Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 48: Cotton

Robinsonville to Maud. 19.6 miles/810.9 total

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's another grey cloudy day, in the high 40s, as I leave from the village of Robinsonville. I'm heading to Maud, walking on Old Highway 61 all the way. My walk will take me through the City of Tunica and several places so small that Wikipedia has nothing on them.

Old 61 is the route to take to retrace the steps of the old Delta bluesmen. The Robinsonville area was home to Son House, one of the early influential figures in the history of the blues. Just north of here, in Clack (gone, with all the land owned by Harrah’s now), House was recorded by Alan Lomax in the early 1940s at the Clack Store. Others who played near here include Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

Son House’s guitar style was slide guitar, often with the use of a bottle neck. Muddy Waters acknowledged that this man influenced him the most. One of Son House’s songs was called “Preachin’ the Blues,” and goes like this:

I’m gonna get me religion,
I’m gonna join the Baptist church.
Gonna be a Baptist preacher
So I won’t have to do no work.

It seems that Son House hit on one of the reasons there are so many churches in the south.

As for the new Highway 61, I looked carefully and in vain for any signs saying that pedestrians aren’t allowed on the big road. As I think I mentioned, it’s not a limited access highway, just a divided one. So I’m pretty sure that the prohibition against pedestrians on Highway 61 in DeSoto County is one of those crypto-laws, like the one against hitchhiking in Missouri that the cop in Hayti told me about. In other words, it's bullshit. There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that the sheriff may have been ignorant of the law. Cops, as we all know, are notoriously misinformed about the law, as well as about the various procedures for administering the law in a constitutional way. The other possibility is that the sheriff knew full well there was no such law, and was making it up as he went along, in order to have a pretext for stopping and checking out someone who looked like he didn’t quite fit in.

In any event, it illustrates the difference between de jure and de facto laws. A de jure law is one that exists on the books; a de facto law is one that the guy with the gun tells you is the law. Of course one must choose one’s battles, and if that is the greatest injustice I experience on this trip, I will count myself fortunate indeed. Anyway, I really don't want to walk on the new Highway 61.

Before the walk I met and chatted with a farmer in Maud, who gave me permission to park the motor home on his property for the day. He’s a retired Methodist minister, who had a church in Robinsonville. I asked him about the gambling boom in Tunica County. He told me that the casinos had saved the county, although the revenue has fallen off because of the economy. He said Tunica County is about 70% black, and for many years was listed as the poorest county in the country before the gambling came. Like almost all the rest of the folks I've met (civilians, anyway), he was very kind and willing to help.

At a little over five miles I enter Hollywood. I went through a place called Bowdre a mile or so out of Robinsonville, which didn’t amount to anything. Hollywood appears to be a going, if somewhat dingy, concern. Trailers, frame houses, old unused farm buildings. A black dog lies dead in someone’s front yard, up by the road. Ears up, listening for something it’s not going to hear. Sycamore trees hang over the road. Magnolias and swamp oaks grow on lawns. Off to the west across several miles of cotton fields is the Mississippi River. I pass a fairly large house. On the mailbox in front it says “Hollywood Plantation.”

South of town is a graveyard, bumpy and irregular and unkempt. Dotted with stones of people named Joe, Willie, Joe Willie, Earnestine, Viola, Mose. The veterans have government-issued tombstones; everybody else is on their own—some with store-bought markers and others with homemade ones, chiseled on chunks of concrete or made from metal signs that look like they might once have said "For Sale" in someone's front yard. I take a seat on a tree stump. I realize suddenly as I look at the indentations in front of me that the reason these poor folks’ cemeteries are so bumpy and hilly is that they are filled with old, no longer marked graves that have sunk down due to the decay of the wooden boxes in which the people were buried. I am looking at a neat row of several indentations, each about six feet long and two and a half feet wide and eight inches deep. They get filled with water and mud when it rains. Long forgotten people. There are more unmarked graves here than marked ones.

At about nine miles I enter the northern outskirts of Tunica, population about 1,100 in 2000. This area, called Tunica North, is where the casinos were originally located, until they expanded and moved out into the country where there's more room. A hundred yards to the east, on the new Highway 61, there’s a spiffy new middle school and high school, and a large new gymnasium. There’s also a new jail, sheriff’s office, and court building. Gambling money. Of course this infusion into the coffers of the county has not catapulted the majority of the citizens of Tunica into the middle class, by any means. The city and the county have treated themselves well, but individuals are still on their own.

Tunica has a cotton seed oil mill. It reminds me of something I learned at the Cotton Exchange Museum. One of the first products to use cotton seed oil extensively was Crisco, introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911. They developed a method of hydrogenating cottonseed oil so that it would stay solid at room temperature. It was first intended to be a substitute for animal-based tallow used for candles, but when electricity pretty much did away with the need for candles, P&G figured that since Crisco looked like lard, they could market it as food. As a result, the company took a substantial position in cotton production in the south. Vertical integration. The name Crisco is short for “crystalized cottonseed oil.”

The downtown of Tunica consists of two streets, Edwards and Main, divided by a park-like town green about a block wide. You’re going to love this: In front of a store in downtown there’s a plaque that says it was once R.C. Irwin’s Mercantile Store. It says old Robert was one of the most influential men in the “material and moral development of the Mississippi Delta.” He and his family came west from Mecklenberg, North Carolina, but his parents became ill along the way, and the ten-year-old Robert and his brother made the rest of the trip alone, “along with their faithful slaves.” Robert became one of the largest landowners in Tunica County. When the Civil War broke out he gallantly joined the Confederacy, and afterwards “threw himself with all force of his character into the reclamation of his county from the wreck of war and its redemption from carpetbag rule.”

There’s a nice new fire department and city hall, too, and even a public restroom in the center of town. Over at the edge of the town square is another plaque, this one honoring Harold “HardfaceClanton, 1916-1982, a gambler who was known as the “Black Sheriff of Tunica County,” and reputedly was the first black millionaire in Tunica County. His promotion of illegal gambling for years helped pave the way for legalized casinos in the county in 1991. He had a place called The Barn where many famous Delta bluesmen entertained.

Three or four miles past the Tunica Gin and lots of cotton fields, I come to the village of Evansville, which consists of a grain elevator and a cotton gin and some shacks. A friendly black-and-tan dog comes up, tail wagging furiously, and licks my hand. I expect her to lose interest after a few hundred feet, when she reaches the end of her territory. But a mile later, the dog is still tagging along, dancing back and forth across the road and down into the ditches and the cotton fields, nosing around for garbage thrown from cars. At one point she starts sniffing at something lying on the other side of the road, and when I go over there I see that it’s a coyote, thoroughly flattened. I tell her to be careful, or that could be her. But she’s afraid of cars and trucks, and runs away from the road when one occasionally zips by. A good survival instinct around here.

As the next few miles go by, the dog continues to tag along, sometimes running ahead, sometimes shooting off into the fields, and occasionally walking alongside me. When I stop to pet her, she sits still in front of me and points her nose at the sky, waiting to get her neck and head scratched. Then she jumps up and puts her feet on my chest. I realize that in the space of an hour I have become rather attached to this creature. I even give her a name, Cotton, because she first darted out toward me from a cotton field, and because of a little white patch on the back of her neck that looks like a piece of the cotton lint that lines the roadside. She’s as quiet as cotton, too. I try to get her to bark, but she won’t do it. Once, when three other dogs rush out after her and start growling, I turn around to face them and they retreat. Cotton stays behind me and whines a little.

Every time I think the dog is finally gone, I look over my right shoulder and there she is. From her teeth and her overall condition I’d say she’s about two or three years old at most.

By the time I pass through Clayton, the next little nothing village down from Evansville, I realize that Cotton will be with me for the rest of today’s walk, six miles altogether. As I near Maud, my destination, I stop to have a talk with her. I tell her I’m leaving now, but that I’ll be back in Maud tomorrow to start my walk, and that if she’s still there, she can walk with me some more. Whatever happens, I’ve enjoyed the company of this dog, and I hope the feeling is mutual.

As I drive off, she's nosing around the yard of that retired preacher. Maybe he needs a dog. Maybe that's why she came here.


Anonymous said...

So where's the picture of Cotton ?

Anonymous said...

Maybe, no picture is possible because Cotton, Confederate Dog that he is, has been captured and exchanged for cash, like a returnable bottle, at a pharmaceutical laboratory.
Spoils of the road!