Interesting Southern Stuff!
by Gary Wright
“History is not necessarily what happened but what is recorded.”
An abundance of negativity has been written about the American South. Indeed, there has been much to lament, from the Civil War to the Ku Klux Klan to ‘Jim Crow.’ But, for all the bad, there is a ton of upbeat history and many captivating narratives that shed some light on the South’s more positive side. It’s difficult to categorize, define or explain Southern culture, for it has to be lived, experienced and often endured to know it. We hear enough about our lamentable past, so let’s take a look at some of the intriguing legends, tales and significant contributions that are worth recalling too.
Petit Jean State Park
The Legend of Petit Jean
The sad but poignant legend of Petit (pronounced Petty) Jean has been told, sung and repeated throughout the South. Its roots were in the story of a young French girl who was betrothed to her lover just before he set out to explore the ‘new world.’ She couldn’t bear to be without him, so she disguised herself as a cabin boy and tagged along with her lover and his band of Frenchmen as they explored the Louisiana Territory. Because of her stature she was nicknamed ‘Petit Jean’ or ‘Little John.’ Atop a lone mountain towering over central Arkansas, she fell ill and, knowing that she was at death’s doorstep, revealed her identity and died in her lover’s arms. Petit Jean Mountain still bears her name, and it is said to be both blessed and cursed by the spirit of a mournful lover seeking her betrothed.
To this day, young lovers seeking a happy marriage trek up the steep path of the mountain to have their union blessed by the spirit of Petit Jean. It is said that in death, Petit Jean can help others receive what she did not receive in life – the promise of a loving relationship.
As a Colonel, George S. Patton, Jr. reported to Fort. Benning, Georgia in 1940 as commander of the 3rd Calvary Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division. Fort Benning is where Patton trained, learned and developed tactics which would later give him his infamous reputation. Phenix City, Alabama was just across the Chattahoochee River from Fort Benning, and many soldiers frequented the night clubs, brothels and speak-easies there. It was a Phenix City past-time to cheat, rob and beat up these soldiers, and it is reputed that Col. Patton lined up a squadron of tanks across the Chattahoochee River and leveled all the main guns toward Phenix City, threatening to blow up the town. The soldiers got a reprieve from the town gangsters when the town leaders decided it was best to clean up the town ‘riff-raff,’ at least until the war took Colonel Patton to another continent. Whether Patton would have opened fire is subject to some debate; I, for one, would not have cared to call his bluff!
Houston, we have a problem!
The South became a significant player in space exploration when NASA chose three of its major sites to be located in the South: John F. Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, Florida; George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama; and Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. The major space research is conducted in Huntsville, actual launching of space craft occurs at the Kennedy Space Center, and control of space flights is carried out at the Houston facility. How can anyone forget the memorable line in the movie Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”
Painting of Robert Johnson
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when and where the “Blues” was born or who, precisely, invented it. Its origins were in the plaintive and forlorn music of the plantation slaves decades before it actually took form as a genre. For years it was passed down as it was performed around campfires or in front yards after supper. Sometime in the early 1930s it found its way to the honkey-tonks, shot houses and beer joints in and around Clarksdale, Mississippi where black entertainers would perform and ‘pass around a hat.’ Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson are among a few of the earliest who cast a net around what would eventually become the ‘Delta Blues.’
Ray Henderson states it so well in his lyrics for ‘The Birth of the Blues:’
“They heard the breeze in the trees
Singin’ weird melodies
And they made that, the start of the blues
And from a jail came the wail of a down-hearted frail
And they played that as a part of the blues. . . .”
This music has grown and matured over the years but it still has a visceral effect on the listener. Through the music, they experience the hard luck, misfortune and the woe of the poor, the downtrodden, and the hapless, who’s only hope, ironically, is in the sad songs they sing. This music has many offspring, including the ‘Memphis Blues,’ ‘Beale Street Blues,’ and the ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Each has its own unique sound, but all find their ultimate origin in the unique American Black experience from the Southland.
Image of Petit Jean State Park is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to en.wikipedia.org
Image of George Patton is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.freeinfosociety.com
Painting of Robert Johnson is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.29.media.tumblr.com via Pinterest