"The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks." — Tennessee WilliamsMaybe it is simply a miracle. Maybe it is a kind of artistic astronomy — how talents, like comets, streak across the scene to disappear into history, or more often, become supernovas of such power and brilliance they illuminate the cosmos for us all.
Can there ever be a logical explanation for this star-studded region? Can it ever be explained how one small corner of one small state has somehow produced a veritable Who's Who of creative arts? Icons whose influence not only continues to resonate the world over, but who, in many cases, changed the world as we know it: William Faulkner, Elvis Presley, Tennessee Williams, Howlin' Wolf, Tammy Wynette, John Grisham and Oprah Winfrey, and that's just to name the most well known.
But if the "how" can never be known, the "when" is a matter of a record, even if some of that record was lost to history once the vibrant arts of the Chickasaw and Choctaw civilizations were submerged in the deluge of white settlement that began in the Mississippi Hills in the 1830s.
In those early days, it was homesteads and towns, plantations and fortunes that were the settlers' shining creations. However, as the century drew to a close, the first glimmers of creative greatness emerged, from sources that couldn't have been more dissimilar: A runaway bride, a reckless tycoon, a courageous crusader, and a Southern belle with a secret.
End of the century, beginning of an era.
In the late 1800s, a trio of women — writer Sherwood Bonner, painter Kate Freeman Clark and writer and crusader Ida B. Wells — blazed a trail out of Holly Springs that at the time few women anywhere could have conceived.
The daughter of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell did the unthinkable: in 1873 she left her husband and her baby daughter to head for Boston to carve out a career as a writer. The poet Longfellow soon became her mentor and patron, and her travel articles and short stories, written under the pen name Sherwood Bonner, began receiving national acclaim. Bonner's name might be as well known today as Longfellow's had yellow fever and then cancer not cut short her dreams when she was only thirty-four.
Death also touched Ida B. Wells at a young age, but it was the death of her parents when she was only sixteen, leaving her with five younger siblings to care for. At a time when Southern society hardly encouraged African Americans to even read or write, Wells went on to Rust College in Holly Springs, and then to her first career as a teacher. But when she was barred from a ladies railroad car, Wells found her true calling — 71 years before Rosa Parks' landmark court action, Wells sued for discrimination, and although the judgment in her favor was overturned, her writing career was launched as she took her argument to print. In 1889 she became co-owner of The Free Press, operated out of Beale Street in Memphis. Although Wells' courageous stance against lynching eventually forced her into exile from her native South, her voice was never silenced.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Holly Springs painter Kate Freeman Clark, whose talent ultimately had to speak for her.
The belle and the bold.
Born into the wealthy and politically connected Walthall family, Kate Freeman Clark seemed destined for the typical life of the Southern belle, but her passion and talent led her to take up a life of painting in New York City, albeit with her mother and often her grandmother in tow as her chaperones. As a well-regarded protégé of noted American portraitist William Merrit Chase, Clark created more than 1,000 delicate and sophisticated still lifes and portraits, and saw her paintings recognized and exhibited in prestigious venues while she was still a young woman.
However, when her mother, grandmother and mentor all passed away within a span of a few years, Clark put all of her works into New York City storage, retreated to Holly Springs to the guise of mild-mannered spinster, and against the protests of her New York friends, never painted again. It would be decades before the residents of Holly Springs would even learn of Clark's luminous talent, thanks to a surprising bequest in her will, for her very own museum to display her works.
That kind of conflicted modesty would have been inconceivable to Colonel William C. Falkner, lawyer, planter, politician and best-selling novelist whose White Rose of Memphis helped finance Falkner's other creation, the Ripley Railroad. The plotline of White Rose, a murder mystery set on the steamboat of that same name, could hardly rival the drama of the real life of the Colonel, who fought in two wars, who gained and lost his Civil War command through his hard-charging leadership, who claimed to have killed two men in self defense, and whose own life ended when he was gunned down on the street by his former business partner.
Falkner's life and fiction might have become the stuff of merely local lore had it not been for a highly select audience of one, a grandson born seven years after the Colonel's death, a child who would eventually become one of the world's greatest novelists.
1920s and 30s: Shattering high notes.
The first Oxford resident to make his mark in American letters was the critic and novelist Stark Young, who after graduating Ole Miss headed first to Texas where he founded Texas Review and then to New York City where he became a critic for the New Republic. In 1930 he made his stand as one of the 12 Southern Agrarians, a seminal group that included the poet Robert Penn Warren. Young's 1932 epic novel of the antebellum South, So Red the Rose, was a national bestseller that set the stage for the adventures of Rhett and Scarlett later in the decade.
Yet even as Young was wading through high cotton and hoop skirts, his friend and fellow Oxford resident William Faulkner was busy dismantling forever the way novels would be read and written. Faulkner began his career in the 1920s in a small room in the upstairs corner of his parents' home, using corn liquor as a sometime companion as he tackled the myths and legends of family, region and man. By the early '30s he had married, bought a home, a dilapidated mansion he christened Rowan Oak, and had already published Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary, with even more to come.
The twenties and thirties saw other Hills artists achieve big breakthroughs. After traveling the country working at everything from busking to minstrel and medicine shows, DeSoto County guitar greats Joe Callicot, Garfield Akers, Frank Stokes and Elijah Avery finally began their Memphis recording careers in the 1920s, Stokes as part of the Beale Street Sheiks, Avery as part of Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers.
It wasn't a traveling musician, but rather a traveling salesman who became the subject of Eudora Welty's breakthrough: after attending Mississippi State College for Women (now the Mississippi University for Women) in the 20s, she published her first short story, "The Death of a Traveling Salesman" in 1936. That same year, Juilliard-trained singer Ruby Elzy made her concert debut with George Gershwin and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, having already wowed critics and audiences alike with her performance as Serena in the opera Porgy and Bess. Born in Pontotoc and "discovered" while a student at Rust College, Elzy still found time to come back home to sing in church in between performances at the White House, in movies and on radio. She was about to make her debut as Aida when she died in 1943 at age 35.
Though he would, decades later, enjoy a movie debut, there would never be any formal training for Othar Turner. Yet in 1923 his gift was no less exciting when at the age of sixteen, he carved his first fife out of sugar cane, and began to play with fife and drum musicians at parties and picnics around the Holly Springs and Como areas. Turner's propulsive style, sprung more from African rhythms than Colonial heritage, would influence later Hills musicians as they created their own style of blues.
1940's: The cats begin to play.
By the forties, as Faulkner toiled and drank his way through more stints at the Hollywood studios, writing for movies like To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, another writer from the Mississippi Hills found his name in lights and his position assured in the pantheon of the New York stage, with the premier in 1948 of his Pulitzer-prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire. Another Pulitzer would follow for former Columbus resident Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams, and more hits like Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Back home in the hard-scrabble Hills, Othar Turner continued his own distinctive and distinctly un-star-studded path. Unlike the acclaim that accompanied other Hills artists — or even Delta blues musicians, many of whom were finding their way to Chicago clubs and recording studios — Turner's fame was local and yet intense; his fife and drum music became a prominent influence on other area bluesmen like Mississippi Fred McDowell whose driving style would become known as "country blues."
In the late 1940s, there were other Hills writers and musicians coming of age who would go on to find worldwide fame. A young black serviceman just out of World War II was finding his voice — or rather his howl — even as a young white boy from Tupelo prowled Beale Street for insight into his own musical identity.
1950's: A wang dang wolf and a king like nobody else.
In 1951, West Point native and WWII veteran Chester Arthur Burnett already had his own gig at a West Memphis radio station when he auditioned for Sam Phillips at the now famed Sun Records. And by the mid 1950's, settled in Chicago, Burnett had hit the charts with "Evil" and "Smokestack Lightning." His 1962 "Howlin' Wolf" album electrified the zeitgeist, with American and British bands lining up to "pitch a wang dang doodle."
The genius of another Hills native, a young truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley, was less apparent when he came into Sun Records in 1953 to pay $3.98 to record a couple of demos that he reportedly gave to his mother. But the next year when he sat in on a session with Sun regulars Scotty Moore and Bill Black, the three recorded Arthur Crudup's bluesy "That's All Right, Mamma." It was a lark; he was only "acting a fool," Elvis said later, but in a single beat, the young truck driver's world changed and so did ours. By the time he returned to his hometown of Tupelo to play the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair in 1956, Elvis was the first global superstar.
Although his style showed an amalgam of influences, from gospel to bluegrass to country to blues, Elvis was only telling truth when he said, "I don't sound like nobody else." That kind of sturdy individualism also applied to bluesmen like Turner and McDowell and Junior Kimbrough playing Mississippi Hills house parties and picnics throughout the fifties, carving out their own particular styles.
Future blues great R. L. Burnside considered a new life in Chicago during the fifties, since much of his family had migrated there, including his cousin by marriage, blues legend Muddy Waters. But when Burnside's father, brother and uncle were all killed within a few weeks of each other, Burnside retreated to Holly Springs to a hard and ragged life that would inform the raw sound of his own raucous country blues.
While home to a thriving if largely underground blues scene, in the late fifties the Mississippi Hills also became the backdrop for a public scandal that almost the ended one rock and roll career, when Jerry Lee Lewis married his teenaged cousin in Hernando, and went from playing $10,000 concerts to $100 beer joints. It would take decades and a switch to country music to revive his career, but by then another Hills native was already at the top of the charts and the top of her game, ruling over Nashville as the First Lady of Country Music.
1960s and 70s: More stars on the rise.
Born in Tremont and trained at beauty school in Tupelo, Tammy Wynette loaded her two small children into the car and headed for Nashville in 1966. Her first big hit, "Apartment #9," came out that same year, and by 1969 she had become the first female country artist to earn a gold record, selling more than a million copies of her Greatest Hits.
Another female artist from the Hills found her star rising in the sixties, when she herself was also in her sixties. Primitive painter Theora Hamblett, who hadn't had an art lesson until she fifty five years old, rendered scenes from her childhood in bright bold strokes that caught the imagination of collectors and critics from all over the nation.
Although the sixties and seventies were also book-ended by the deaths of two giants — Faulkner in 1962, Elvis in 1977 — their legacies refused to be dimmed by the passage of time. And in the meantime, two more phenomena would arise from the Mississippi Hills, one who would make worldwide best sellers, the other who would create them.
Oxford, Oprah, Otha and Onward.
A Southaven resident who graduated Mississippi State and University of Mississippi law school, John Grisham began his writing career modestly enough, with A Time to Kill in 1988, but his second novel The Firm rocketed his name to the top of best-seller charts where it has stayed year after year since then.
Kosciusko native Oprah Winfrey also found her voice in 1980s, first as a local talk show host, and then as the host of her own nationally- syndicated show. In 1985, she was cast in the movie The Color Purple, based on the novel she would later champion in her world-famous book club.
The eighties also saw Oxford and the University of Mississippi come into their own as centers of literary and artistic endeavors. The Center for Southern Culture took the lead on the academic front, and with noted Mississippi writers Barry Hannah and Willie Morris taking positions on the Ole Miss staff, mentoring writers like Grisham and Donna Tartt, whose debut Secret History earned critical kudos as well as best-seller status. Oxford fireman Larry Brown traded his firehose for prose, and soon other writers were flocking to the area, some of them as part of the John and Renee Grisham writers-in-residence program.
Rock stars like members of U2 and the Rolling Stones also began making pilgrimages to the Mississippi Hills to hear the blues at Junior Kimbrough's Holly Springs juke joint, where Kimbrough and Burnside and their multitude of children came to jam. A record label was formed in Oxford for the express purpose of recording these country blues legends, and Otha Turner finally got his movie debut when filmmaker and music aficionado Martin Scorsese tapped him for the soundtrack of the film Gangs of New York, and also included the musician in the film documentary "The Blues."
Today, while Kimbrough, Burnside and Turner have all passed away, their children and grandchildren carry on their traditions, including Duwayne Burnside, R.L. Burnside's son and a former member of the North Mississippi Allstars. This award-winning blues-rock/jam band was formed in 1996 in Hernando by brothers Luther and Cody Dickenson and Chris Chew and seems a continuation of the great DeSoto County guitar tradition. Recently, Oprah selected William Faulkner's works for her Book Club selection, a choice that in an elemental way summed up genius of the Mississippi Hills: The circle will be unbroken, our stars will continue to shine.