Monday, August 23, 2010

National Geographic Gives Nod to Margaret's Grocery

Many thanks to National Geographic Traveler's travel blog for sharing the word about the Margaret's Grocery Preservation project. Check out the entry here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Miss Margaret on My Mind

I first visited Margaret's Grocery in Vicksburg, Miss., when I started working at the MAC. I made the quick drive over from Jackson and met with Lesley Silver of Attic Gallery. She drove me over to the "Castle," along with two curious tourists who'd learned all about Vicksburg on At the time, both Rev. Dennis and Miss Margaret were still living at the house; both age 93 at the time. Rev. Dennis started our tour with a lesson on the Ark of the Covenant, which sits on his front porch. I don't have a picture of the Ark, but I'm sure there is one out there on the world wide web. The tour continued onward, but I stayed back and spent some time with Miss Margaret.

We talked a bit about the name Margaret, about the unique way they'd chosen to decorate her one-time grocery store and about the upcoming Easter Sunday. She was one of the kindest people I'd met in a while. She reminded me of the salt-of-the-earth Delta people I knew as a girl growing up in Drew, Miss. There was a certain kindness in her demeanor that reminded you of the good in the world. Miss Margaret died about six months later, on October 5, 2009, and Margaret's Grocery hasn't been the same since.

I attended her funeral on a cold, wet Saturday. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The church members invited me to sit with the family. We sat for a bit, then everyone walked outside. I wasn't sure what was happening. Four ladies in what looked like old-timey nurses uniforms guided us back into the church. That's when I understood that I was part of a procession. We followed the pallbearers back into the church as they gently moved Miss Margaret's casket to the front of the sanctuary. We each had a moment to touch her cold hands, peer at her peaceful face, admire the pink satin lining on the pink and chrome casket.

During the service I learned that Miss Margaret had been a pillar there at Cool Springs Church, which sits directly behind her home, Margaret's Grocery. She hadn't missed a meeting in 50 years. Several of the present-day deacons recalled Miss Margaret teaching them their alphabet and subsequently, teaching them to read. The service was long. It was sweet. It was sad.

Rev. Dennis didn't make it to the service. He told the nurses at the nursing home where he and Miss Margaret had been living for the past month that he was sick and couldn't' go. I'm sure he was. Grief will make you physically ill; we all know that.

The following January a young film-maker from LSU screened his documentary, God's Architects, at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center. Rev. Dennis was a featured artist in the film, and a deacon from Cool Springs made sure he was in attendance. I started to cry when Rev. Dennis called out at the sight of Miss Margaret on the screen. It was the first time he'd seen her since they took her away from the room they shared at the nursing home on Cherry Street in Vicksburg.

Since then, a small group of folks have been working together to organize a grassroots effort to save Margaret's Grocery. You can see some bright and vivid images of Margaret's Grocery in its prime here. You can see images from this past December on the Facebook page I created to draw interest in this preservation project.

We have organized a community forum around Margaret's Grocery on Thursday, Aug. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center, so please join us if you can.

If you aren't familiar with Margaret's Grocery or the Rev. H.D. Dennis, or the late Miss Margaret, then please take some time to put them into the "google machine" and learn a bit more about this fantastic folk art site on old Highway 61. A good way to get started is by reading this article by an Atlanta-based photojournalist.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Holmes County Vegetable Farmers

I had the opportunity to spend some time in Holmes County in July, getting to know a group of African-American farmers. The article below is about my experiences there, particularly with Calvin Head, the director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization. The article is a little long, but well worth the read.

Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory stands with Rev. Tom Collins (left), Calvin Head (right) and two youth members of the WHCDO vegetable farming initiative. This image was taken at the first farmers’ market Friday in Lexington on July 9. Mayor McCrory said she’d seen a cross-section of Holmes County citizens at the market that morning. She also said their hope was to open the market earlier in the summer, but their new civic center had been occupied by the Red Cross since mid-April when deadly tornados devastated much of the county.

Calvin Head’s cell phone rings constantly as he steps into the driver’s seat of a white passenger van. As director of the West Holmes Community Development Organization (WHCDO), Head wears many hats, most often at the same time.

Today he is taking me on a tour of the 12 minority-owned vegetable farms in west Holmes County that are participating in the WHCDO farm initiative. Yesterday, he signed off on a federal housing grant and tomorrow he’s heading up a meeting of the community water board. Since 1996, Head has been leading an effort to bring food, jobs, education, housing and hope to the 14 unincorporated villages that make up the poverty stricken region.

“Holmes County has the highest retention of minority-owned land in the country,” says Head as he starts the van. “Because, remember, this was 100 percent owned by blacks after the resettlement deal came in; the 40 acres and a mule concept. The Milestone Cooperative was the farm initiative that started in 1942 and it was a spin off from the Farm Security Administration project. I started as an Americorp Vista and my job was to reorganize the cooperative and get more farmers back into the process.

Head says that in the late 1990s, the new generations of Holmes County residents were not interested in agriculture as their forefathers had been. They began to rent their land to the large landowners in the area as a way to make profit. As part of reorganizing the cooperative, Head took on the task of showing locals that their biggest resource in reaching financial stability was their legacy to the land. He now has 12 farmers on board (ranging in age from 19 to 75) in the vegetable garden process.

“The vegetable gardening initiative is the nucleus of the process,” says Head of the initiatives at the WHCDO. “It is how we generate a lot of our resources and it is where we want to go in the future in terms of wealth creation, to have a place here in the western part of the county that we can bring fresh produce to, to distribute to different entities and industries within and surrounding this county.”

The biggest obstacle now facing the WHCDO is not convincing farmers to grow vegetables, it is getting their storage facility outfitted with the right equipment. Head says once a storage facility is open, more farmers will be willing to participate. According to Head, opening a storage facility will allow them to supply larger markets (the WHCDO has been approached by both Wal-Mart and the local school district) and encourage other farmers to join the vegetable gardening initiative.

“If we can get the storage facility open, with all the markets we have identified, they will see that there is an actual outlet that they can literally take their stuff to; then it will be an incentive for them to grow produce and be a part of the vegetable growing process. So like I say, getting this facility, where they can actually drop their stuff off and see it moving, I think that is going to be the thing that makes them get involved more.”

One of the WHCDO’s biggest markets for fresh produce is through the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. The US Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, generally known as WIC, provides supplemental food (among other services) at no cost to low-income mothers and children. Head says Holmes County has the highest voucher redemption rate in the state for the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, and young people are learning more about healthy eating to boot.

“Most of the people who participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition program, particularly the WIC recipients, they are probably on average 25 to 40 years old. The first year we started, about five or six years ago, they didn’t want to eat the greens and squash and sweet potatoes. They wanted bananas and grapes and apples and things like that. But now they have come around, and I have noticed that they are buying more peas and more greens and more sweet potatoes and more corn and more tomatoes. So, yeah, even the younger generation is understanding that the fast food industry is not the way to go all the time.”

The WHCDO has also seen success through the vegetable gardening initiative by implementing a youth farming and business program. Over 22 young people, roughly between the ages of 15 and 25, have been employed by the WHCDO where they rise early to help the farmers in their fields or meet after the morning’s labor to help distribute the day’s harvest. A youth mentor works with the new participants to help train them for both harvesting and market distribution and pricing.

“The young people have something to do [through this program] to earn money during the summer months and even after school,” says Head. “They participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition program like are now. The young people provide a labor force for the farmers who are used to equipment doing all the work. But the fact is that vegetable production is such a labor-intense process that you have to have some labor as part of the growing process.”

Starting August 1, the WHCDO will take on another USDA initiative to provide senior citizens with fresh produce. The initiative will be implemented through vouchers, the same as the WIC program, but will also place a higher demand for vegetables during the hottest month of the year.

Head says such conditions make the need for a storage facility and refrigeration unit all the more imperative. Although demand is high, the hot weather stresses vegetable growth and makes it difficult to keep the gardens irrigated. The farmers also have less time in the fields as heat index advisories are issued daily. To top it off, Mother Nature is calling for the fields to be plowed and fall crops to be planted.

Head’s cell phone continues to ring and as we drive back to the WHCDO office, his optimism remains high despite the challenges he faces with the hot weather, high demand and limited resources. As he puts the van in park, he lists the benefits that the vegetable growing program has already put into action.

“Getting other farmers to participate, seeing them earn extra money for diversifying, seeing young people and regular people in the community work and earn money so they don’t have to be a burden on their parents, these are the benefits I’m seeing,” says Head.
“We are able to show people the benefits of eating healthy, local-grown produce versus what we are eating that comes from other places. We are trying to grow the community from the inside out by using the resources we have in the community to benefit the people in the community.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Interviews Now Online

Old-time banjo and upright bass player Valley Gordon inside the MPB studio.

Listen to my Arts Hour interviews with roots musician Valley Gordon and blues harp player Grady Champion via podcast.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

one great daddy

Realizing I haven't posted in nearly 15 days, I thought I'd share a bit of my personal life with y'all. Here is a picture of my brother Preston sharing a hotdog with his sweet little girl Lilly Claire (whom I affectionately call LC). I'm constantly amazed at Preston's natural parental instincts, and mighty proud of this cute, friendly and funny little lady.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mother Mound

The big boss man, Malcolm White, and I traveled northeast on March 18 for a meeting at the Tribal Headquarters of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI). We were graced with a gorgeous day, good coffee from Cups in Fondren, and an inadvertent new route to the Pearl River Reservation. We were welcomed upon arrival by our new friend Fred Willis, an intern in the Public Information office of the MBCI, and taken back to the conference room. The path to the conference room was lined with shelves of Choctaw baskets and portraits of past Princesses.

After a great meeting with representatives from the Choctaw Cultural Preservation Program, Roseanna Thompson and Bobby Smith, as well as the Public Information Director Wilma Simpson, we took a tour of the Chahta Immi Center in the Town Center of the Pearl River Reservation. The Chahta Immi Center is in the middle of an exciting expansion where a new archive is being built, as well as an interpretive center and performance space. Right now, the Center is home to various courses in traditional craft (open to both Tribal members and the public), as well as youth education center where the wee Choctaws are taught their original language.

Malcolm White, Roseanna Thompson (MBCI Cultural Preservation Program), myself & Fred Willis (Public Information Office) at the Chahta Immi Center on the Pearl River Reservation.

During our meeting, Wilma shared with us that the Choctaw Nation is a very young tribe. Of the 10,000 members, 50% are age 25 or younger. Nearly 200 Choctaws are born every year and about 100 die. As many of you may have seen in the papers, Chief Philip Martin, who started gaming on the Reservation died in February, just two years after being defeated from his 28-year reign as Chief. Tribal Miko Beasely Denson took office in 2007, becoming the third democratically-elected Chief since the adoption of the Tribe’s modern constitution.

Truly, though, the highlight of our excellent day in Neshoba County was a journey across the county line to the Nanih Wayia Mound, the Mother Mound, in Winston County. Before the journey, Malcolm, Fred and I stopped in for lunch at Peggy's in Philadelphia where we talked family, friends, and food over a gracious plenty of fried pork chops, rice and gravy and corn bread sticks laden with butter. Again, the drive from the Pearl River Reservation to that of the Bouge Chitto Reservation was beautiful. Flowering quince and jonquils dotted property lines. We must have come on leaf burning day, because old men, small families and little ladies alike were all raking the remnants of winter into small, smouldering piles in their front yards.

The Mother Mound sits at the mouth of the Pearl River, a tiny little swamp where the Nanih Wayiah Creek and the Pearl Creek meet to form the river than runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mother Mound was returned to the Choctaw Nation from the state of Mississippi on August 8, 2008, and is considered to be the sacred ground from which the Choctaw people emerged. I won't try to retell the hitory of this hallowed land, but you can read it for yourself here.

The mouth of the Pearl River.

From atop the Mother Mound, the world was quiet and the air was cool. We saw hawks and egrets and little strange mounds of spiked grass that hurt to the touch. We walked around the top of the mound, wondering how many others had since been destroyed by time, weather, man. Fred told us stories of the mound and its connection to the creation of the Choctaw people. He told us of the great joy and celebration upon the return of the mounds to the Choctaws, and the funny tales of people too afraid to enter the cave that neighbors the Nanih Wayia Mound.

Fred and Malcolm at the foot of the Mother Mound.

Malcolm once canoed the length of the Pearl River. Maybe I'll hike the innards of the cave.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's Time: Myles Family Singers on Arts Hour

My Arts Hour interview with the Rev. Marvin K. Myles aired on March 7 on MPB Radio. Rev. Myles is the patriarch of the Myles Family Singers, a family gospel group out of Kosciusko, Miss. The Myles' are originally from Friars Point, a tiny Delta town not too far from my hometown of Drew.

After starting a family in the late '60s, Rev. Myles and wife Olivia moved to Memphis to work. They continued to travel home to Friars Point for Sunday church, and after several years, Rev. Myles could no longer deny his calling to the ministry. Rev. Myles began his ministry in Friars Point, but now serves in Kosciusko at Christian Liberty Baptist Church.

Download the podcast of our interview, and hear about Rev. Myles experiences growing up in a rural community where church was the center of life. Listen to how he raised his children to be singers, and how their family group's repertoire has evolved and developed over the years. Learn more about gospel music as Rev. Myles explains the difference between hymns, gospel songs and Southern gospel music.

Contact the Myles family directly at Christian Liberty Baptist Church to purchase their new album, It's Time, or click here to purchase, MyleStone, their 2001 release.

Friday, March 5, 2010


I have a lot of respect for Como-based artist Jimbo Mathus. He was one of my first guests on the Arts Hour, and has been a big supporter of my work here at the MAC. Back in July 2009, Jimbo invited me and friend Spooky Cole out to his Delta Recording Service to cut a few tracks. Spooky and Jimbo made fast friends, sharing stories about rural Mississippi music. Spooky plays on Friday nights at the Sparta Opry, a dinner theatre of sorts in Houston, Miss.

Starting tonight, Jimbo is taking the stage in his own original musical theatre production, "Mosquitoville: Mississippi Songs and Stories." The production will debut this evening with two show times, 6:30 & 8:30 p.m., at the Panola Playhouse in Sardis.

"Mosquitoville is based on some local history around the 1880s in Quitman County in the early timber industry before the cotton was planted," said Mathus in Scott Barretta's weekly Clarion-Ledger column. "It's based on a journal of a guy from Sledge, Miss., named John Parrot.

While Jimbo's reputation often precedes him as a rapscallion, anyone who's spent time with the man knows he's a kind, gentle soul with a deep connectedness to his Mississippi roots. He's used blues, country, rock and rap as avenues to tell his story, and that of the Mississippi people. The thing I like most about Jimbo, is that he's always trying something new; whether it be a new alias (he's gone by Jas. Mathus, James Mathus, Jimbo Mathus, the Knockdown Society, the Tri-State Coalition), a new musical genre or a new approach to music altogether. Lyrics from past albums prove he's a storyteller, but the Mosquitoville project affirms he's as much a folklorist as he is an entertainer.

To bring Mosquitoville to your community theatre, contact Jimbo's guitarist/studio manager and get ready for a true heritage experience that'll have you laughing, dancing and above all, feeling what it means to be a Mississippian.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts

The Mississippi Arts Commission presents the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts annually to honor outstanding writers, artists, performers, craftsmen and educators who have made significant and lasting contributions through their work as well as to corporations or organizations on the basis of their dedication to arts advancement.

The 2010 winners include David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Wyatt Waters, Bessie Johnson, Lenagene Waldrup and Grassroots Radio Host Bill Ellison. Listen to interview with each of these winners on the Mississippi Arts Hour podcast.

The 2010 Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts ceremony will be held on Thursday, February 25, 2010 at Galloway United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson. It will begin at 1:00pm and is free and open to the public. A reception will be held immediately following the ceremony in the fellowship hall of the church.
This evening we'll have our annual Party Arty at Hal and Mal's. I'm hoping to get a picture with Honeyboy and to have a dance with George Berry, one of Mississippi's finest woodcarvers who also happens to be red hot on the dance floor. We'll have music by soul stirrers Wiley and the Checkmates.
Look for lots of pictures and a full update on today's events here at Living Mississippi.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

when it snows in mississippi...

You aren't going anywhere. This is an image of the catastrophic snowfall at Jackson-Evers International Airport on the morning of Friday, February 12. These mere three inches kept me from a long overdue trip to visit my best friend in Boston-- a place where a little bit of snow doesn't stop the show.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

black & gold weekend in new orleans

We headed down to New Orleans on Saturday morning to celebrate the Saints. After a quick stop in Manchac, Louisiana, at Middendorf's for some po-boys and peel 'em & eat 'em shrimp (oh, and Abitas, of course), we headed into the Big Easy to join our fellow Saints fans. We teamed up with some friends at the Whitney Hotel and walked down to Canal to see one of the first of the many Mardi Gras parades already unfolding.

While New Orleans has a reputation for debauchery during the Mardi Gras season, there was an entirely different vibe during the weekend of the Saint's first Super Bowl. The city was full of fans in black and gold, hollering Who Dat! and having a good time, but rather than being out-of-control, the crowd was moreso over-joyed. We didn't cross a single sullen face the entire weekend. Everyone was (and still is) celebrating their "boys," especially quarterback Drew Brees, whose face was everywhere-- including this George Rodrigue painting of Brees and Blue Dog.

Truly, though, the highlight of our evening (besides tasting my first Pimm's Cup at Napoleon House) was making our way to the Official Saint's Pep Rally at the House of Blues. We got free entry for wearing our Saints gear, and the staff couldn't have been kinder. DJ Captain Charles had us moving on the dance floor like never before! I lost count on the number of brass bands that took the stage, but I didn't forget the funky sounds of the Stooges Band, a hot second line brass band on the New Orleans scene.

Friday, January 29, 2010

on the up and up

Two of my favorite musicians in Oxford, Mississippi, have paired up as a string duo. Their calling themselves Fussell & Hollister, a self-titled band name that beckons to the yesteryear, which is where their musical inspiration can be found. They've been playing regularly in North Mississippi, but I was lucky to catch them in Oktibbeha County at one of my favorite drinking holes, Dave's Dark Horse Tavern.

Fussell & Hollister opened for the semi-defunct Mayhem String Band (listen to my interview with the Mayhem on the Arts Hour), playing a few original tunes such as the heart wrenching "Troubles" and the more playful tune "Donkey Riding." I really dig Jake Fussell's voice-- simple, compelling, warm-- and over the years I've watched Jamison Hollister grow into a fine fiddle player. The duo also played one of my favorite traditionals, "Raggy Levy," and it may be my favorite version yet. Listen to Jake singing "Raggy Levy" on a 2007 episode of Prairie Home Companion.

This is one group I'm going to keep up with in 2010. You should, too.

Friday, January 22, 2010

food, art & music from around the world-- in mississippi!

Catholic Charities, Jackson Mississippi Diocese, celebrated National Migration Week by hosting an international festival in the Leggett Center at Millsaps College. My culturally minded colleague, Diane Williams, drove us over for the festivities, which included foods from around the world, international crafts and salsa dancing. I especially enjoyed a heavily gingered Taiwanese noodle dish. Other interesting dishes included the Yemen desserts and fried cheese from Peru.

The highlight of our lunch outing was a performance by Salsa Mississippi, a Fondren-based studio that hosts beginner to advance lessons, with a dance party every Saturday night to boot! If salsa dancing is nearly as fun & healthful as it seems, lessons may be in my near future.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

jack & johnny podcast now available

If you weren't able to tune in for the interview with old-time musicians Jack Magee and Johnny Rawls, then take advantage of modern technology and download the podcast. You'll find more of my Arts Hour interviews, as well as those of my colleagues Malcolm White, Diane Williams & Larry Morrisey.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Old-Time on the Arts Hour

Tune in to the Mississippi Arts Hour this Sunday at 3 p.m. on Mississippi Public Broadcasting for my interview with old-time music players Johnny Rawls and Jack Magee.

Johnny Rawls is a long-time resident of Mendenahall, but he grew up in Stone County in a musical family. Johnny is a multi-instrumentalist, but he's best known as a banjo player.

Jack Magee is a lifelong resident of Magee where his family has roots stretching back to the early 1800's. Jack has been playing music since an early age, lighting up audiences with his spirited approach to old-time fiddle.

I'll talk with Johnny and Jack about the old-time music scene in Mississippi, and where they find their inspiration. We'll also hear some tunes for the duo-- live from the MPB studios.

Tune in to your local MPB station, or listen online at To learn more about Johnny Rawls and Jack Magee, check out their bios on the Mississippi Folklife and Folk Art Directory