A few weeks ago, I heard from former high school classmate JPH, who sent me a CD by Mississippi singer / songwriter Kate Campbell — Songs from the Levee. I have now memorized almost every song and find her work honest and haunting and memorable. My friend said in his letter, “In addition to enjoying her singing, her words and songs invoke many of the same kinds of memories as do your writing.” That delights me, since Kate’s lyrics have drawn repeated comparisons to the works of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.
Kate, like I, grew up in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. She and I both explore complex topics in our writing, like race, religion, history, and human relationships. Her words are set to R&B, gospel, country, and folk sounds. I just write memoir / essays.
Early in that Decade of Change, we heard the inaugural message of Governor George Wallace. Kate begins her song “A Cotton Field Away” with words from the governor’s charge: “Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny … and I say … segregation today … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”
Then Kate adds a quote of the same year by Martin Luther King: “Segregation is wrong because it is a system of adultery perpetuated by an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.” Then organ music plays before the song breaks into a pop chord and piercing lyrics about a black child and white child who still stand a cotton field away.
Ah, the contrasts, complexities, and contradictions of the Mississippi Delta. We sat in our Baptist pews back then and prayed to our Baptist God and closed the doors to our churches and hearts and sang, “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” accompanied by organs that filled our segregated sanctuaries with melodious sounds. Some of us who sat in those pews saw the hypocrisies and they haunt us even today.
I’m going to make a leap here and say that Kate’s path and my path crossed at a midpoint in that Decade of Change. Kate spent her early years in Sledge where her father was pastor of the Baptist church.
“Daddy was a preacher in Sledge
We were living on Gospel and beans
Every Sunday night Deacon Jones
Would give a silver dollar to me
On the way home my poor momma
Would pry it from my hand
And say it fell from heaven.”
Sledge is a cotton field town 13 miles east of Highway 61 and Moon Lake, between Clarksdale and Tunica, on Highway 3 north of Marks where the cotton boll water tower is. It’s an hour’s drive from Cleveland, where I grew up.
On a Sunday night in 1965 when I was 15, my youth choir from the Baptist church in Cleveland sang at the Baptist church in Sledge.
After the service they hosted a “fellowship” for us. We’d just been to Glorieta Baptist Assembly in New Mexico the summer before, where the staff told us to be sure to go back to our home churches and schedule youth fellowships every Sunday night, though our church never did. It was supposed to be all about food, fun, and games in a wholesome atmosphere.
I was picked to be the victim of the first game that Sunday evening in Sledge. In Fellowship Hall they lined the four rectangular walls with rickety metal chairs, and people sat on them and ate cookies and chips. I was told to go out into the hall and wait. My heart thumped and my breaths came shallow. I didn’t know what they were going to do to me. Finally, a man — maybe the preacher? … Kate’s daddy? — opened the door and said, “You can come in now.”
I walked into that big room and scanned the crowd for a friendly, familiar face. I got to the center of the Fellowship Hall and turned in a tight circle. Everybody was laughing at me. I didn’t know why.
“What do I do now?” I said.
Everybody laughed harder, so hard they rocked the chairs. My face burned red, my knees felt weak, I wanted to fall into a crack in the floor and hide. I held out my arms and let a pained expression cover my face.
“I don’t know what to do, where do I go, do I sit down now, somebody tell me what to do.” I kept turning in dizzying circles until my gaze landed on my friends. “Y’all help! What am I supposed to do?” I begged in desperation. They looked at each other, holding tight to their common secret, and squinted their eyes, opened their mouths wide, and laughed hard. I became irritated at them.
Finally, the man who let me into the room came to my rescue and the crowd quieted. “This is what you said when you got your first kiss.”
My face got redder and the thought came that No, it was not. The first time I got kissed was in ninth grade after my boyfriend Charles took me to a picture show at the Ellis Theater, where the smell of popcorn filled the air and beach movies played often. We’d dated every weekend that fall — his mama driving us to the show, my dad picking us up and taking us to my house where we had cokes and cookies and chips and watched TV or listed to records. My first time was in my Piano Room after listening to hit songs like “Sugar Shack,” “Midnight Mary,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Then He Kissed Me” and I didn’t say a thing. (And I still have those 45’s.)
I wonder if Kate Campbell was in Fellowship Hall that night watching me make a fool of myself. Whether she was or not, we still have the same tie that binds us together:
“Way down in me a river runs deep
Reminding me just who I am
Good or bad, it’ll always be
Mississippi and me.”