Memphis Blues, Mississippi Delta Roots

A random jaunt through the hallowed region that flavors the culture of its urban cousin to the north

Along his tour of Mississippi, writer Jamie Katz took a detour into Tunica's gambling emporia. (Hemis / Alamy)

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Halfway to Oxford, you pass though Marks, Mississippi, which happens to be the birthplace of Fred W. Smith—founder and CEO of Memphis-based FedEx. But the town’s claim on history comes mostly from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was stirred to tears by the conditions he found there in 1968—poverty so entrenched that hundreds of children went without shoes or regular nutrition. He decided that Marks was an appropriate place to begin his Poor People’s March to Washington, D.C.—an epic campaign he didn’t live to see concluded. One-third of Marks’ residents still live in poverty.

Oxford, Mississippi, deserves a journey of its own—I’m afraid my quick foray through the Ole Miss campus and some charming downtown streets only whetted my appetite. Having just fallen under Ms. Nickki’s spell, though, I was more curious to continue on to her native Holly Springs, to complete the circle.

There are other important Memphis connections in Holly Springs. It was the birthplace of the legendary Memphis machine politician E.H. “Boss” Crump, and of Ida B. Wells, the early civil rights advocate and feminist who published her newspaper, Free Speech, in the basement of the First Baptist Beale Street Church. Holly Springs was also one of the hometowns of the Confederate general Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, who was so lionized in Memphis that in 1904, the city erected an impressive equestrian statue to mark his grave site in the Union Avenue park named for him. Considered a brilliant military tactician, he was also accused of massacring black Union prisoners under his command at Fort Pillow in 1864; Forrest was later installed as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. For his Confederate zeal, he is still revered by white supremacists, more so than the kinder, gentler Robert E. Lee, for example. Needless to say, Forrest’s continuing place of honor in a majority African-American city sparks some controversy.

Holly Springs today has a satisfying old main square that made Oxford’s even look a little fussy. But it was late in the day when I finally arrived, and there were notable sights I’d probably never get to see, such as the juke joint Robert Gordon described as his all-time favorite. He was taken there by Junior Kimbrough, a local bluesman. “It was in a house in the middle of a cotton field,” Gordon recalled. “The party was roaring. They were selling fruit beer in the kitchen, and Junior was throwing down in the living room.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with that expression, it’s a high compliment.


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