On The Road to the Jewish Deep South - The Mississippi Delta
Being from Chicago, we like to think of our city as "The Home of The Blues." The Chicago blues festival is said to be the largests free blues fest in the world! We had Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, and still have Buddy Guy - but Guy was born in Louisiana, Taylor in Tennessee, and Muddy Waters in the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues.
Our tour today begins in Indianola Mississippi at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. Riley B. King was born September 16, 1925 in a small town near Indianola. He grew up playing guitar and singing in church with the St. Johns Gospel singers. He also played for tips on Saturday nights along Church Street. To do both was frowned upon, so he left for Memphis and began his career as B.B. King. This state-of-the-art exhibit follows King's journey from the early days (his debut single, "Miss Martha King" was recorded at black-staffed and managed radio station WDIA) to his current concert tours. Being a music lover, I could have stayed here all day learning and listening. I was most moved, though, by the emotional story of this musical icon. **Fun fact: B.B. King's guitars are named "Lucille." The story goes, around 1950 King was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas. Things got out of hand and a fight broke out, knocking over a kerosene stove that set the hall on fire. B.B. almost lost his life running back in to save his beloved guitar! When he found out the fight started over a woman named "Lucille" he gave that name to his guitar to remind himself to never do anything that risky again!
Our lunch at the Crown Restaurant is filled with southern hospitality. We are joined by Steve Rosenthal, the newly elected Jewish mayor of Indianola! How (and why!) does a Jewish man become mayor of a southern town of less than 12-thousand residents - 70% African American? Mayor Rosenthal's father immigrated from Lithuania. Like so many Jewish immigrants in the south, he became successful in retail. Steve continued in the family business, catering to all the townsfolk, black and white. When he ran for office in 2010 he became the first mayor to win all 5 wards with 80% of the vote. He attributes this to the good relationship he forged with the entire community over the years. As mayor, his primary goal is help residents become more self-sufficient and less government dependent, through improvements in education. As far as being one of only 5 Jewish families in town - Rosenthal states, "If you want a good Jewish lifestyle in Indianola, you have to work at it!" - something he's not afraid to do.
Our appetites satisfied, with drive 30 minutes to Greenville to visit the Hebrew Union Temple, once the largest congregation in Mississippi. This reform congregation now has only 48 members, but they are passionate about preserving their history. President Richard Dattel and Vice President Benjy Nelken tell our group how they grew up in an "oasis of tolerance;" a liberal community free of anti-semitism. They show us the Century of History Museum within the synagogue, filled with photos and artifacts from temple members involved in the Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam, to name a few. **Chicago connection: Each year the congregation hosts a deli luncheon fundraiser, serving 15-hundred corned beef sandwiches. The corned beef is trucked in from Vienna Beef in Chicago!
We continue to Cleveland MS and the classroom of Dr. Luther Brown, Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. Here we learn that the Mississippi Delta region was still a 90% swampy wilderness at the time of the Civil War! By 1900, African Americans owned 2/3 of the farm in the Delta. Between 1870 and 1930 the Delta region had more lynchings than anywhere else in the south. We also found out that while the Delta is widely known as The Birthplace of the Blues, it also gave birth to Rock 'n' Roll! **Chicago connection: Dr. Brown is from Elmhurst! He graduated from York High School.
At our final stop we come full circle. Nearby Dockery Farms was established in 1895 by Will Dockery to produce cotton. As B.B. King stated, "You might say, it all started right here." This plantation community of several thousand workers gave birth to the Blues; their songs would influence popular music all over the world.
Barbecue tonight at Rendezvous Restaurant in Memphis. One more stop tomorrow.