Lay of the Land

Tate and Panola Counties are in the northwestern part of the state of Mississippi, due south of Memphis, Tennessee. Coldwater, the northernmost town in Tate County, is thirty miles from downtown Memphis, and from there it is another thirty-five miles to the southern edge of Panola County. Running north and south, U.S. Highway 51 bisects the two counties and was formerly the main artery of travel. Along it are the main towns, Coldwater and Senatobia in Tate, and Como, Sardis, Batesville, Courtland, and Pope in Panola. Senatobia is the Tate county seat, and Sardis and Batesville are the joint seats of Panola County. Only the county seats and Coldwater have populations above one thousand, and Batesville, the largest, has less than four thousand. Running parallel to Highway 51 is Interstate Highway 55, which cuts down the driving time to Memphis. The main towns are also connected along a north-south route by the Illinois Central railroad. Running from east to west are five state highways. A number of very small towns lie on both sides of the main north-south communications axis.

The Choctaw Ridge runs north to south in the western part of the two counties. To the west of the ridge stretch flat, rich bottomlands all the way to the Mississippi River. This lowland area is known as the Delta, a region famed for its huge cotton plantations. Most of the land in the two counties, however, and most of the people are in what is known as the Hill Country to the east of the Delta. Here the land is poorer and the farms smaller. Readers of American literature know this area as "Faulkner Country," after the late novelist William Faulkner from Lafayette County, adjacent to Panola on the east. The performers on this record are from the Hill Country, which has a quite different musical tradition and style from the Delta.

About forty-five thousand people live in the two counties, approximately three-quarters of them in the country. The population is almost equally divided between black and white citizens, although in earlier times the black percentage was larger. The decline of sharecropping since World War II has driven blacks off the land in large numbers, some to the towns and many more to Memphis and cities farther north. With the mechanization of agriculture and the improvement of roads, many white landowners have moved into the towns and left only one or a few black families on their farms. Most of the other whites live on the paved country roads or in the tiny country crossroads towns. Along the dirt and gravel country roads lives much of the area’s black population. Some are hired hands or sharecroppers on white-owned land, but a good many own or rent their farms. Other black families live in the new housing developments or in small lots in the towns. Thus in recent years the neighborhoods have become somewhat segregated racially. The rural Gravel Spring community, for instance, where most of these performances were recorded, is over 95 percent black, even though much of the land is owned by town-dwelling whites.

The economy of the area is heavily agricultural, especially for the black population. In former times the main crop was cotton, and much of the land was worked by black sharecroppers. This pattern has changed considerably since cotton prices went down and agriculture became mechanized. Now much of the land is planted with corn and soybeans, although cotton is still an important crop. Some large landowners have turned to cattle grazing. The few black workers left on the large farms are living there because of the indulgence of the owners, because the house rent is cheap, or because they are retained to do such odd jobs as mending fences, feeding cattle, or driving a tractor. A considerable number of other black families rent their farm land, usually plots of about ten acres, on which they barely manage a subsistence living, often supplemented by government welfare and commodities and sometimes through employment of one of the family members in a low-paying job in town or as domestic help. Many of these renters are former sharecroppers, having attained their current status after years or even a lifetime of hard work, with little or no formal education and with large families to support. If they still have any energy and will left, and many of them do, they can, with a lot of luck, rise to the higher status of landowner. Before mechanization very few blacks had much capital with which to buy land. Now that economic conditions have improved somewhat for the blacks, they still find it hard to buy land in the country, because very little is for sale. The mechanization of agriculture and the introduction of new crops and cattle raising have made it worthwhile for owners to retain all their land or sell it only at a very high price. Despite these obstacles, some black farmers manage to buy a few acres. In economic terms their lives are not much better than those of the renters, but they have a great deal more respect from others and, most important, more self-respect. Besides the renters and small landowners there are a few hundred black families that have intermediate-sized landholdings of about a hundred acres and a good number with even larger farms. Many of these families have inherited their land from grandparents and great-grandparents who obtained large parcels during the nineteenth century.

Over the years many of these holdings have been subdivided among the children of large farm families, so that today one can drive down a road and find that all or most of the people in the houses along the way are related. The independent farmers with fairly substantial landholdings tend to be the leaders in the religious, economic, social, and, more recently, political life of the communities. All the black farmers derive most of their subsistence from their land. As a cash crop cotton has declined considerably in popularity in recent years, being replaced by soybeans. The larger landholders can make a fairly good cash income from truck farming, but the renters, small landholders, and remaining sharecroppers can expect to clear only a few hundred dollars a year from such activities as selling pigs or molasses to the people in town.

The area supports other economic activities besides farming. For many of the white people and a few of the blacks, businesses in the towns provide work. Then there are a few service jobs for blacks at the stores and work for women as domestics. With the recent lessening of discrimination, a number of fairly well paying civil service jobs have opened for blacks. Starting in the 1960s, small industry has increased considerably, mainly in Senatobia and Batesville, and now employs about two thousand workers, most of them white. Since the new interstate highway was built, many blacks in Tate and northern Panola Counties have found fairly well paying jobs in Memphis and commute there daily. Thus with the coming of industry and better transportation, the area’s population, which had been declining due to the change in farming, shows signs of leveling off.

The area has both a caste structure drawn strictly along racial lines and a class structure within the racial groups. Among the whites, the wealthy planters and, more recently, the town merchants and leaders of industry form the upper class and dominate the local economy. Below them is the white working class in the towns and the farmers with intermediate-sized holdings. Most of the poor rural whites have sought wage work in the towns in recent years or left the area altogether. Most of the town-dwelling blacks could be considered, by the standards of the region, to belong to the lower middle class. They usually own their homes, have some education, and receive a steady but small cash income. Those in the country fall, by their own description, into two groups - the "upper class" and the "lower class." The members of the upper class are distinguished by their fairly substantial landholdings and usually by modern houses with front lawns and indoor plumbing. Members of the lower class own either small farms or no land at all. Those who in the course of their lives have bettered themselves economically are often distinguished from the others as being "up and coming" or as having "come a long way." The class distinctions along economic lines do not prevent considerable social interaction between the classes, nor do they have much relationship to participation in music. Singers and musicians come from both classes. Class, however, plays a part in the organization and sponsorship of music. Since town dwellers and members of the rural upper class tend to be community leaders, they are often cast in the roles of sponsoring and organizing musical or partly musical events, including evening church activities, large community picnics, and the running of "juke joints" in the country for evening dancing and recreation. It is safe to say that without the presence and participation of this economically secure group of blacks, the music of the area would lack many of its more spectacular manifestations.

The political life of the area, once the exclusive province of whites, has changed considerably in recent years. Since the middle 1960s blacks have been registering to vote in great numbers and organizing Voters’ Leagues. These leagues have been especially active in Panola County, but Tate County, too, is beginning to feel their effect. As a result of black political organization, many of the most overt signs of discrimination have disappeared, and the white political leadership has become more responsive. Blacks are now hired as policemen and hold some government and civil service jobs. Black candidates now run for most political offices, and most of the white candidates solicit votes actively in the black communities and try to gain influence with the leaders of the Voters’ Leagues.

The two main religions for the blacks are Baptist and Methodist, with the former predominating. A much smaller proportion attend the Church of Christ and the Sanctified Church (Church of God in Christ). There is little of the interdenominational rivalry between Baptists and Methodists that characterizes some other black communities. In fact, there is considerable visiting back and forth at services, particularly by Sunday school children and choir members. Many of the gospel quartets have members from different churches and denominations, and further crosscutting factors are the interdenominational Masonic Lodge and the Eastern Star.

Most of the churches are located in the country and consist of a single meeting hall which can hold about 150 people. In many churches Sunday morning preaching services are held only once a month, and one minister may be pastor to several churches; some ministers even live in Memphis and commute. On other Sundays a Sunday school for the children is run by the church superintendent. Frequently on weekend evenings a church member will sponsor gospel performances by a quartet. The churches are also used during the week for quartet and choir practice as well as for community meetings and meetings of the Voters’ Leagues. Around August the various churches hold revivals, during which the regular ministers are aided by many visiting preachers. The revivals consist of sermons and a great deal of singing and culminate in a baptizing.

In spite of the changes in economy and residence in recent years, most of the active social life for blacks, and thus much of the music, continues to take place in the country. The town dwellers all have relatives there, as do many city dwellers from Memphis and father north, and visiting is frequent. But more important, most of the churches, the picnic grounds, and the jukes where social activities take place are in the country. The towns are fairly quiet at night, and if black people want entertainment and music, they drive out to the country where there is no danger of bothering white people with noise and bringing on retaliation. Thus, although life in the area has changed greatly in recent years, the music continues to have a strongly rural flavor.

David Evans, 2000.