My new friends and I are sitting outside what’s fast becoming my favourite bar in the world: the Under the Hill Saloon in Natchez, Mississippi. Already one man has held forth on the presidential campaign to anyone who’d listen — which, given how entertainingly he did it (‘Donald Trump? Pure white trash’) was most of us. Another has asked me if I’ve ever fired a gun and, if not, whether I’d like to see how much fun it is.
But by this stage it’s getting late, and I really should be going — except that the conversation has just turned to alligator hunting, a subject I’m unlikely to get the chance of ever discussing again. (The key, I now know, is to use rotten chicken as bait.) And all the time, we’ve been able to gaze at the Mississippi river only a few yards away.
These days, the American South doesn’t seem sure whether to market itself as bracingly different from the rest of the country or reassuringly similar. For the British visitor, though, there’s not much doubt about which is more convincing: because the South often makes other parts of America feel almost bloodless by comparison.
Apparently most Brits visiting the region tend to drive straight from Memphis to New Orleans. Yet, by missing out on Mississippi, they’re also missing out on the full-strength, high-tar South at its most compelling. Even the ritziest children’s clothes shops have window signs reading ‘No Guns Allowed’ — and even the sweetest middle-aged female tour guides refer to the American Civil War as ‘the War of Northern Aggression’. Meanwhile, at the average gas station, you’ll search the well-stocked bookstands in vain for anything not Bible-related.
For those who want to explore Mississippi more fully, a good first stop from Memphis is Tupelo, where the house Elvis was born in has pride of place — and, as it consists of two tiny rooms, takes only a few minutes to tour. (The 50 miles from Graceland suddenly seems a very long way.)
There’s also Elvis’s favourite local burger joint, Johnnie’s, with an impeccably southern sign on the door saying ‘Closed on Sundays — Gone to Church’; and, for the true disciple, the hardware store where he got his first guitar — an ‘X’ now marks the spot where he was standing at the time.
If it’s more highbrow culture you’re after, another 50 miles brings you to William Faulkner’s grand southern house in Oxford, which still has the phone that brought him the news that he’d won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. The nicely indiscreet guide will also point out the -various neighbouring houses where his mistresses lived.
As the home of Ole Miss University, Oxford has an unusually bustling central square that, as the locals naturally tell you, had to be rebuilt after the Yankees burned it down. It’s different from many nearby towns in another way too — not so much in boasting of its many upmarket bars and restaurants, but in actually having them. This difference is especially marked once you reach the Mississippi Delta.
In recent years, the area has made serious efforts at rebranding — but fortunately, these haven’t been entirely successful. (After all, who goes to the Delta in search of a ‘fine dining experience’?) On the one hand, there are definite pockets of hipsterdom, as well as a national Grammys museum opening this March in what’s officially sanctioned as ‘the birthplace of America’s music’. On the other, the generally down-at-heel atmosphere is an evocative reminder of why the Delta gave birth to the blues — as opposed to say, show tunes.
And if you want to learn how, there’s an extremely handy blues trail. This includes, for example, the Dockery Plantation, which winningly retains the bleak feel of its cotton-picking days, but also has a button you can press that allows you to hear Charley Patton singing just as he did in that very spot 100 years ago. The stirring B.B. King museum not far away starts with King being born into utter poverty, and ends with him meeting popes and presidents.
After the Delta, Natchez initially seems impossibly wealthy, with its unsurpassed collection of staggeringly opulent plantation owners’ houses which somehow escaped that northern aggression. (Before the civil war, the town had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in America.) Fans of symbolism should especially seek out Longwood, which in 1861 was on track to be one of the most opulent of all — until the war broke out and the northern craftsmen downed tools and headed home, leaving time so frozen that today the bare upper floors contain only boxes of unused 19th-century building materials.
But all that’s on top of the hill where Natchez mostly stands. Head down to the banks of the Mississippi and, in another piece of neat symbolism, you’re in a place where the less salubrious riverside activity that underpinned the town’s wealth (with the help, admittedly, of all that slavery) is commemorated on the walls of the aforementioned world’s best bar.
To end your trip in more conventional holiday style, there’s always Biloxi on the Gulf Coast. With its perfect (man-made) beaches, terrific seafood restaurants and, if you’re that way inclined, vast casinos, you’d be hard pressed not to have a good time there. The only trouble is that it’s the kind of good time you could have almost anywhere — which, I still maintain, is not what you go to Mississippi for.
For more information, please visit: www.deep-south-usa.com or www.visitmississippi.org