Eddie Cusic from Leland, Mississippi, performs at the 1991 Delta Blues
Festival in Greenville, Mississippi. Photo © Tom Rankin
The term Delta is used in different ways up and down the
Mississippi River. But when most people, especially those not from the
region, say Mississippi Delta, they refer to the area formed by the alluvial
flood plain of the lower Mississippi River and incorporating parts of
four states, a region distinguished by both geographic and cultural characteristics.
From the flat, rich land of west Tennessee through parts of Arkansas,
Mississippi, and Louisiana, the entire region owes many of its cultural
traditions to the Mississippi River and the many smaller rivers that permeate
the area, some with names reflective of the Native Americans who first
settled there or other groups who came later: the Obion, Hatchie, and
Loosahatchie in Tennessee; the Yazoo, Tallahatchie, Sunflower, and Coldwater
in Mississippi; the Arkansas, White, and St. Francis in Arkansas; the
Ouachita and Black in Louisiana. Entire communities, operating with varying
codes and customs based on indigenous traditions, have evolved around
the region's rivers and bayous: from the commercial fisherfolk, trappers,
and towboat workers, whose houses often cluster near major rivers, landings,
and levees; to African-American ministers and their congregations, who
wade into the waters to baptize believers "the old way"; to
the privileged planters' sons whose membership in the exclusive hunting
clubs along the river is bestowed by the accident of birth. The rivers
are imbued with personal, local, and regional symbolism and significance.
A view from a cotton picker in Bolivar County, Mississippi, shows
the results of the very rich and fertile soil of the Delta. Photo
© Tom Rankin
Acknowledged as the birthplace of the blues, the home of
"King Cotton," America's "last wilderness," and the
source of a variety of uniquely American art forms, the Delta is often
discussed and portrayed as a powerful, evocative place. The Delta "shines
like a national guitar" to singer/songwriter Paul Simon, and to Mississippi
writer Eudora Welty the Delta is a place where "most of the world
seemed sky ... seemed strummed, as though it were an instrument and something
had touched it." Indeed, a great deal has touched the Mississippi
Delta to form it and to distinguish it from other regions. Much of its
distinctiveness has been attributed to its "Southern-ness."
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford called the Mississippi Delta
"the South's South....The Deepest South ... the heart of Dixie."
"Nowhere are ante-bellum conditions so nearly preserved as in the
Yazoo Delta," observed Rupert Vance in 1935, as he contrasted the
living conditions and lifestyles of the Mississippi Delta's planter elite
with those of its illiterate and impoverished Black masses. Certainly
one of the common legacies of the entire Mississippi Delta region is the
stark contrasts evident there. Just as the Delta can be rich and fertile,
it can also be poor and desolate; just as one can hear the powerful chords
of humanity's best music there, one can also witness Delta nights of terror
and inequality; just as natural resources are abundant, so can everyday
life be harsh. But in each of the extremes is a powerful culture.
Truly few places exhibit a more striking example of the
affinity and interaction between humans and nature than the Mississippi
Delta. Today's Delta is still largely rural and agricultural, its economy
very closely tied to the land. With its vast expanses of sky, one can
actually watch the weather, as clouds gather and boil across one horizon
and the sun or moon blazes brilliantly on the other. In spite of a century
of clearing, cultivating, draining, and land leveling, the region retains
its primitive swamps, bayous, and cypress brakes.
One of the few remaining traditional Southern occupational crafts
in the Delta is the making of gourd or tiered wooden bird houses. Atop
tall poles near farm buildings, they lure purple martins, which everyday
eat their weight in mosquitoes. Photo © Maida Owens
In Go Down, Moses William Faulkner described the
In the beginning, it was virgin - to the west, along the
Big Black River, the alluvial swamps threaded by black, almost motionless
bayous and impenetrable with cane and buckvine and cypress and ash and
oak and gum.... This land, this South ... with woods for game and streams
for fish and deep rich soil for seed and lush springs to sprout it and
long summers to mature it and serene falls to harvest it and short mild
winters for men and animals.... That's the trouble with this country.
Everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land:
opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable
and brooding image.
Greenville, Mississippi, native and newspaper editor Hodding
Carter, Sr., characterized the region in his 1942 book on the Mississippi:
"The Lower Mississippi's valley is a precarious Eden, which the river
has fashioned and caused to be populated because of its promise. It is
a promise beset by ordeal and still only partly fulfilled."
church official stakes out the baptismal areain the Ouachita River in
Monroe Louisana. Photo © Susan Roach
Carter also echoed Faulkner when he wrote about the historical
legacies of the fertile, overgrown landscape.
Go quietly at dawn into those brakes of cypress and cane
and cottonwood and water oak. Paddle beside the banks of the Mississippi's
bayous and false lakes which once were part of its channel. You will
find something of what the Spaniard, the Frenchman, and the Englishman
swore and marveled at: the disordered lavishness of a wilderness sprung
from the earth droppings of a river's uncounted years.
Full of pestilence - malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever
- and unyielding and unnavigable terrain, the Delta remained a frontier
wilderness until well after the Civil War. This is a fact that the familiar
Delta stereotype doesn't include.
More recent accounts still highlight the Mississippi Delta's place as
a veritable wilderness, in part. Thomas Foti, an ecologist with the Arkansas
Natural Heritage Commission, described the lower White River as a "special
place ... still the wildest region of the Delta." According to Foti,
in addition to supporting a core of committed houseboat dwellers who work
on it, the White River also hosts the "only indigenous black bear
population in Arkansas, the only productive eagle nest in the state."
H. F. Gregory, a Louisiana folklorist, has written that many older residents
make a distinction between the "front lands" and "back
lands" of the Louisiana Delta, the "back lands" being the
wilder, natural, swampy landscapes. "The back lands remained as swamplands,"
explained Gregory, "refuges for animals, birds, and people displaced
from the plantation areas." Agricultural interests began draining
the back lands in the 1970s, changing the environment, Gregory argued,
to the point that "today only in game preserves can one see the original
It was the environmental wonder and agricultural richness of the region
that led a diversity of cultural groups to settle there. For instance,
in the 1890s several plantation owners fretted over the declining work
force and looked to Italy for a solution. Arkansas's 11,000-acre Sunnyside
Plantation brought Italians to be sharecroppers. Arkansas planters similarly
brought Chinese to the Delta. Most contracted to work for five years,
many relocating or changing occupations after being liberated from their
Though the largest percentages of residents are Black African Americans
and White Anglo-Saxons, the region also has substantial populations of
people of Jewish, Chinese, Lebanese, Syrian, Italian, Greek, and Mexican
ancestry. One can observe small Chinese groceries in many Delta towns,
the large presence of Italian families and traditions throughout Mississippi
and Arkansas, and the wonderful assimilation of ethnic foodways such as
Delta tamales. Probably brought to the Delta by Mexican farm workers who
came to earn a living in the cotton fields, tamales now are made, sold,
and eaten by Whites and Blacks, farm laborers and plantation owners.
With the growing settlement of the area, the landscape began to change,
most drastically with the stripping away of the hardwood forests and the
drainage of the swamps. Slaves were used for the cruel and dangerous work
of swamp drainage, until holders of large acreage refused to risk valuable
slave property and began hiring Irish immigrants instead. For a brief
time during the Reconstruction period, convict labor was used to clear
thousands of acres, though this scandal-ridden lease system was outlawed
in 1890. Later, African-American laborers accomplished most of the difficult
task of clearing the forests. William Ferris in Blues from the Delta quoted
blues singer Jasper Love talking about his work in the 1930s. "Times
was so tough we couldn't cut it with a knife, man," recalled Love.
"Plowing four mules.... Hitting them stumps and that plow kicking
you all in the stomach. I had to get up around three in the morning by
a bell. The bell rang two times. First time you get up. The second time,
be at the barn. Not on your way, at the barn."
The fertility of the Delta has led to some pretty harsh working conditions.
Wiley Cochral, who was born in 1925, grew up as the son of a sharecropper,
working with his father, mother, and siblings, farming on halves. By the
fall of 1947 - thirty-three years after moving to the Delta - his father
was able to buy 100 acres of land and an old house in Stephensville in
Sunflower County. A White man, Cochral's explanation about sharecropping
and his feeling toward the arrangement speak for many who farm as sharecroppers
in the Mississippi Delta:
Farming on halves, you give the boss man half of the crop
to start with. You work it, then you take the other half. Whatever you
owe him, you pay it out of your half. Not his half. His half is give
to him. Automatically. Your half, whatever you owe him. If you owe him
sixty dollars, you pay him the sixty dollars out of your half. And a
lots of times that half, you didn't get your half when you come to that.
Cause they didn+t give it to you. I don+t know how that worked. They
would say you got so and so. They could add anything they want. And
so that's the way it was. No, they wasn't always honest. They wasn't
no way in the world. Tom, there wasn't no way in the world for them
to be honest. People finally realized. Somebody got smart. It wasn't
right to start with. They figured you owed him half of it.
You want to know the truth about it, at the end of the year, the Boss
man gave you what he wanted you to have. The big man bought this land.
They give nine dollars an acre to fourteen. That's all they give. And
they bought it. And then the slaves. I've always been a slave myself.
I call myself one of them. Everybody was slaves that worked in the damn
Many sharecroppers, including Cochral's father James, initially
had come to the region to clear timber. Logging operations continued until
the early decades of this century.
As the powerful Mississippi River cuts through this peculiarly American
region, it both gives and takes away. Formed by regular flooding, the
region owes its existence to the building of levees, yet another testimony
to the legacy of work in the Delta. Still, however, the region sees flooding
regularly, floods that are rarely matched in the devastation they bring.
Bluesman Charlie Patton, once a resident of Dockery Plantation just east
of Cleveland, Mississippi, chronicled the Delta experience with a poetry
rivaled by no one. His "High Water Blues," a song depicting
the vicious 1927 flood, asserted to all the reality of life in the rich
alluvial plain of the Delta:
Lord the whole 'round country Lord! river has overflowed
You know I can't be stayin' here; I'm - gotta go where it's high, boy!
I was goin' to the hilly country, 'fore they got me barred.
Just a few years later, in 1930, Charlie Patton entered
the studio to record another lament of nature's wrath, "Dry Well,"
a song that depicted the 1930 drought. Seen together the two blues songs
suggest the ebbs and flows of the Delta's past and present, the pattern
by which natural forces have created a rich and diverse region that has
been both blessed by wealth and powerful expression, and also burdened
by human suffering and despair.
Way down in Lula, (hundred an' ten heat?)
Lord the drought come an' caught us an' parched up all the trees.
Tom Rankin is a photographer, folklorist, and Associate
Professor of Art and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
He is the author of Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta,
Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre: Photographs of a River Life, and Faulkner+s World:
The Photographs of Martin J. Dain.
Works Cited & Suggested Reading
Botkin, B.A., ed. 1978. A Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore:
Stories, Ballads and Traditions of the Mid-American River Country.
New York: Bonanza Books.
Calt, Stephen, and Gayle Wardlow. 1988. King of the Delta Blues: The
Life and Music of Charlie Patton. Newton, New Jersey: Rock Chapel
Carter, Hodding. 1942. The Rivers of America: Lower Mississippi.
New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
Cobb, James C. 1992. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi
Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University
Cohn, David. 1948. Where I Was Born and Raised. Boston: Houghton,
Daniel, Pete. 1977. Deep'n As It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River
Flood. New York: Oxford University Press. Reprint 1996. Fayetteville:
University of Arkansas Press.
Dunbar, Tony. 1990. Delta Time: A Journey Through Mississippi.
New York: Pantheon Publications.
Faulkner, William. 1942. Go Down, Moses. New York: Random House.
Ferris, William. 1979. Blues from the Delta. Garden City, New
York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Hamilton, Mary. 1992. Trials of the Earth: The Autobiography of Mary
Hamilton. Edited by Helen Dick Davis. Jackson: University Press of
Lemann, Nicholas. 1991. The Promised Land. New York: Alfred A.
Lomax, Alan. 1993. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York:
National Park Service. "Stories of the Delta." Findings
of the Lower Mississippi Delta Symposium. Lakewood, Colorado: National
Oliver, Paul. 1984. Blues Off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary.
Tunbridge Wells, England: Baton Press. Reprint 1984. New York: Da Capo
Percy, William Alexander. 1973. Lanterns on the Levee. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Spitzer, Nicholas R., ed. 1985. Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the
State. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Folklife Program.
Taulbert, Clifton Lemoure. 1997. Watching Our Crops Come In.
New York: Viking.
_______. 1989. Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. Tulsa:
Council Oak Books.
Titon, Jeff Todd. 1977. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural
Analysis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Welty, Eudora. 1946. Delta Wedding. Boston: Harcourt, Brace and
Whayne, Jeannie, and Willard B. Gatewood, eds. 1993. The Arkansas
Delta: Land of Paradox. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.