In honor of me having achieved my goal of visiting all 50 US States, each day for the next 50 days, I will post a picture of somewhere I have visited in each state and write a paragraph or two about my experience. There is so much to see in every one of them, so I am just selecting one of my best memories.
Mississippi is one regal state. It was once called King Cotton, produced both “The King of the Blues” and “The King of Rock n Roll,” and today it is known as “King Catfish” for being the largest producer of commercial catfish in the nation. The state also sits on the banks of the Mississippi River the largest river in North America. With all these superlatives it is almost a shame to mention the shortcomings of the state. But aside from these positive traits, Mississippi also has the highest obesity rate, the lowest per capita of college and high school graduates, the highest percentage of people below the poverty line, the widest gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, and the highest unemployment.
I know it sounds like I am disparaging the Magnolia State. I hope not. There are some enchanting places to visit, and the people I have met there have been uniformly kind. I know all these woes are surmountable and I have faith the people will find a way to make the changes necessary to right the ship. They definitely have the resources they need to overcome.
One such family that overcame poverty were the Presley’s. Gladys and Vernon Presley were living in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi when on January 8, 1935, Gladys gave birth two a set of identical twin boys: Jesse Garon and Elvis Aaron. Sadly, Jesse was stillborn, and Elvis became the only child. The family was impoverished as Vernon has trouble finding work and the family lost the home when Elvis was just three. Elvis was very shy and a bit of a loner that is until he would sing. Even as a small child Elvis’ teachers and peers recognized his talent. His first ever public appearance was in October 1945 at a county fair in Tupelo where a 10-year-old Elvis dressed up in a cowboy outfit sang a country song called “Old Shep.” He placed 5th in the talent contest although many in attendance felt he should have ranked higher.
Since the family had lost their home, they had moved around with several family members who lived in town. They were able to eventually find a second home it was in the “colored shakerag” section, and the Presleys were the only, white family in the area. Several of the neighbors played blues guitar, and Elvis would often sit around listening to them play. When Elvis was 10, he got a guitar, and his neighbors would teach him chords. Elvis’ parents listened to country music o the radio and attended an Assembly of God Church where Elvis would sing in the choir. All three of these musical stylings would have a strong influence on his burgeoning talent. At 13, Elvis and his family moved to nearby Memphis, Tennessee. Where fortune awaited.
One of several statues of Tupelo’s favorite son you can find in the city.
The city of Tupelo has done an excellent job of preserving much of Elvis’ world in the 13 years he lived there. His birthplace has been restored as well as the church the Presley’s attended, and there are several excellently crafted statues of Elvis at various stages of his life. While during the Presley’s time in Mississippi the family home was just one of the many shacks on Pig Trot Trail, today the home stands alone. The city has built a very delightful park around the former home and has rebuilt the family home church close by. There’s also a museum and a state garden and walking trail. Visiting the grounds are free but visiting inside the birth home is 8.00. There isn’t much to see inside, and none of the furniture is original, but the staff person who sits inside is very knowledgeable albeit not allowing photos. If you want to get a combo ticket for the home and museum, it is 17.00.
Front and back view of the home. Vernon built the house himself for his bride Gladys. Elvis and his brother were both delivered inside. I am told the house is much more charming now than it was when the Presley’s lived here.
While Elvis Presley was “The King of Rock and Roll,” B.B. King was “The King of the Blues” both were born in dire poverty in Mississippi, and both later moved to Memphis were more fortuitous times awaited. King was born in 1925 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. Like Elvis, King was exposed to Country, Gospel, and Blues music growing up. Both moved to Memphis at a young age but unlike Presley, B.B. King considered Mississippi his home state and Indianola his hometown and although King became world famous. When he died, he was buried in Indianola, and there was a Blues Museum established in his honor.
B.B. King’s real name was Riley King. When King was first starting out, he would play clubs on Beale Street in Memphis. he had such a reputation as a guitar virtuoso that locals called him “Blues Boy” which King shortened to “B.B.”
The northwest corner of Mississippi is called the delta. It isn’t the Mississippi River delta (that’s in Louisiana) but a roughly triangular region that runs along the Mississippi River to the west, the Yazoo river to the east and Memphis at the very top. Many of the best blues musicians of all time came from here. Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Robert Johnson to name but just a few. Delta Blues was the predominant form of the genre and has an emphasis on strong guitar work especially using a slide. This influence this music had on the formation of rock and Roll cannot be understated. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton, and the Who have all claimed Blues was a significant reason they formed their bands. One of the things the museum does very well is it acknowledges B.B. King’s role in popularising the Blues but also pays tribute to the many other artists who have also contributed to the genre’s success.
King’s beloved guitar was named Lucille.
Lucille stands tall. Oh, the stories she could tell.
Rest in peace, Blues Boy. The museum is great and even if you aren’t a fan of Blues. You can get a sense of his artistry and talent. If you are a fan, stick around Indianola, and the neighboring towns always have Barbecue, Beer, and Blues on the ready. I guarantee you’ll hear some great local talent.
Vicksburg, Mississippi is set on a bluff overlooking a bend on the Mississippi River. This location became of strategic importance during the American Civil War when the city became the last Confederate Hold out on the entire river. The city was a sight of a bloody siege that lasted almost seven weeks. Eventually, Union Forces under the command of U.S. Grant took the city but not until after one of the war’s most savage battles. Today, The battlefield has become a memorial park and final resting place to the four thousand troops who died there.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has some of the finest beaches on the American side of the Gulf of Mexico. The coast has secluded beaches and popular resort towns such as Biloxi and Gulfport.
Mississippi is a survivor. It has seen wars, hurricanes, and economic difficulties, but the people are strong and have forged ahead with a strong musical heritage, and spirit of regal perseverance that will see them through.