Dictator and definer of the Delta, the Mississippi River
provides the fertile flood plain that makes possible the majority of traditional,
regional occupations in this predominantly rural area. Now open and flat
with blurred timber on the horizon, the Delta landscape with its resources
of rich "buckshot" dirt, waterways, timber, and gas features
farming- and river-related occupations, which exhibit a complex of techniques,
customs, and modes of expressive behavior typical of occupational folklife:
raising cotton, soybeans, rice, cattle, and catfish; crop dusting; commercial
fishing; lock operations; and riverboat work. Floods, chemicals from the
air and water, insects from mosquitoes to boll weevils, dangerous, expensive
technology, and debt all pose risks to life and livelihood and are echoed
in Delta occupational narratives.
The river itself gave rise to major occupations such as
riverboat work and river and flood control. Riverboat work - earlier on
steamboats and on today's towboats - has always required a wealth of informally
learned occupational knowledge: of complex, traditional jargon and operating
techniques associated with the river; of specific boats and their parts;
of duties of each job; and of riverboat crafts. For example, a deckhand
makes a "possum" - a braided rope bumper - to cushion the boat
when it docks or ties up to a lock wall. Sometimes living on the boat
for thirty days at a time, riverboat workers also share stories, songs,
and jokes about river work (Sandmel 1990:10-11). Lock and dam operators,
who maintain appropriate water levels in river channels, may share riverboat
lore and learn much of their job traditionally.
Because of the threats of flooding and malaria, the flat, rich flood plain
along the Mississippi and its tributaries came to settlement and farming
later than the adjacent areas. Termed buckshot because it dried into hard
black pellets - and gumbo when it was wet, because of its stickiness -
Delta topsoil, laid down by centuries of flooding, was "such perfect
soil for raising cotton that people considered it worth the risk long
before flood control was possible" (Bolsterli 1991:5). In the early
19th century Anglo-American pioneer farmers and slaves settled in the
river bottoms. Towns became centers for the lumber industry, which riverboats
and railroads helped grow, until no virgin timber remained (Whayne and
Gatewood 1993:216). Jewish, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrants entered the
Delta mainly as peddlers and later became merchants with businesses such
as dry goods. To replace slave labor after the Civil War, planters brought
in Italian and Chinese workers. After World War II, these groups opened
small groceries and restaurants in such Arkansas towns as Helena, Blytheville,
Pine Bluff, and Holly Grove; and in Ferriday, Vidalia, and Monroe, Louisiana.
Some Irish also came as laborers and tenant farmers and were quickly assimilated.
In 1878, Germans from the Midwest came to the Delta and brought their
farming technology; one of the larger groups, led by a Lutheran minister,
purchased a 7,747-acre plantation near Stuttgart, Arkansas, which would
become the center of the Arkansas rice industry (Whayne and Gatewood 1993:153,
Farm crew in a cotton field, Sunflower County, Mississippi. Photo © Tom Rankin
Worked by slaves before the Civil War and by sharecroppers
and paid laborers after the war, large tracts of cotton grew even larger
with the advent of mechanized, corporate farms. Delta planters traditionally
have taken mainly a supervisory role: giving orders, arranging loans,
doing the paperwork, absorbing the profit and loss, risk and worry. However,
some planters also grew up working in the fields, plowing, chopping, and
picking cotton. Along with their work in the home, many Delta women and
children also did farm work. Liddy Aiken, an African-American woman from
Wheatly, Arkansas, summed up the work ethic in 1938 when she was sixty-two:
"We farm. I done everything could be thought of on a farm. I ploughed
some less than five years ago.... I learnt to work. I learnt my boys to
go with me to the field and not be ashamed to sweat. It's healthy. They
all works" (Whayne and Gatewood 1993:141).
Lake Providence, Louisiana, planter Grady Brown relates the daily routine
of his boyhood on his father's Panola cotton plantation and the typical
changes wrought on these traditions by growing mechanization:
When we grew up, we were able to walk behind a plow at probably six
or seven.... We were tall enough to reach up and hold the handles....
Daddy gave us all a mule and plow and put three or four of us in the
field, and we just plowed the same cotton field every day. We had ninety-five
tenant families on the farm.... They used to ring a big bell up on the
mule barn and all the hands would be at the barn catching their mules....
They all came to work with an old syrup bucket, and that was their dinner.
They would carry some peas and what they called hoe cake.... This went
on for four or five years, and then the tractors came about the starting
of the war, 1942-44, and then we switched over to tractors, and the
first year we ... lost forty families. They migrated to Dallas, or Chicago,
or California. And when I came home in 1961, we had about twelve or
fifteen families living on the farm.
Cotton also generated work in cotton gins, compresses, and crop dusting.
Illustrating the importance of versatility and on-the-job learning, John
Warner, from Rayville, Louisiana, began as a water boy at a local compress
in 1937 and advanced to calling the press from the 1950s to the 1970s,
when he was finally named foreman - the first African American in the
region to hold the position. Undoubtedly, his promotion to foreman resulted
from his twenty years as the press caller, when he would shout instructions
and sing blues work songs to pace the monotonous yet dangerous activity
of the compress. These songs were patterned after the work songs from
the cotton fields and prison chain gangs. Warner recounts the typical
learning process of such jobs: "The older men - they'll watch you
and they find out you want to do different things. They would always take
the time out and show you and tell you how to take advantage and how to
do certain things." However, the same men might play tricks on inexperienced
workers; Warner remembers someone being sent to the office to fetch a
cotton saw - a nonexistent tool. Such joking behavior is probably still
found around today's computer-operated compresses.
G.T. "Bubba" Brown from Lake Providence, Louisana,
operates the Panola Pepper Sauce Plant on Panola Plantation. Produced
on the plantation are the pepper sauce and other food products, along
with cotton and soybeans. Cattle are also raised on the land, illustrating
the diversification on today's plantation. Photo © Susan
In the early 1900s, mechanization and larger farm acreage turned Delta
farmers to a more efficient method of fertilization and pest control -
crop dusting, or aerial application, the current professional's term.
Having been fascinated by flying in his childhood, Owen Dale Holland and
his older brother, from Jonesville, Louisiana, started dusting their own
crops and later developed a family crop dusting business. Crop dusters
also learn the specialized language concerning equipment, techniques,
and the different jobs of their trade in a traditional manner. And they,
too, tell and suffer through jokes. A crop duster for forty-two years,
Charlie Davis recalls being teased at his wedding about his survival chances:
"When we got married, the preacher asked me what did I do. I said
I was in crop dusting. He told my wife that the life span of a crop duster
was two years."
The public regards crop dusters with some ambivalence. On the one hand,
they are "crazy nuts" taking risks and putting poisonous chemicals
into the environment. On the other hand, as Arthur Woolson puts it, "You're
almost next to God to those farmers when you're dusting those crops because
upon your efforts depend his success. If you fail, he fails. If you win,
he wins." Holland explains the modern farmer's plight and the complex,
symbiotic relationship of the two occupations, justifying why the crop
duster is "willing to take a risk":
Most of the people don't understand to begin with why you are aerial
applicating. It is simply because they have no background knowledge
of farming. They still want to see a farmer in overalls and a pitchfork
and a straw hat. Today, with finances and economics, you do now or you
don't get it done. You've got to have someone that is qualified to do
the job. Farmers are working under a lot of pressure themselves these
days. We know that; we have farmed before. And a farmer comes here with
that look on his face; you know he is serious. You don't play with him
much; you get very serious with him, and you deal with him from that
point on because of his problems. When he comes to get the airplane,
he's got to have help, and you know that, so you take that into consideration.
Crop dusting, which in Tallulah, Louisiana, grew into Delta Airlines,
also is important for soybeans and rice, which diversified Delta farming
during World War II. The popularity and higher price of soybeans caused
many farmers to plant even more soybeans during the fifties and sixties;
this brought heavy dirt-moving machinery operators from the Midwest, including
Mennonites, to level the land further. Many Mennonites such as the community
near Lake Providence, Louisiana, stayed in the region, thus changing the
cultural landscape as well.
Chinese Grocery in Ferriday, Loiuisana, is run by the second generation
of the family. Chinese came to the Delta to work on the cotton plantations
after the Civil War. With mechanization in the 1940s, many started small
grocrey stores that have been passed down in families.
Photo © 1988, Don Sepulvado
While the flattened land eased cultivation and irrigation, it also increased
drainage and flood problems. Flooding is a periodic problem in the backwater
areas of rivers which run into the Mississippi. Many stories about floods
concern destruction of crops, homes, and businesses, and traditions of
moving people and livestock to higher ground. Since early farming days,
livestock - especially mules and cattle - has been important for the Delta
farmer. In some areas range land was open, and livestock even grazed on
the levees. However, when floods threatened, local levee boards hired
levee guards to watch for drifting debris, water seepage, and sand boils.
As an eighteen-year-old guard in 1927, Myles Smith recalls an experience
he had one night returning to St. Joseph, Louisiana:
Just as we got into town, a mule had bogged down in this levee right
in front of the Masonic Hall, and they was scared the levee was going
to break right there, and everybody that could pack a sack was on that
levee throwing sacks. I guess that mule's bones are still in that levee.
He went down in there, and there was no way to get him out. They just
put sacks in there on top of him.... That was a pretty rough night.
Today's farmers still maintain herds of cattle with little open range.
Calling themselves ranchers, they manifest typical cowboy culture with
some characteristics peculiar to the Delta, such as the use of Catahoula
cur dogs for round-ups and herding cattle and free-ranging hogs. Stories
about the breed's origins abound in the Delta: one says it is a hybrid
of the red wolf and mastiffs brought by DeSoto's Spanish explorers in
1542, another traces the dog to the Natchez Indian tribe.
Traditionally, Delta farmers also risk huge debts - a recurring theme
in narratives. As described by Margaret Bolsterli, the Delta plantation's
peculiar method of farming after the Civil War was based on "indebtedness:
The landowner borrowed enough money from a bank to make a crop and
then lent it to his sharecroppers, most of whom were black, against
half the proceeds. He furnished seed, tools, animals to pull the plows,
and guarantees of enough money to clothe, feed, and provide medical
care for the sharecropper's family until harvest, when the tenant would
be obliged to give the landowner half the crop and then, out of his
own half, pay back the money he had "drawn" for his and his
family's expenses. The owner then would repay the bank for his "furnish"
loan. If no money was made, the chain of indebtedness was carried over
to the next year (1991:6-7).
Contemporary, often corporately owned plantations still rely on banks
to finance expensive farm equipment such as $100,000 cotton combines.
Even buying the equipment secondhand at traditional farm-equipment auctions
requires financing, according to West Monroe, Louisiana, auctioneer Ike
Hamilton; he notes that farmers attending must already have arranged their
bank loans before the bidding starts.
Also requiring a huge initial outlay is commercial catfish farming, begun
in the 1960s and now flourishing in the Delta. It can cost $200,000 -
$300,000 to build and stock eight fifteen-acre ponds, to which must be
added an annual feed bill of $150,000. Mississippian Larry Cochran, who
farmed the same land as his father and grandfather, gave up row cropping
his one thousand acres of cotton and soybeans in 1985 to raise catfish.
"I remember my grandfather borrowing eighty thousand dollars at the
bank for a year to buy his seed and get a few hundred acres of cotton
planted. He could feed both his and my dad's families, and now it costs
me sixty thousand dollars a month to feed twenty-three ponds of fish"
Catfish farming has had a profound effect on commercial river fishing,
which had thrived in earlier decades in the Delta and supplied fish to
markets as far north as Chicago. While today's fishermen still brave the
dangers of the river, their markets are decreasing, with only small, independent
fish markets purchasing their catfish, buffalo, and gar. Traditional river
crafts that have survived to support this endangered occupation include
net making, often done by women, and boatbuilding. Commercial products
and net companies such as the Jonesville, Louisiana, Champlin Net Co.,
which builds nets to order, have affected these crafts. Some fishermen
who still knit their own hoop nets purchase commercial fiberglass hoops
instead of making the older-style white oak hoops. Gill and trammel nets
are more often purchased today, but wire catfish traps and wood slat traps
are still made by fishermen such as Kenneth Hebert, who learned fishing
crafts from his grandfather. Representing what is left of the subsistence
farmers in the swamps of the Catahoula Lake area, Hebert also raises some
wild hogs, hunts, traps, and makes related crafts such as hunting horns
for calling dogs.
Throughout the Delta, traditional Southern occupational crafts are sparse,
reflecting the massive changes both on water and land. Still, gourd or
tiered wooden birdhouses atop tall poles stand near farm buildings to
lure purple martins, which eat their weight in mosquitoes every day. While
the traditional yeoman farms and the aristocratic plantations have faded
along with the steamboat, the water, mosquitoes, fertile soil, risks,
and rewards remain.
Susan Roach received her Ph.D. in anthropology (folklore) from the
University of Texas at Austin in 1986 and her M.A. and Ph.A. in English
from the University of Arkansas. Active in documenting north Louisiana
folk traditions since 1978, she has curated folk arts exhibitions, published
on Louisiana regional folklife, and served as Co-Director of the Louisiana
Delta Folklife Project and Field School. Associate Professor of English
at Louisiana Tech University, she currently chairs the Louisiana Folklife
Works Cited & Suggested Reading
Bolsterli, Margaret Jones. 1991. Born in the Delta. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee Press.
Daniel, Pete. 1985. Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton,
Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880. Urbana: University of Illinois
Roach, Susan, H. F. Gregory, and Maida Owens. 1994. The Delta Folklife
Project: An Overview. In The Louisiana Folklife Festival Program
Book. Monroe: Louisiana Folklife Festival.
Sandmel, Ben. 1990. Mississippi River Folklore. In The Louisiana
Folklife Festival Program Book. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Folklife Program.
Schweid, Richard. 1992. Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Fish Farming
in the Mississippi Delta. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Whayne, Jeannie, and Willard B. Gatewood. 1993. The Arkansas Delta.
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
Afro-American Spirituals, Worksongs, and Ballads. Library of
Congress Recording AAFSL3.
Blake, Clifford. Cornbread for Your Husband and Biscuits for Your
Man: Mr. Clifford Blake, Sr., Calls the Cotton Press. Louisiana Folklife
Recording Series 001.
Mississippi Folk Voices. Southern Folklore Record 101.
Negro Folk Songs from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Tradition
Negro Work Songs and Calls. Library of Congress Recording AAFSL
Roots of the Blues. Atlantic SD1348.