A few years ago, I spent a week in Northern California with a group of people who were gathered together from all over the country. One afternoon, someone turned to me and asked, “Where do you live?”
“Mississippi,” I replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why would you be sorry?” I asked. He stumbled on his words and couldn’t give a coherent reply. It was no big deal to me. That, and similar responses, are things I have heard— on occasion— over the years when travelling out west or in the northeast. Sometimes it’s just easier for people to think in outdated stereotypes. Some think of the modern-day south as the old south as if nothing has changed. The modern-day south is not the old south. Period. Do we still have issues in which we need to improve and problems that need serious work? Yes. No question. But there are many of the same problems all over the country. The south doesn’t “own the market” any longer.
Years ago, when a conversation like that struck up, I would reach into my bag of modern-day Mississippi statistics and reel off all of the data that backed up my premise that we have made great strides down here. But I finally reached a point where I realized, “Why am I trying to win this person over? They might move down here.”
In Italy, it’s the exact opposite. When I first travelled over there, almost everyone I met— despite the movies they had seen— viewed Mississippi as some sort of enchanted and exotic land. It took me back at first, but then I realized that it was I who wasn’t seeing the forest for the pine trees, it was the arts in Mississippi that enchanted the Italians— namely music— and rightfully so.
When crossing the state line on all of the highways and interstates entering our state, everyone is greeted by a sign that reads, “Welcome to Mississippi, Birthplace of America’s Music.” When I first saw those signs, I probably told myself, “I get it. The public relations arm of the state is trying to put a positive spin on Mississippi by making that huge claim.” I saw it as nothing more than a PR move.
During my initial trip to Italy 10 years ago my family and I went to a bed and breakfast in the Tuscan countryside. There was a live band there that night. Live music at a bar or club is very common over here in the states, but in the Tuscan countryside, it is a rare event. I sat there listening to a British cover band sing American rock-and-roll in Italian. As they were belting out “Sweet Home Alabama,” or more accurately, “Buona Casa Alabama,” two very cosmopolitan ladies from Milan who were seated across from me began asking me about what part of America I called home.
“I live in Mississippi,” I said, shouting over the music. “It’s next to the Alabama they’re singing about.” Even though they knew the melody, that statement didn’t register with them. “I live just above the Gulf of Mexico,” I said, hoping that a geographical clue might help them place my hometown and state. Nothing. “It’s just above New Orleans,” I said, as their eyes lit up.
“Jazz!” they said in unison.
“Yes. That is where jazz was invented.” They knew this. “And I grew up just a few blocks away from Highway 49, and if you follow that highway up into the Mississippi Delta, it crosses a road called highway 61, and that is the area where blues was invented.” Another connection.
“Ah, blues. B.B. King,” one of them said.
“Yes. He’s from Mississippi,” I said. That is where blues music was born. And if you believe Muddy Waters, and I do,” I continued, “Then ‘the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll,’ so you can travel a few hours east of the Delta across Mississippi to Tupelo, where Elvis Presley was born.”
“Elvis Presley!” Their eyes really lit up.
“Yes, the king of rock and roll.” I was about halfway down Highway 45 headed to Meridian to explain to them how Jimmie Rogers was the father of country music, when it hit me. Mississippi really IS the birthplace of America’s music. I was proud in one moment, and then, in an instant a little ashamed that it took me going halfway around the world to realize that my home state, the state that I love to my core, the place I would rather live than any other place in the entire country, is truly where America’s music was born. It’s not just a PR slogan. It’s true and it’s real.
The Italians look at Mississippi through entirely different eyes. The place that birthed the renaissance in arts and culture knows a thing or two about music and art. They know a little about food, too.
Morgan Freeman was once asked in an interview, “You can live anywhere in the world, why do you live in Mississippi?”
Freeman replied, “I live in Mississippi BECAUSE I can live anywhere in the world.” On another occasion he followed up with the comment, “Hell, I’d live here for the food, alone.”
Last year two of my Italian friends visited Mississippi. I took them to all of our restaurants in Hattiesburg. To this day, Enzo Corti— a man who grew up eating Tuscan white bean soup, ribollita, and minestrone— still talks about his love for gumbo.
I have always felt that Tuscany is a lot like the American South. It’s an agrarian society, the people are friendly, they are family oriented, and love sharing a meal together. And even though the two are separated by 5,228 miles, they have way more in common than one would think.
So, the next time someone apologizes to you because you live in Mississippi, just keep silent and keep the secret that we, and the Italians, know to be true— this is a wonderful place to live.