A Mississippi Journey, 1989
Part six of a six-part series.
Land of Dreams
“A boy is born / in Hard Times, Mississippi” sang Stevie Wonder in his hit ‘Living for the City’. The boy’s parents, though, probably called it Hard Times, Louisiana, if they were living there before the Mississippi River altered its course one night and changed their postal address.
Further down the river though, the plantation owners of St Francisville, Louisiana didn’t see too many hard times. Early in the 19th century half the millionaires in the United States lived between Natchez and St Francisville. The area has the perfect soil for growing cotton because, before the levees were built, the river would flood every year and deposit new, rich topsoil on the land. The silt was just like fertiliser, and with only a couple of good cotton crops, a large plantation owner could earn a million dollars.
“The wealth they had is unlike anything we see today,” said Will Mangham. “Four hundred slaves would be worth $1,500,000 to them as a commodity. That’s what they were, there were no questions of ethics.”
Will was up from Baton Rouge for the day to show us St Francisville, and his speaking voice, with its relaxed rhythms and idiomatic expressions, told us that we’d crossed the boundary from Mississippi to Louisiana: we were getting closer to New Orleans.
St Francisville is in “English Louisiana” – as opposed to the French-influenced regions. But a class consciousness comes with the name. “If your grandparents weren’t born here, you’re a newcomer. I don’t belong here, and they let me know it all the time. “
The small town’s main attraction is Rosedown, one of the first antebellum mansions to be opened to the public. Its owner, who had 450 slaves, built it in 1835, and though the house is relatively small – 6000 square feet, compared to Longwood’s 30,000 – there was no restraint when it came to the garden.
Rosedown is a horticulturalist’s heaven. Its garden was inspired by those at Versailles, which was visited by the owner and his wife on their honeymoon. The 28 acres of garden are formally laid out, with a long avenue of oaks and miles of paths through forests of trees and bushes. Dotted among the ancient camellias and giant azaleas are statues, gazebos, summer houses and fountains.
The house was spared in the Civil War because General Grant took his army up the other side of the river (though the family hid their silver in a pond). But the garden was an overgrown jungle when it was bought in 1956 by Catherine Fondren Underwood of Texas. She embarked on an ambitious programme of restoration. I asked if she was one of the Underwoods of typewriter fame.
“No, they weren’t typewriter people,” said Will. “They were O-I-L people. Before there was Exxon, there was Esso. Before that it was Standard Oil. And before that there was the Fondren family. So no – she didn’t type.”
Next day, we’d be in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana state capital, and I mentioned to Will that I was interested in their celebrated politicians. “Which one?” he said. “We have so many – eccentric politicians are our specialty.”
But the legacy of Huey P Long dominates the skyline of Baton Rouge. A bronze statue of the popular demagogue, who was Governor of Louisiana during the 1930s’ Depression, stands in front of the state Capitol building he erected while in office. Considered a modern classic, the Capitol building is a skyscraper of 34 storeys, a triumph of art deco design and a tribute to the power of Long: it took just over a year to build.
In the opulent marble corridor on the ground floor though is evidence that not all Louisianan citizens were fond of Long’s benevolent dictatorship, corruption and nepotism. The walls are dotted with bullet holes from the day he was assassinated in 1935.
Ira Babin was our guide, a Baton Rouge native, and with Will he shared a witty respect for its eccentricities. His grandfather was one of Long’s many bodyguards when he was shot by a local doctor. One bullet killed Long: his bodyguards responded with 32.
Ira, though, accentuates the positive when speaking of Long. He could have been singing Randy Newman’s tribute, ‘Kingfish’: “Who built the highway to Baton Rouge? / Who put up the hospital and built your schools?” One typical Huey move turned Baton Rouge into a major port: he built a low bridge over the Mississippi so no ocean-going vessels could sail any further north, and had to unload at Baton Rouge.
Governors of Louisiana since then have continued in Long’s style. His brother Earl was committed into a mental institution by his wife during his tenure as Governor. When asked if a recent Governor was still in prison, Ira replied, “No – he’s been pardoned my dear.” A governor during the 60s, Jimmy Davis, also wrote ‘You Are My Sunshine’. “Sunshine was his horse,” said Ira. “He took him up the steps of the Capitol once and explained that Sunshine had never seen his office. Davis still sings at the First Baptist Church. He’s the only Louisiana governor in demand.”
Ira drove us through the vast grounds of the Louisiana State University – the LSU was a pet project of Long’s, so he diverted state funds for buildings and the football team (whose supporters are “the loudest and most obnoxious in the country,” said Ira, again echoing Newman).
At the LSU is an outdoor rural museum that shows the flipside to the plantation wealth: the slaves’ quarters. On the walls of one of the wooden cabins is an old newspaper advertisement:
PUBLIC SALE OF NEGROES
Pay Half Cash, the Rest on a Two Year Mortgage
For sale — Two likely young Negro wenches, one 16, the other 13, both of whom have been taught and are accustomed to house duties. The 16-year-old has one eye but is a bright mulatto of mild tractable dispositions, unassuming manners and genteel appearance.
The temperature had been 105ºF when we had left Memphis; as we came south the humidity had become more debilitating. “I live for the azaleas, but the damn weather messes ’em up,” said Ira. The Spanish moss which drips like khaki lace from every tree in Louisiana wasn’t thriving that year. Was it cyclical? wondered Ira. Or the pollution?
It was probably the pollution. The 150 mile stretch of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is infamous. It has the nickname “Cancer Alley” because it has the highest concentration of toxic industries anywhere in the US. More than 130 major industrial plants line the banks, most of them producing petrochemical products such as plastics, pesticides and fuel oils. The toxic pollution they produce is about eight times the national average, causing abnormally high rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.
The traffic on the river was certainly building up. The Mississippi Queen was now fighting for space with tow boats, barges and tankers. It was our last night on the river, and that evening I skipped dessert at the captain’s table to go up to the pilot house and see what it was like manoeuvering the boat in the dark. At the helm was Captain John Davitt, 31 years old but with a decade’s experience on the river.
A powerful searchlight scanned the river in front of the boat. Lighting up the small room was a radar with a constantly changing picture of bends in the river and foreign objects. Piloting at night was no big deal, said Davitt. “You just have to use instruments. But it takes a lot of practice to get good. The radar might show an object, but is it a log or a buoy? The weather’s a big factor. In rainstorms you can’t see a thing, and squalls can send anchored ships everywhere.
“A pilot is an expert over his route. He knows how to interpret the radar, knows the currents and the channel you’re in. The traffic here is tremendous – America is feeding the world via the Mississippi.”
He was in constant radio contact with other vessels on the river. “I’m behind you ... I’ll stick to the left bank ... All right captain, I’ll get out of your way quick as I can.”
“You’re always thinking ahead: where are we gonna meet? Is he big or small? Have we met before? Do you know the voice – is he any good? You have to have confidence so you don’t let another pilot put you in a tough spot. It’s easy to get rattled, like on the highway.”
Davitt was scornful of Jonathan Raban taking on the Mississippi in a small boat (though in this stretch he hitched a lift on a tanker). “You don’t want to be out here in a small boat. There’s so much traffic, you can get run over. We can’t stop in a hurry. The current is so swift and there’s so much driftwood it can knock your engine off ... no, there’s too many good places to go, plenty of bayous and lakes ... you’d have to be nuts.”
The river has changed since Mark Twain’s day, said Davitt, but piloting hasn’t. Twain said a pilot “was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived the earth.” You can see why the job usually passes from father to son.
It was our last night on the boat. After dessert with my prim tablemates, we all had to go through the ritual of tipping the crew-members we had dealt with: waiters, porters, bar staff, cleaners. The tips were well deserved, it was the method that was odd: each person had to receive theirs in an individual envelope, making it embarrassing for both parties. The Mississippi Queen experience had been friendly but formal, in that American corporate way: that night the barmaids told me that the steamer had made an unscheduled stop after midnight earlier that week, to drop off a young male attendant who had been sacked for fraternising with the daughter of two passengers. When I finally went to my cabin, I found two glasses of liqueur on my bedside table, sickly sweet and undrinkable. An appreciated, subversive gesture – or the wrong cabin?
AT FIRST LIGHT the steamboat docked at the Robin Street wharf in New Orleans. My Mississippi journey, and visit to the United States, was over. As the elderly passengers caught cabs to the French Quarter, or to the airport to fly home to the Midwest or California, I went to the Delta Queen Steamboat Company office to thank the benefactors I’d never met. They seemed amused with me: no one from so far away, with a pack full of worn out clothes, had been on the boat before.
New Orleans has been described as an “aging courtesan, selling off her party clothes one at a time.” That’s certainly what it’s like outside of the Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival around Easter, when the city enjoys its heritage for more than the tourist dollars it brings.
The rest of the year, by day buskers gather in Jackson Square, running though ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ one more time for a few quarters; tired horses drag cartloads of tourists around the narrow, shabby streets of the Quarter; all the shops seem to be full of tacky souvenirs with corny slogans on a Dixieland jazz or gumbo theme. At night male visitors in town for a convention shuffle around Bourbon Street in suits, their ties unravelled and nametags still attached, taking in the journeyman bar bands or the sleazy strip shows.
I went to stay one last night with a friend on the edge of the Garden District. The area deserves its name, being full of lovely old homes built for plantation owners who came into town with their debutante daughters for the ball season. When I’d stayed there four months earlier, a brass band of young blacks boogied their way down the street one morning in a spontaneous parade, the “second line” syncopations enticing kids out from behind the screen doors. “Oh, we don’t need a reason for a parade here,” said my host.
The next morning she drove me to the railway station, through streets that oozed poverty: tenement buildings, deteriorating shacks. After the luxury of the Mississippi Queen, the train ride to New York was to be a trip back to reality: 30 hours sitting up, in a carriage not unlike the old express on New Zealand’s Main Trunk Line. As the train pulled out of New Orleans, past the fishing shacks on poles out in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain, I flicked on my radio. The song was ‘Route 66’.
That’s it, folks. I headed north on the Amtrak train to New York, a 30 hour journey that passed quickly thanks to two fascinating passengers, that are still memorable 24 years on: an academic with the nickname “Dr Death”, for that was his subject; and a fabric buyer from Virginia who was an encyclopaedia of Southern Culture almost as knowledgeable as the fat, heavy, wonderful book of that name, which I carried all the way home. Thanks again to local friends Ben Sandmel and Lorraine Achee; and Patti Young of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans. The journey took place in July 1989, and I wrote it at an Utiku hideaway a year later. In November 1990 the river sections of the story – parts three to six – were published in More magazine, edited by Shelley Clement.