People and Culture

A MULTICULTURED REGION

The diversity of the lower Mississippi Delta region’s heritage is reflected in the names of cities and towns up and down the river — Ste. Genevieve, Kaskaskia, Altenburg, Wittenburg, Cape Girardeau, Cairo, Hickman, Helena, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Venice. The Mississippi River and its associated bounty not only sustained the region’s first inhabitants, the Indians, but have in succeeding centuries attracted immigrants from around the world.

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    Spanish claims to the Delta region originated with DeSoto’s expedition in the early 1540s. Although their presence in the region was relatively short-lived, the Spanish left their cultural stamp on life in the Delta’s southern reaches. For example, the French Quarter’s noteworthy architecture has a definite Spanish influence.

    Frenchman Sieur de La Salle descended the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire watershed for Louis XIV in 1682. In 1686 a French settlement at Arkansas Post became the region’s first permanent white settlement. When Pierre le Moyne Iberville brought colonists to present-day Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1699, the French established a line of posts and settlements from present-day Mobile, Alabama, New Orleans, and Ste. Genevieve northeastward to Detroit.

    During the 18th century a substantial French presence developed throughout the Lower Mississippi Delta region. Descendant French populations still live in southern Illinois and Missouri, in such communities as Prairie du Rocher, Kaskaskia, Ste. Genevieve, and Cape Girardeau, as well as in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Acadian Louisiana. But perhaps the most unique of all the French descendants are the Acadians who arrived in Louisiana.

    During Great Britian’ s conquest of the French empire in North America (1754—1763, the British expelled nearly 75%, or over 10,000, of the French Catholic Acadians from Nova Scotia. Many of the deported Acadians initially settled in the American colonies to the south or in France. However, the Acadians were not welcome either in the American colonies, where rampant anti-Catholicism and antipathy towards the French persisted, or in France, where native Frenchmen resented their government land allotments and pensions. Early in the 1780s, Spain offered the Acadians land in the Louisiana Territory to settle upon, and in 1785 approximately 1,600 Acadians departed France for the Spanish colony. Over the succeeding decades, Acadians continued to migrate to Louisiana from the United States, Canada, France, and the Caribbean, where some deported Acadians had also settled during the 18th century. Today, Acadian descendants are predominantly found in Louisiana and the New England region of the United States, Quebec, and the maritime provinces of Canada and in France (Minister of the Environmental Parks Canada 1986).

    Many of the Acadians who migrated to Louisiana settled in the eastern prairies and along Bayou Lafourche and the Lower Mississippi River to farm, fish, hunt, and trap, while interacting and intermarrying with their American, Spanish, Indian, and African-American neighbors. The social life of the French dialect speaking Acadians, or Cajuns as they became known, was centered on the hospitality and conviviality of their homes:

    Oakland Overseer's House
    Overseer's House at Cane River Creole National Historic Site

    Neighbors gathered periodically at houcheries, coups-de-main, weddings, and funerals. Bals tie Maison (house dances) were held often, attended mostly by young people. VeillJes (evening visits) were intensely anticipated by all. People regularly traveled many miles.. .to visit their friends. Oral entertainment — games, folk stories, music, and gossip — were highlights of the evening. ... Food was an essential ingredient of all major social gatherings, including even dances and funerals. The foodways were dominated by hardy American foodstuffs — corn, rice, beans, cane syrup, melons, and potatoes, but prepared in the distinctive styles of the French Creole or Cajun (Ancelet 1991).

    Today, Cajun cuisine and music, which has been transformed from its traditional 19th century character by the addition of the accordion, guitar, drums, and amplification (Ancelet 1991) are deeply embedded in Louisiana culture and are a unique component of the Delta region’s heritage.

    Also culturally distinctive within the lower Mississippi Delta region is the Creole population of Louisiana. The term Creole refers to a diversity of cultural groups. The white Creoles of colonial Louisiana were born of French and Spanish parents before 1803. White Creoles were generally landed gentry, who adopted and retained European mannerisms and enjoyed a cultured and sophisticated lifestyle. In central Louisiana the Cane River Creoles of color emerged from a family of freed slaves. The social stratum occupied by Creoles of color was unique to Louisiana. Some of the Cane River Creoles became wealthy plantation owners and developed their own unique culture, enjoying the respect and friendship of the dominant white Creole society. In the context of racial mixing, Creole could also refer to those of European-Indian descent in Louisiana (NPS 1993).

    Besides the various groups mentioned above, many other immigrant groups have come to the Lower Mississippi Delta region seeking economic opportunity, including African-American freedmen and slaves. German immigrants created numerous communities along the Mississippi River above New Orleans and Sephardic Jews migrated to New Orleans from countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea. The Irish came to the Delta in the 1830s and were often considered more expendable than slaves. Irish day laborers were expected to work at the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs, such as heavy construction in malaria infested areas. By 1830 a small community of Filipinos had established a small fishing village in southern Louisiana. Transpiedmont Scots-Irish moved to the lower Delta from Virginia and the Carolinas. Also in the 1 830s, other Euro-Americans migrated from the east and southeastern U.S. to the Delta, which was then known as the "Southwest." Chinese laborers were recruited from New Orleans and Asia in the 1870s. A decade later many Jewish, Sicilian, and Lebanese people migrated to the delta from southern and eastern Europe and a Syrian community was established in the Arkansas delta. A substantial Italian contingent settled in New Orleans in the late 19th century. In the 1950s Cubans moved to New Orleans and the migration of Vietnamese to southern Louisiana, many of whom became shrimpers, occurred in the 1970s.

    The bayous of Louisiana and the rich lowland of the lower Mississippi Delta continue to lure immigrants. In the last decades of the twentieth century the patterns of immigration have once again shifted. The largest numbers of immigrants now stem from Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. River cities and towns, challenged by changing economies that feature commercial enterprise and industry, rather than agriculture, are absorbing the newcomers. The racial and ethnic heritage of the lower Mississippi Delta region will continue to evolve on the streets and in the residential neighborhoods of the Delta.

    DELTA CULTURES REFLECTED IN THE LANDSCAPE

    Throughout the length and breath of the lower Mississippi Delta region, the towns reflect an allure, a presence, and a feeling all their own. According to Marie E. Meyer in 1926, "They have an air of permanence, these old river towns...Facing the river, they seem to belong to it, having no desire to climb the bluffs and live on the prairie beyond (Botkin 1955)." The Great River Road, a network of federal, state, and county roads paralleling the Mississippi River on both sides, offers access to both the river delta and its inhabitants. Driving through communities oriented to the Delta reveals dynamic relationships between people and the land. Many of these towns, quiet and isolated, have recently reclaimed their ties with the river — the flood walls have been beached allowing access to the river. These communities today actively seek visitors to come and share in their scenic and architectural delights, unchanged for so long.

    Exterior of the Melrose estate at Natchez National Historic Site
    The Melrose Estate at Natchez National Historic Site

    The architectural diversity of the Delta towns is staggering. They reflect Spanish, French, British, German, and early American influences; they have survived floods and wars, and have escaped urban renewal. There are landed estates with Greek Revival homes, such as Melrose in Natchez, sugar plantations along Bayou Lafourche, and churches in Port Gibson. Architectural masterpieces abound: French colonial era structures in Ste. Genevieve and the Cane River area in northwestern Louisiana, the Great American Pyramid in Memphis, and the Vieux Carre’ in New Orleans.

    The lower Delta region’s architectural heritage evokes a sense of the past defined by scale, materials, and layout. Some small Delta towns have physically taken only small steps out of the past century, or sometimes even two centuries. Ste. Genevieve, Kaskaskia Island, and Prairie du Rocher exude their French origins. Farmers and storekeepers swap stories in Chester, New Madrid, Hickman, Helena, Dyersburg, Covington, Greenville, Yazoo City, and Plaquemine.

    Historic farms and small towns are an important element of Delta culture and architecture and there are many styles of folk buildings throughout the region, including dog trot, shotgun, Creole cottage, raised cottage, I-house, center passage house, and undercut galleries, plus barns and gins. For example, until the 1830s log cabins were found throughout Memphis, as well as in the Delta. Simple three-room cabins with full front porches are still fairly common. Sharecroppers were tied to the rural landscape and cabins. Since share-cropping is an extended form of economic slavery, houses, barns, gins, and related structures looked much as they did prior to the Civil War. "The quarters" is a rural plantation manifestation that consisted of a cluster or row of shotgun houses or cabins.

    Several architectural features are important to the Delta region. The porch not only reflects the Delta climate’s high temperatures and humidity, but also the influences of Caribbean and African architecture. Dog trot houses have breezeways to cool residents. In southern Louisiana Cajuns often lived in family clusters on prairies called coves, and informal camps consisting of a shack or hut serve as get-a-ways for hunting, fishing, and relaxing in southern Louisiana.

    The region’s distinctive nonresidential architecture includes churches, riverside warehouses, courthouses, country stores, rice mills, gins, and sugar mills.

    Funerary design is a distinctive architectural form in the Delta region. European cemeteries were sometimes located on Native American mounds, some of which were prehistoric burial grounds. The exact origin of the aboveground burial vaults in New Orleans is unknown. They could be an adaptation to the high water tables or a reminder of the Spanish colonial period, but suffice it to say these burial grounds provide a fascinating lure to visitors.

    The lower Mississippi Delta region’s cultural landscape is composed of human and natural elements, combining sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord. For instance the river grows into an overpowering feature as one travels ever southward:

    I believe only that Eden is still attainable, though not easily; that the Mississippi, great sewer, father of waters, master and slave of its self-created earth, is destined to become the true artery of a nation’s impregnable heart (Carter 1942).

    As the Mississippi River flows to the Gulf of Mexico, the relationship between land and water changes; it is no longer close and intimate, but broad and unknowable. The overwhelming defining feature in the lower Delta is the levee system running for hundreds of miles on both sides of the river. The lower river levee system is a compelling and eye-catching aspect of the landscape and of southern culture. In New Orleans swamp drainage and reclamation altered the landscape dramatically. Residents built the city’s first levees in 1718; now on the west side of the Mississippi River, a single continuous levee system extends from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico.

    But the Mississippi River was never tamed, as the levees failed to deter the river’s periodic onslaughts. After the great flood of 1927, other human-engineered elements became part of the river landscape, including riverbanks stabilized with mats of willows, revetments, mattresses of wire-linked concrete slabs, dikes, floodways, and cutoff channels. During the 1973 flood the river threatened to take the shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico via the Atachafalaya River, hut the Old River control structure, erected by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, held (barely). Twenty years later levees along the lower Missouri and Illinois segment of the lower Mississippi River Delta failed. Numerous farms and several farm villages such as Valmeyer, Illinois, have been relocated on higher ground since that disaster. The river is still the most significant, inspiring feature of the Lower Mississippi Delta region.

    DELTA CULTURES IN LITERATURE AND MUSIC

    The lower Mississippi River Delta is an enduring theme in American literature. It is the source of great fiction and fancy, travel, history and tales — an inspiration to generations of writers. The Europeans who arrived to explore or exploit left accounts of the delta as well. Starting with members of Hernando de Soto’s 1541 expedition, accounts of gold and glory, of death and disease provide a record of a river that now exists only in memory. Fathers Jacques Marquette and Louis Hennepin described the immense size of river, its natural state, and countless species of wildlife. Numerous other travelers have written of their personal discoveries by way of their physical and mental journeys through the unknown.For more than two centuries travelers have described their journeys through the Delta. Jonathan Carver and Samuel S. Forman, in the latter decades of the 18th century, were followed by Zadoc Cramer, who described the delta in 1801. John Bradhury, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens recorded their impressions of the inhabitants and the river, and John James Audubon painted the avian life in this region during the early to mid-1800s. These 19th century traveling authors shared their impressions of the lower Delta country not only with Americans living in the East, but Europe as well.

    Hellhound on my Trail Record cover

    Finally, the floodplain beyond the levees is an internationally recognized landscape feature. The Delta covers 35,000 square miles from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing 219 counties in seven states and approximately 8.3 million people. In northeastern Louisiana, western Mississippi, and southeastern Arkansas, mile after mile of rich, black, alluvial soil stretches before the eye. The Delta supports not only traditional agriculture, thriving communities, and new economic endeavors but an internationally artistic and cultural expression as well. Like the down home blues of Robert Johnson and Elmore James, the lower Mississippi Delta landscape retains its raw, earthy, isolated, sensory, and soulful ethos.

    Historians, too, have chronicled the river and its hinterland’s legacy, interpreting its meaning and significance in the development of the United States, including Francis Parkman and Herri de Tonti retelling the exploits of LaSalle; Clark Wissler’s celebration of the American Indians; Ray Allen Billington’s assessment of the Mississippi valley frontier; Frederick Jackson Turner’s analysis of the Mississippi valley’s significance on the course of American history; and John Francis McDermott’ s celebration of French culture and its accomplishments in the Mississippi valley. Others have chronicled lives of gambling and speculation, the romance of steamboats, the horrors of war, the tragedy of floods, and the river’s supposed conquest by railroads and bridges, dams, and levees. Yet no contemporary historian has assumed the daunting task of researching and writing a historical synthesis of this region. Historians have nibbled around the edges with useful monographs on music, the region’s epicurean delights, Delta-based African-Americans’ march towards racial equality, and other specialized topics, but none have interpreted this complex mosaic in context of America’s growth and development.

    Fictional and autobiographical interpretations of life throughout the Delta recall the sickness, adversity, wonder, and insight that Mississippi River Delta life brought to many. These accounts are cultural classics: Mark Twain learning how to "read" the river; William Alexander Percy walking the levees looking for "boils;" Lyle Saxon describing the "flotsam and jetsam, the riffraff of the world" who gathered above the barrooms of Gallatin Street in New Orleans; William Johnson, a freedman, detailing everyday life in antebellum Natchez; George Washington Cable’s portrait of Louisiana Creoles; and John McPhee describing the near collapse of the Old River control structure during the 1973 flood.

    There are also authors who grew up in the Mississippi Delta who chose to write about the Delta as well as other subjects. The Delta region is not central in their writings, but it contributes to the authors’ outlook. For example, early feminist author Kate Chopin of St. Louis and New Orleans, wrote of a married woman’s "awakening" in a repressive household set in St. Louis. Richard Wright depicted harsh truths about slavery, segregation, and racism, and his best known work, Native Son, is set in a burgeoning African-American community in Chicago, many of whose residents had migrated north from the lower Delta region. Also notable was Ama Bontemps, who depicted the lives and struggles of African-Americans and was a seminal contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, a period of vigorous literary creativity among African-Americans during the 1920s.

    Other Delta-based or inspired authors include Mississippian natives William Faulkner, who used the Delta as the setting for his intricate novels, and Willie Morris, who embodies the southern tradition of backporch storytelling. Eudora Welty’s stories of Southern family life evoke the Southern sense of place so often associated with Southern writers. Cape Fear resident Thomas "Tennessee" Williams shared his perceptions of the colorful delta characters he grew up with in rural Mississippi in his many plays. Historian Shelby Foote, of Greenville, Mississippi, enthralled readers with the personalities, ironies, and triumphs of the Civil War, and Alex Haley of Henning, Tennessee, poignantly depicted the struggles of African-Americans in his works of historical fiction. Contemporary best-selling author John Grisham uses the rich heritage of the Delta as a palette for his popular suspense novels. As Greenville, Mississippi, resident Hodding Carter noted in 1942, however, both the Mississippi River and the Southern Delta tradition remain elusive:

    "…so many have written about the river. . . I have read what most have written, and without them I could not add another book to the list. Yet when you leave them you are still confused, for their eyes saw different things and at different times. The navigator tells his story and the explorer his, and the historian and the planter, the naturalist and the pilot and the soldier. The river is in all of them. But if you try to use them piecemeal, you find a patternless puzzle." (Carter 1942)

    From the earliest oral traditions Delta storytellers possessed a strong sense of place, of which the landscape, water, and heat formed the backdrop. Tragedy and melodrama are popular southern genres, and kinship and family are important themes in Delta literature. Southern class differences and racial conflict have also long given rise to written expression, and the themes of delta writers, especially the elementalism and focus on "blood, sweat and tears" reality, often parallel those of Delta blues songs.

    Music and the lower Mississippi River delta are synonymous and, indeed, the Delta is the cradle of American music. Musical styles within the Delta region are diverse and it was here that the blues, Cajun music, jazz, and zydeco evolved. Yet best known around the world is the blues music of the lower Mississippi River Delta. Developed by people engaged in struggle, infused with spirit and speaking in dialect, the blues are rooted in African music and evolved from field hollars, the work songs of slaves that often carried deeply layered, coded messages. It is said that misery produces creativity and resiliency, and the blues is deeply rooted in the African-American experience and the rural settings of the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas. The blues tell stories of frustrated love, broken homes, and other miscues of an oppressed and displaced people. The blues is a music of hardworking, exploited people and this distinct, indigenous music was largely developed by musicians with no formal training, but with an ear for the rhythms of their daily lives.

    The blues were originally sung and performed throughout the Delta in fields and plantation shacks, churches, tent shows, and juke joints, many of which rarely exist today. Internationally known musicians and composers, such as W. C. Handy, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, and Charlie Patton, performed in Clarksdale, Mississippi, along Issaquena by the tracks, a stretch called "The New World," and in such Clarksdale juke joints as Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Margaret’s Blue Diamond Lounge, and Red’s South End Disco. In Helena, Arkansas, juke joints such as the Hole in the Wall hosted blues players like Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, Elmore James, and Jimmy Rodgers — the "Mississippi Blue Yodeler." In the early 1940s Helena was home to the Delta’s first major radio show with live blues being performed on King Biscuit Time. Today, Helena hosts the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, which attracted some 100,000 music aficionados in August 1996.

    The success of blues music, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Originally a rural sound and strongly connected to place, blues went unrecognized as commercially viable for years, due to racial prejudice and the subsuming of the blues under other types of music, such as jazz and rock & roll. As the Mississippi River facilitated the movement of people and their music all over America, major metropolitan areas along the river, such as New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago soon shared similar musical forms. Later, the blues began to circulate the nation on the radio, first recorded in Memphis before the Depression and later in Chicago. Today rap music is a form of contemporary blues that draws upon past blues’ themes and musicians, but old time Delta blues barely exists and is now mostly for new types of audiences.

    Because cultural creativity in the Delta is synergistic, resulting from the region’s European/African-American/Native American roots, the blues influenced other musical styles as well, including honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, country/ western, swamp pop, and rockabilly. Sun Records in Memphis promoted rockabilly artists Donny Burgess, Ronnie Hawkins, and others, while the clubs of Helena and West Memphis helped launch the careers of Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and Conway Twitty. Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swagert (the televangelist) and Mickey Gilley, raised in and near Ferriday, Louisiana, contributed to the temporal and spiritual musical mixture. Stax, Sun Studios, Millers and other delta recording companies brought the sounds of the Delta to the nation and world. For example, Elvis Presley, who came to musical maturity at Sun records in Memphis, took variants of blues music mainstream in the mid-1950s. Today, music festivals routinely celebrate the Delta region’s varied musical heritage throughout the year, as well as at several celebrations in New Orleans, including Mardi Gras, the Po-Boy Blues Festival, the Louis Armstrong Classic Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

    Unique food preparation, a specialty of the region that is limited only by one’s culinary desires, also defines the Delta. Festivals celebrating food, music, or both are numerous along the river.

    "Livin’ on the Levee" is an annual celebration of Delta food, music, and culture held in West Memphis, Arkansas. An annual Crawfish Festival is held in Dermott, Arkansas. Eudora, Arkansas, is the Catfish Capital of Arkansas, with an annual festival as well. Louisiana’s tourism slogan is "We’re Really Cookin"! The state as a whole boasts regional food with national gusto. The diversity of Louisiana food ranges from northern home cooking to authentic Cajun/Creole cuisine in the south. Frequently copied recipes include black iron skillet cornbread, Louisiana pecan pie, Cajun seafood jambalaya, spinach madeleine, and crabmeat and corn bisque.

    Just as the lower Mississippi River provides nourishment for plants and animals, the Delta region provides inspiration for the cultural life of people who live there. The Delta’s image is reflected literally, figuratively, spiritually, and musically in the rich lives and diverse expressions of its residents.

    Last updated: November 10, 2017