See also Gallery entitled "N. American Civil Rights"
North America’s Southern States
October 2014 my wife Lesley and I, along with four friends, joined a tour across North America’s Southern States, 2,000 miles from Atlanta, Georgia to Houston, Texas.
The tour featured the North American Civil War. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the US; he and the Republican Party supported the abolition of slavery which is something the Southern States viewed as a violation of their constitutional rights particularly as they all had cotton based economies requiring slaves. Subsequently 13 states formed the Confederate States of America. This triggered the Civil War which was fought between 1861 and 1865. The Union won and the Confederacy collapsed, slavery was then abolished. Days after the war ended Lincoln was assassinated, shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s theatre, Washington DC.
The Southern States is renowned for its music, Nashville is now considered the home of Country although it originated in Memphis. Rock and Roll originated in Nashville, it soon moved to Memphis with the appearance of Elvis and some of his music compatriots. New Orleans is famous for its Jazz, much of the music stemmed from the W. African slave workers who were brought over to work in the cotton fields.
Our tour started in Atlanta which featured in the Civil War. Back then Atlanta had a major railroad junction which made it an important hub for the distribution of armaments to the Confederate army. In 1865 following the Union’s capture of Chattanooga the war was more or less over. All that now remained was for the Union army to make a sweep of the Southern States to clear any pockets of resistance. On reaching Atlanta they razed it to the ground so that it could not be reused as a supply base for the Confederates. If you have seen the film “Gone with the wind” you may remember the scene at the end; whilst a fire rages Rhett Butler utters the immortal words to Scarlet O’Hara “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, that town on fire was Atlanta.
Born in 1929 was Atlanta’s most famous resident, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he was an American Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960’s he fought for the civil rights of the Black Community and eventually died for his belief. He was tragically assassinated at a rally in Memphis in 1968. There is now what they refer to as a historic site dedicated to him. On the site is the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he did his first preaching; various tableaus and monuments; and alongside his wife Coretta, his final resting place.
Moving on to Chattanooga, earliest inhabitants of which were Cherokee Indians. During the Civil War in 1863 the Confederate army held the high ground around the town and lay siege to Union troops trapped. Maj Gen Ulysses S. Grant, who was recently victorious in a campaign at Vicksburg and now in charge of the whole of the Union campaign, cut a supply route through to Chattanooga which brought supplies to the trapped troops. Then, assisted by Gen Sherman the final and bloodiest battle was on Lookout Mountain above the town. Union success resulted in a Confederate withdrawal which opened up the Deep South to the Union army.
Moving on we came to Lynchburg a sleepy small town with a large industry, that of Whisky. Every drop of Jack Daniels is distilled here. Main problem it has it is located in Tennessee, a state with licensing laws dating back to prohibition days. So, having had a tour of the site we were not able to buy or sample any of their wares.
Further down the road we came to Belle Mead, a large anti-bellum mansion. (anti – pre, bellum – war) these are the sort of lavish mansions owned by cotton farmers, built on the back of slaves, pre the abolition of slavery in 1865. You might wonder what happened to the cotton after the release of the slaves. A system of sharecropping evolved. The now ex-slaves still harvested the crop, half went to the farmer and half went to the ex-slaves so that they could sell it to make a living.
Next stop is Nashville. Target destination for every young and hopeful Country singer is the Grand Ole Opry. This is a weekly country music stage concert which was founded in 1925 as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM. It is the longest-running radio broadcast show in US history dedicated to honoring country music and its history; in that time it has never missed a broadcast. It attracts millions of radio and Internet listeners from all around the world. Featured during our visit was a young female duo who called themselves “just one more girl” and the person that got the loudest applause of the night, Little Jimmy Dickens, 94 years old, 4ft nothing tall and with a guitar that appeared bigger than him. We also visited the Country Music Hall of Fame which must be the largest collection of Country memorabilia anywhere.
Leaving Nashville en-route to Memphis we stopped at Tupelo the child home of Elvis Presley. He was born in 1935 in a small house built by his father Vernon. The family attended an Assembly of God chapel where he found his initial musical inspiration. In 1948, at the age of 13, the family moved to Memphis. Years later Elvis bought the site containing his father’s house and had the chapel moved onto the same site. It is now a National Park.
We’re now in Memphis and the first time we see the mighty Mississippi, a river which we will follow all the way to New Orleans. In 1953, now established in Memphis, Elvis walked into Sun Studios to buy some recording time. Sun boss Sam Phillips, always on the lookout for new talent, started to record him. In 1955 Dewey Phillips, a well-known DJ, played “That’s all right” on his radio show. Listeners began phoning eager to find out who this singer was. At the same time Elvis was getting too big for Sam Phillips. Col Parker managed to sell the contract for $35,000 to RCA, the largest amount paid for a single performer at that time.
With other performers following suit RCA didn’t have enough recoding capacity and weren’t prepared to stump up the cash for a new studio. Chet Atkins, well known guitarist and producer came to the rescue. He bought a studio in Nashville which became known as “RCA Studio B” and leased it to RCA. Elvis was now at a level where he called the tune, he was an insomniac and often liked to record in the middle of the night. Likewise in order for him to feel the music he liked to record in the dark, often making it somewhat difficult for technicians and session musicians.
Also in Memphis is of course Graceland, Elvis’s home for many of his later years. Devotees see this as a must see attraction. Tours are well managed and the house kept in pristine condition and furnished as it would have been when he lived there. The house also contained a lot of memorabilia including his leather suits, cars and his two jet planes. It was also his final resting place, buried alongside his parents and still born brother who he never forgot.
Both Nashville and Memphis has wild nightlife, if visiting it is easy to forget that you are still in Tennessee with ancient licensing laws. When they say they ID everyone and you should carry your passport for ID, don’t think that because you have a bus pass back home you are exempt. I have never been refused entry into so many bars as we were then.
Moving south we arrive at Vicksburg which is situated on high ground next to the Mississippi. In 1863 the confederate army controlled the territory and as such the Mississippi. Maj Gen Ulysses S Grant somehow needed to take all of this. He cut a route through the swamp crossed the river before laying siege to the town. No supplies could get through and the Confederates suffered badly with disease and starvation. They eventually surrendered, after which Grant moved on to Chattanooga.
Grant's success boosted his reputation. After the war, in 1868, he was elected the 16th US President.
The site around Vicksburg is now a National Military Park containing the Union army cemetery. One interesting exhibit is the remains of the USS Cairo, one of seven iron clad gunboats used by the Union army to help regain control of the Mississippi. It was sunk close to Vicksburg, the first vessel ever to be sunk by an electronically detonated mine. It was beautifully restored using as many of the original components as possible.
Continuing south along the Mississippi we came to Nachez. A town named after the Indian tribe forced out of their territory by settlers in years gone by. Here we visited Stanton Hall another anti-bellum house paid for on the backs of slaves.
Further down the river we came to New Orleans, a city built on swamp lands surrounding the Mississippi. Since 1956 the town has been accessed via a 24mile long causeway across Lake Pontchartrain. The city was founded by the French in 1717 and named after the Duke of Orleans, regent to Louis XV at the time.
In 1814 the British set their sights on the territory. Local army leader Gen Andrew Jackson led a group of inexperienced volunteer troupes who held their ground behind an earth barrier. Although outnumbered 2:1 by professional British soldiers the local soldiers prevailed. It’s a story told in a song by Lonnie Donegan back in the 1960’s. Gen Jackson became a local hero and was elected 7th US president in 1829.
It is an area susceptible to storms, the most famous of which was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when 20,000 people sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome, a structure designed to withstand winds of up to 200mph.
We had a chance for a cruise on the SS Nachez, a traditional paddle steamer, the type used to transport bales of cotton in years gone by. These days it is used for classy river cruises with Jazz band entertainment.
Back on land the nightlife is something to be experienced, jazz with a touch of Voodoo, the music stemmed from the African slaves brought over to work in the cotton fields. We thought Nashville and Memphis were wild but nothing could have prepared us for New Orleans. Here my photography ranged from Journalistic to Street to pure Paparazzi. I even got chased by a bouncer whilst taking a photograph of his club.
Surrounded by swampland we took a swamp tour through some of the bayous. It was interesting to see the swampland flora and wildlife, this included some enormous alligators, probably 9 feet long. The safety briefing pointed out that there were lifebelts in the roof of the boat in case it sank. Somehow I can’t imagine them saving you from being eaten by an alligator if it did sink.
Nearing the end of the journey, Houston being our departure airport, we broke the journey at Vermilionville which is an exhibition settlement of early Cajun settlers who lived in this part of Louisiana from 1750’s. They originally emigrated from France to Canada and later relocated here. It’s a collection of homes, some original, some replicas. The volunteers were dressed in period clothing and demonstrated the self-sufficiency trades they did back then.
Final analysis of the trip, a great experience covering the music and its history; 2,000 miles, 5 states and 2 time zones.