Friday, April 06, 2007

Sundown Towns

I’ve been in a bit of a daze these last few weeks as I worked to set-up my new studio, and put the finishing touches on pieces before shipping off to upcoming shows. Occasionally, I have to take a moment to stop amidst ordering slides or rewriting artist statements to notice that the once familiar environment of my youth has drastically grown and changed. However, I find this “new” home to be strange in so many ways I never expected.

When I left my Poplar Bluff home fourteen years ago, the nearby township of Dexter was still a notorious “sundown town”. For any non-southerners out there, a sundown town is a place that does not welcome minorities within the city limits after daylight hours have ended. Thankfully, this practice is now defunct and the population is much more diverse and open to change.

Despite this less than sanctimonious practice (or maybe, ironically, because of the hundred-year old tradition) the community developed into a pocket of “deep south” culture and cuisine at the northern-most border of the “Southern” States. While there is still the occasional outcropping of NASCAR fan-boys (I still do not understand the joy in watching someone drive in a circle 500 times) and rebel flags… I have to admit that the number of trailer parks dotting the landscape is drastically reduced when compared to my previous New Mexico home. Then again, maybe old-fashioned southern decorum is just more suited for hiding their evidence of poverty behind weeping willows, dogwood trees and azalea bushes.

This southeastern Bootheel region is often considered the poorest section of Missouri. I suppose when one decides to measure the world in terms of monetary rewards, it’s hard to argue with demographics and statistics. Despite the formal townships, such as Dexter, that once lived by “sundown rules”, the overall region boasts a relatively large black population which makes it distinct from the rest of rural Missouri, giving the area, its music, and food the uniqueness associated with rural southern black culture. Unlike the rest of Missouri, the Bootheel is culturally considered more Southern than Midwestern. Some say it is part of a subculture that includes northwestern Tennessee, the westernmost part of Kentucky, and the Little Egypt portion of Illinois.

The Bootheel area, where I now reside, is on the edge of the Mississippi Delta culture that produced the Delta blues. The music that I loved enough to always take with me wherever I traveled. My good friend blues musician Don Haupt grew-up nearby on the banks of the Mississippi River and first cut his teeth on this same music and food that later formed his musical career. He’s been sharing our Delta blues music on the West Coast for about seven years and has cut two CD’s. Don’s long gone from the region, now, but I can still hear him slap his National resonator guitar everytime I open the door to a backwoods fish house, come near a pit barbecue or watch the riverboats and barges pass. – DN

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