country—what is undeniably great about America, its most powerful and persuasive export and gift to the world—comes from the state of Mississippi.
It changed the world like nothing else American.
Somebody else would have invented and marketed the automobile eventually. But no one would, could, or did invent the blues and rock ’n’ roll. That uniquely strange mutation could have come from nowhere else.
It’s also the home of perhaps the most uniquely awesome and uniquely American drinking institutions: juke joints.
The past, of course, like a constant accusation, hangs over everything in Mississippi. And those born and bred have gotten used to having to account for it, talk about it. Like I said, it’s a poor state, and investment in infrastructure—whether renovating your home, modernizing your restaurant dining room, redeveloping an abandoned section of town—is not much of a priority or even an option most of the time. So it looks a lot like it did in the movies you’ve seen.
That’s both curse and blessing. If you are focused on change, you will be frustrated. But if you like the good, old school shit, you will find it in Mississippi.
We sure as hell didn’t explain Mississippi in this episode.
I doubt I left the state much smarter than I entered it. It’s not a representative overview of “what you should know or see while in Mississippi.” But I hope that viewers will get a taste of a uniquely beautiful place—where some of the last of some truly great American institutions are still alive. Where you can hear the blues performed where it was born, in exactly the same surroundings, the same kind of bar, as when it all began. Where you can have an irony-free pig’s ear sandwich that will make you weep for joy.