‘Daance with mi Jee-sus’
sang the woman jogging past. She carried herself head pushed back, perhaps thought of herself as a Southern-belle, with full make up and running gear, complete with matching visor…Jogging past she moved in swift sashays – not running, but brisker than a walk – and her pink headphones made it appear as though she were listening to the song she had just sung. But she only sung one line, quite loud, stretching in deep South drawl across the Mississippi bank, jumping a little up the hill of antebellum and abandoned homes towards the town centre. She sung it as she passed us. It felt like an alarm.
Long day driving. From New Orleans through Natchez. Ever changing highway – stretches of billboards and burger bars fall away into rolling cattle fields and the odd trailers – bugs suicidally explode on the windshield. I see things dead on the road I’ve never seen alive. Possums, skunks, raccoons, an eagle…all pulled enough across the road to be seen as a whole from the window of a car going 70mph.
We’re staying in adjacent to an antebellum home originally owned by a plantation owner – these places dot around Vicksburg and Natchez, now guesthouses and open for tours, and the state pride in these homes is – now owned by two elder southern men. We meet one of them signing in. He is unctuous, his sentiments draw out with his vowels, and, in a voice created in this slow humid heat, tells us the whys and wheres of rooms and breakfast (to be followed by a tour). He is Southern hospitality, but also kind. Nerves that changed in me around Natchez might be affecting my judgment, as I’m unnerved by his syrupy politeness.
I’m sleeping under draped, fringed, heavy, cloth, in a four-poster.
Each room has a four-poster. The rest of the room is tasteful; fitting portraits and landscapes hang by leather bound book and a dark wooden desk. The deep greens of the bed, dark wood, and deep clotted red carpet, pull in all the sun. The room is far cooler than in New Orleans. The air conditioning freezes my bones, so I turn it off.
The main street is oppressively hot. Pushing down on your shoulders as you walk past a half hearted music shop, with a couple ukuleles’, a ‘pre-loved’/thift store, a few sports bars and surf and turf places. Mainly, so empty.
‘Daa-nce with me Jee-sus’
Light, elevator, jazz tinkles along the street. I crane around for its source. Where are all the buskers? After the feast of brass and string and song that was walking around Frenchman, New Orleans, that morning, Vicksburg felt hollow. The music echoed. Recorded. Edging near the lamp post, or at least near its surrounding manicured half-meter garden, it got louder. Walking further down, past no one, past blue signs telling how old a house was, where the biggest confederates lived, who owned the most; there was one for an old concert hall. Muddy Waters had played there, and BB King.
The owner was pictured with several blues legends. He was a successor of his wealthy fathers estate – so far, so southern – and he had put it into the concert venue. His mother had been his father’s slave, a single tentatively put sentence whispered on the plaque. He’d made somewhere, for all that Southern blues that was picking up, in Vicksburg. The end of the plague was disappointing. He’d moved the joint to Chicago – no explanation given – and it had been across the road. Looking across the road, there is now a fat concrete car park.
It was empty.
The chic chic chic may be the fan click, of the squeak of cicadas. My skin feels cold but they press my head in heat. The lampposts play a slow waltz. The highway signs say Welcome to the heart of Blues Country. The billboards advertise Texan-Brazilian steakhouses, car plans that’ll ‘beat your bank’, and the shifty smiling faces of estate agents and accident lawyers. It air pushes you down. Humid, dragging heat – sharp contrast to the buzzing electric warm of back where we’d come from – this weather wanted to pull you into the Mississippi with concrete boots on. Then boil you alive.
Burning. Roasting meat? Some carcinogenic, crackling, smell intermingled with the hotel lobby piano played by the virtuoso lampposts.
‘Daa-nce with me Jee-sus’ the woman jogged steadily behind, catching up. Turning to run, I trip on a root pulling free of the pavement. Looking back I see her eyes flash under her visor – wide, blue, sincere, charged insanity – she’s smiling. Scrambling up I run. Splintered and nacreous, vines lose strength to grip, and fall from the pillars in pieces. A white house on the corner snows paint chips over broken walls – its own, and its neighbours. A horse stencil painted in – ‘One Love’ – is the first non-sponsored graffiti I’ve seen since before Natchez.
Howlin’ Wolf wrote a song about the Natchez burning. ‘Did you hear about the burning…?’. It had been rattling through my head. We only stopped in Natchez under an hour. At midday, it had been unbearable to even walk a little way down to the riverbank. Standing at the rail, looking over the Mississippi, in Natchez, is a little path, next to some manicured lawn, with the river on your right. Along it are a couple of stones – two tell information about houses and their owners – then there’s a small one, a little further in from the path, but so directly in the center of the grass so as to also be a little while back from the road. Its words aren’t immediately intelligible from either side.
Walking up you read that a music hall burnt down. 250 young people died in there, all of African descent. Strangely – though the tone of the writing does not imply any of this is in the least bit suspicious – all the doors were barred, no one managed to escape, and the fire ate the place in one. The plaque is worded to give reasons to these anomalies. The power and speed of the fire is put down to the specific type of decoration used by the music halls owners, and the closed doors is also blamed on the owners, claiming that they blocked the doors after reaching capacity. There are many names on the plaque. A list of small etched names follows the explanation of the fire. Following these, are five LARGE NAMES printed underneath. These names, in pride of place, are the names of the board that commissioned this plaque. The Natchez burning. ‘Did you hear…?’ or did you let them tell you?
Natchez was rich and white and stifling and we left, as soon as we’d established that the only edible food was Fat Mama’s Nachos.
Things changed from big and white as soon as you left town, into smaller homes, shotgun shacks as they’re called (you can shoot a shotgun through the front door and out the back), and a whole lot less money. Abandoned farming machinery and cars lie outside homemade signs advertising a car wash, or fresh produce, or liquor. .
hen wide roads, rolling fields, churches, churches, churches, cattle and country radio. Hotter and hotter, pushing and pushing us into melting tarmac – the flutes kick in from the lampposts – Vicksburg warps. Whether it’s melting into the Mississippi, or the river is rising to drown it, is hard to tell. The banks host a host of sponsored murals. There are some leaders, some battles. Mostly everyone is white. Though, there is one in honour of the segregated school for black children – closed after desegregation in 1971. An empty thud as that date smacks me in the skull, letting it rattle, and Vicksburg’s eerie, smiling daggers, burning, burning meats and coal, abandoned buildings, haunting streets, lifeless left over town feel closes in tighter. ‘Daa-nce with me Je-sus’.
We passed three churches in a row getting here.
‘Did you hear..?’.
Cold as ice, fan clic clic clicking above, sweating brow, I awake under the canopy of the dark green, baby pink, four-poster. Feeling sick in my mouth – the grease of everything so far consumed is catching up to me. Last night I ate a crab slicked in oil, fried. We’re leaving Vicksburg this morning. We thought we were leaving now. I never unpacked.
But no, now we have to stay for the fucking tour.