Before the Civil War, when cotton was king and slavery remained unchallenged, MISSISSIPPI was the nation’s fifth wealthiest state. Since the conflict, it has consistently been the poorest, its dependence on cotton a handicap that leaves it victim to the vagaries of the commodities market. The state has an undeniable pull, especially for blues fans, drawn to sleepy Delta settlements such as Alligator or Yazoo City – a land of scorching sun, parched earth, flooding creeks and thickets of bone-dry evergreens. Clarksdale is heaven for music fans, with its juke joints, festivals and atmospheric accommodation. South of the Delta, the rich woodlands and meadows of central Mississippi are heralded by steep loess bluffs, home to engaging historic towns. Driving is a pleasure, especially along the unspoiled Natchez Trace Parkway – devoid of trucks, buildings and neon signs. The largest city is the capital, Jackson, but there’s little reason to stop here when you could stay in quaint river towns like Vicksburg and Natchez instead. In the north, literary Oxford has a lively college scene and should not be missed; Elvis fans should make a beeline for Tupelo and the King’s humble birthplace.
From Reconstruction onwards, Mississippi was known as the greatest bastion of segregation in the South. It witnessed some of the most notorious incidents of the civil rights era, from the lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955 to the murder of three activists during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, which exposed the intimate connections between the Ku Klux Klan and the state’s law enforcement officers. Not until the Seventies did the church bombings and murders end. The legalization of gambling in the 1990s stimulated the economy somewhat, with the hulking casinos of Biloxi and Tunica pulling considerable revenues across the state line from Tennessee and Alabama. The Gulf shoreline suffered appalling devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, however, and though most of the casinos had reopened, the coast was still undergoing reconstruction when hit by the BP oil spill in 2010.
As recently as 1900, much of the Mississippi Delta remained an impenetrable wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and bears and plagued with mosquitoes. In 1903, W.C. Handy, often rather spuriously credited as “the Father of the Blues”, but at that time the leader of a vaudeville orchestra, found himself waiting for a train in Tutwiler, fifteen miles southeast of Clarksdale. At some point in the night, a ragged black man carrying a guitar sat down next to him and began to play what Handy called “the weirdest music I had ever heard”. Using a pocketknife pressed against the guitar strings to accentuate his mournful vocal style, the man sang that he was “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”. This was the Delta blues, characterized by the interplay between words and music, with the guitar aiming to parallel and complement the singing rather than simply provide a backing.
The blues started out as young people’s music; the old folk liked the banjo, fife and drum, but the younger generation were crazy for the wild showmanship of bluesmen such as Charley Patton. Born in April 1891, Patton was the classic itinerant bluesman, moving from plantation to plantation and wife to wife, and playing Saturday-night dances with a repertoire that extended from rollicking dance pieces to documentary songs such as High Water Everywhere, about the bursting of the Mississippi levees in April 1927. Another seminal artist, the enigmatic Robert Johnson was rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for a few brief years of writing songs such as Love in Vain and Stop Breakin’ Down. His Crossroads Blues spoke of being stranded at night in the chilling emptiness of the Delta; themes carried to metaphysical extremes in Hellhound on My Trail and Me and the Devil Blues – “you may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”
Seventy miles south of Vicksburg – at the end of the pretty Natchez Trace Parkway, the old Native American path that ran from here to Nashville – the river town of NATCHEZ is the oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi River. By the time it first flew the Stars and Stripes in 1798, it had already been home to the Natchez people and their predecessors, as well as French, British and Spanish colonists. Unlike its great rival, Vicksburg, Natchez was spared significant damage during the Civil War, ensuring that its abundant Greek Revival antebellum mansions remained intact, complete with meticulous gardens. Interspersed among them are countless simpler but similarly attractive white clapboard homes, set along broad leafy avenues of majestic oaks, making Natchez one of the prettiest towns in the South. Horse and carriagetours explore downtown, while a number of individual mansions are open for tours.
Though Natchez proper perches well above the river, a small stretch of riverfront at the foot of the bluff constitutes Natchez Under-the-Hill. Once known as the “Sodom of the Mississippi”, it now houses a handful of bars and restaurants, plus the 24-hour Isle of Capri riverboat casino.
Natchez’s history of slavery is chronicled with a rather pitiful display at the Forks of the Road monument, a mile east of downtown on Liberty Road at St Catherine, on the site of the second largest slave market in the South.
Nineteen thousand residents and 20,000 students enable OXFORD, an enclave of wealth in a predominantly poor region, to blend rural charm with a vibrant cultural life. Its central square is archetypal smalltown America, but the leafy streets have a vaguely European air – the town named itself after the English city as part of its (successful) campaign to persuade the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, to locate its main campus here.
East of the university, in town, life revolves around the central square. Here you’ll find Neilson’s, the oldest department store in the south – little changed since 1897. You can pick up a cool pair of heels in one of the boutiques, have a quick lunch or join students sipping espresso on the peaceful balcony of the splendid Square Books.
The historic port of VICKSBURG straddles a high bluff on a bend in the Mississippi, 44 miles west of Jackson. During the Civil War, its domination of the river halted Union shipping and led Abraham Lincoln to call Vicksburg the “key to the Confederacy”. It was a crucial target for General Ulysses S. Grant, who eventually landed to the south in the spring of 1863, circled inland and attacked from the east. After a 47-day siege, the outnumbered Confederates surrendered on the Fourth of July – a holiday Vicksburg declined to celebrate for the next 81 years – and Lincoln was able to rejoice that “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea”.
As the Mississippi has changed course since the 1860s, it’s now the slender, canalized Yazoo River rather than the broad Mississippi that flows alongside the battlefield and most of downtown Vicksburg. The core of the city, a bare but attractive place of precipitous streets, steep terraces and wooded ravines, has changed little, however, despite the arrival of permanently moored riverfront casinos. Downtown, especially Washington Street, is being restored to its original late-Victorian appearance, though most of its finest buildings were destroyed during the siege.