NATCHEZ, Miss. — To many Americans, the rural south of Mississippi and nearby states remain a mystery. Travelers seldom talk with people who live here, whether visiting or not. Even guided tours of towns, monuments, and hallowed grounds tend to focus on the Civil War and a way of plantation life that ended, more or less, 150 years ago.
Through this countryside flows America’s greatest river, the Mississippi, which hasn’t changed much for centuries and remains relatively untamed, as recent floods attest. Hard-picked cotton and Mark Twain floated this way, and so did the old paddle-wheelers that are no longer in service.
New vessels have modernized the accommodations and experiences of floating on Old Man River, so you may watch the South roll by, framed from a swath of natural beauty and peace (after the annual flooding dissipates). You may visit an occasional antebellum mansion for antiques-viewing and attempts at cultural explanations, then walk the battlefield of Vicksburg National Military Park to contemplate the “how-could-we-all-have done-that?”
Today’s cruises on the Mississippi River also offer new excursions, designed for curious travelers to rummage about the river towns, and opportunities to get deeper onto the soil and closer to the soul of the South. The Mississippi Delta has fascinating stories to tell, and many arrive with a rhythm. You may venture into country towns to listen to the haunting Delta Blues that simmered in the hearts of old Mississippians and became a huge piece of the music of America.
Recently, we spent more than a week on and off the Mississippi River, most of our days cruising on the American Duchess between Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans. The 166-passenger Duchess is one of the newer riverboats that are operated by an expanding American Queen Steamboat Co., the same firm that owns Victory Cruise Lines with new plans and schedules for passenger ships on the Great Lakes.
If you’ve never floated on the Mississippi, you may be surprised at a river stretch of nature that runs for 150 miles north of Vicksburg. On both sides of the water the banks are brush and marsh — not a town nor a house is visible — better viewed than trespassed. It is a habitat for owls, ducks, raccoons, beavers, otters, turkeys, coyotes, eagles, turtles, snakes, bears, deer, red fox, catfish, and an occasional gator. The map on our phones often showed an unseen highway less than a mile away, but Google showed that the nearest coffee shop or gas station was at least 20 miles.
Far from a lazy Huck Finn voyage, however, much of our cruise provided eye-openers that came from conversations ashore, explorations in museums, and listening to the music of the Delta. We walked the river towns, hopping on and off our ship’s complimentary tour buses when weather turned drizzly. We rode bikes in the country. And oh, yes, we went to prison. (More about that later.)
For many Mississippi river-goers, music is a major attraction. If you are an Elvis fan, you will want to allow time in Memphis to visit Graceland and other places affiliated with “The King.” It’s worth the time to plan a pre- or post-cruise pilgrimage to Tupelo, where Elvis Presley began his life. Don’t miss the tiny house where he was a baby, the church where he sang in the choir, and the hardware store where Elvis and his mother picked out his 12th birthday present. Elvis wanted a rifle; his mother a guitar. The merchant, Forrest L. Bobo, recommended a $7.75 guitar, Elvis’s first, for which millions of Presley fans remain grateful.
You may be awestruck as well by other opportunities to hear recorded and live music on the Mississippi Blues trail, in towns such as Indianola, home of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center; and Clarksdale, known as the “Birthplace of Blues,” with its Delta Blues Museum — an excursion from our ship also included a gospel performance at the Greater First Baptist Church ($119).
Our first port stop southward from Memphis was Helena, Arkansas, home of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival and radio station KFFA, which has a museum with decades and decades of music for passersby to sit and enjoy. Walking around town, we bumped into great conversations. This trend continued.
In Vicksburg, where Coca Cola first was bottled, a clothing salesman at Abraham’s Department Store, established in 1928, took great joy in showing off a row of hats that were used as props in the George Clooney movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and overalls of so many sizes that once he fit a pair to a man with an 80-inch waist. The salesman pulled out a giant pair of pants with a waistband at 72 inches, in stock because that’s the largest size of any man currently living nearby. “Waist not, want not,” he said.
Asked about the health of businesses in the faded downtown of the historic city near one of the great battlefields of the Civil War, the salesman, Robert Morrison, 78, said only two of the old family stores have survived through the decades and decades of hard times. Both were immigrant families, he said, one Lebanese, the other Jewish, neither of whom were particularly welcomed when they arrived. But they outlasted all the locals, he said. “Isn’t that something?”
In Natchez, at the Museum of African American History and Culture, we happened upon the direct descendant of a famous slave. Shadilla Adams-Minor is the granddaughter (times seven) of African Prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, who was enslaved for 40 years in Mississippi. The prince, born in 1762 in Africa, in what is now the republic of Guinea, was the son of the king, studied at the University of Timbuktu, was married and had a son. He and friends were captured and taken on an eight-month journey to Natchez.
“He was sold to Thomas Foster, who I am also a descendent of,” said Adams-Minor. Prince, as he was known, eventually became overseer for Foster and share-cropped his own field. “One day he was at the market selling his crops and a white man, Dr. John Cox from Ireland, who knew him from Africa, saw him.” Eventually, with the help of the Sultan of Morocco and legal maneuvers around a U.S. government treaty that African royalty could not be enslaved, he was freed.
According to Adams-Minor, he wanted to take his whole family, including nine kids and grandkids, back to Africa but raised enough money for only him and his wife. “On my birthday, 150 years ago, they set sail, Prince and his wife Isabella, to Africa,” she said. On Feb. 7, 1829, they arrived in Monrovia, Liberia. He died there four months later. His wife died in her 80s, and two sons eventually got back to Africa, too.
“We kind of resemble each other,” said Adams-Minor, holding up a book about the Prince to her cheek.
Later in Natchez, Fran learned the secret to making great biscuits from Chef Regina Charboneau. The ship tour ($129) brings guests to Twin Oaks, her magnificent Greek Revival mansion — she has hosted such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Octavia Spencer — where guests meet her dog, Johnny Cash. Some rum punch and homemade ice cream tasting were involved, too. The Chef is most known for her Regina’s at The Regis restaurant in San Francisco. A seventh-generation Natchezian whose deep Mississippi roots brought her back home, she also consults for American Queen riverboats. She and her husband own a distillery and tavern in town.
A day later when the American Duchess made a rural stop, we ventured into Louisiana on the western side of the river, signing up (at $79 per person) to visit a prison and to talk with inmates at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, the name of the former slave plantation on which the prison was built.
There is no reason to disbelieve any of the horror stories that flow from Angola, a maximum-security farm on which most of the inmates know they will never leave, in a state, reports the ACLU, that has the highest rate of prison deaths per capita in the country.
But it was an opportunity to listen to men who have no hope of returning to freedom but some of whom have chosen to be part of a program for prisoners to improve their own incarcerated lives through service to others. Into the prison we went in a bus, with lots of backup.
The men we met said they had spent years in good behavior to qualify for the positions of trust, away from the hard labor of working in the fields for two cents an hour. Most impressive was a talk with a middle-aged man who said calmly that he has no chance of parole “ever” because of his actions outside, but he has found a life in prison, training service dogs.
The prisoner — we agreed not to name him or use his face in a picture — was among a group who train the dogs to help disabled veterans. These service dogs, he said, learn how to help the veterans accomplish such personal tasks as getting up from the floor by moving into positions that provide them a ladder. The dogs are also trained to provide emotional support including friendly nudges, when the dog notices a twitch of anxiety in the veteran, and also will move, on command, to clear a room or house of any dangers, making it safe for a veteran to enter. (This is of high importance, the prisoner said, because many returning veterans have great concern about what might be hiding inside, and they are reluctant to ask their spouse or children to prepare the way.)
The prisoner we talked to said he had been training his assigned dog for about a year, and now the dog was ready to move on to a veteran in need. The prisoner said that he hoped to get a new dog soon, so he could start the process again.
After time at Angola, we returned to the Mississippi River and the sparkling American Duchess to borrow bikes for a quiet ride in the countryside before the ship headed farther downriver on this sunny December day. Next was a stop at Nottoway Plantation, a white-column mansion (think “Gone with the Wind”) with a Christmas market underway.
In the white tents outside Nottoway, riverboat passengers and other smiling travelers browsed freely through such arts and crafts as Cajun wreaths and a display of ornaments made from crawfish shells.