All hail the Kingfish

Riding a wave of popularity from the recent release of his first album and appearances in the Netflix series “Luke Cage,” young blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram reflects upon his days growing up in Mississippi and the musical influences shown in his work.

No longer a babe Bluesman, Clarksdale’s own gentle giant lands on the big stage.

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register.

By Michael Banks

Some scoff when they see not-even-20-year-old Christone Ingram enter the stage. What does this baby-faced kid know about the blues?

But that tune soon changes when he adjusts the strings and his fingers start to dance and dangle, strum and stroll along the neck of his Fender Telecoustic.

And it’s his voice. Oh, that voice.

It’s not the high-pitched cry of a teenager who just recently celebrated his 19th birthday in January and still lives at home with his mother.

Rather, it’s the timbre and down-home drawl of a man who’s already been to nine countries, performed in festivals across the United States and is on the verge of releasing his first album.

“Even though I’m young, I’ve had some tough situations in my life,” says the man known as Kingfish.

Blues-speak?

“While I haven’t had a woman leave me,” he says with a chuckle, “I do know about heart break. Some people will say, ‘He doesn’t know the blues. He’s just 18 or 19.’ But I’m very mature for my age. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been around grownups all my life.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is shown during a performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

And it was his days spent in the Oakhurst area in Clarksdale, Ms., where Ingram got his first exposure to blues music. Next door was a blues band that would see the likes of famed musicians Joshua “Razorblade” Stewart, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Dr. Mike and Terry “Big T” Williams.

“They were all the time having house parties and such, and they’d let me come in and watch them as they played. I’d just go and soak it all in,” he said.

Another of his earliest musical influences came from gospel music, in particular, the gospel tape by The Canton Spirituals titled “Living the Dream. Live in D.C.” Listening to that tape is where, Ingram says with a laugh, “I got my gospel chops.”

“That’s one of my favorite gospel albums and one I listen to on a daily basis,” said Ingram, who recalls parts of his childhood at Faith Temple Word of Faith Christian Church in Tutwiler, Ms., and the St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Sardis, Ms.

Combine that gospel background with the next door house parties and that love of music only grew with Ingram, who found himself wanting to learn more and more.

A cousin of county music star Charlie Pride, Ingram would enroll in the Delta Blues Museum’s arts and education program where he would fall under the tutelage of Daddy Rich and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.

At the age of 6, he began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. And by the age of 13, he was playing the lead guitar.

And not only did he gain that musical education and confidence, but he would also come away with the nickname Kingfish. The moniker was handed down by Perry, who believed Ingram looked like the character “Kingfish” from the “Amos and Andy” show, one of television’s first black sitcoms.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Ingram recalls. “But then I’d be walking around at school and there’d be these kids that I didn’t think knew me and they would yell out, ‘Hey Kingfish. What’s going on?’ Then, I started to like it.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, right, speaks with musician Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, left, and Stan Street, the owner of the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in downtown Clarksdale, Ms., during a break in his performance on Tuesday night, April 3, 2018.
(Photo by Michael Banks)

Another thing to like was the popularity that soon followed. He has shared the stage with musical greats such as Bob Margolin, Eric Gales, Rick Derringer, Guitar Short and Buddy Guy. He’s been a guest on “The Rachel Ray Show” and comedian Steve Harvey’s show “Steve.” And he even performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I’m trying to not let it go to my head,” he said. “I’m just riding the wave, man, riding the wave.”

His mother, Princess Pride, acts as his manager and handles all his bookings.

The presence of his mother at all of his shows, as well as talks with his father, Christopher Ingram, and other family members have helped keep him grounded.

But still, Ingram knows more awaits him.

“No matter how good you are, there is always somebody out there better than you,” he said. “And that’s always grounded me and pushed me.”

He’s on the verge of releasing his first album, “Been Here Before.” The 12-song album features all original tracks and should be out by the end of April or May, Ingram said, as he finalizes a distributor.

In addition to that, Ingram and his bandmates — drummer Christopher Black and bassist Shaun Reddic — have a full schedule this spring and summer that includes trips to the Beale Street Music Festival in May in Memphis, Tenn.; the Chicago Blues Festival in June; and festivals in Colorado, Utah and California.

Still, he says there’s something special about coming back to Clarksdale.

“It’s always good to play here when I get the opportunity,” said Ingram, who will be performing as a solo act in his fifth Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this weekend. On Saturday at noon, he’ll perform a set on the Mr. Tater Memorial Stage (350 Issaquena Ave.) before taking the main stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at The Bank (123 E. Second St.).

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram says “it’s been a lot of sweat and tears” and he’s “still paying my dues.” He is shown performing on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, at the Hambone Music and Art Gallery in Clarksdale, Ms. (Photo by Michael Banks)

“I’m not lying. It’s been a lot of sweat and tears. And I’m still paying my dues. I have a lot more to put in,” he said.

As one who has been presented with numerous rising star awards, Ingram believes the genre is alive and well thanks to the efforts of himself and other young top blues musicians such as Marquise Knox of St. Louis and Georgia’s Jontavious Willis.

The young songwriter compares blues music to the roots of a tree. You may chop off a limb, but as long as you have the roots, that tree is going to survive.

“It’s not going anywhere. Blues is the roots. It’s the roots for everything you hear.”

Best Feature Photo

This photo was recognized with a first-place award in the 2018 Better Newspaper Contest conducted by the Mississippi Press Association.

In the photo, 2-year-old Camden Aderholt, center, and 3-year-olds Harper Powell and Anna Margaret Marley were fascinated by the bubbles drifting in the air, thanks to the efforts of Anna Sims Wills, 12, at left, Thursday night at the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale. The children were more fascinated with the bubbles while their parents enjoyed the sounds of the Blackwater Trio during the annual fundraising event that featured more than 100 people enjoying the music and picnic on the lawn of the mansion.

The awards were handed out Saturday, June 22, 2019, at the MPA’s summer convention held in Biloxi, Ms. Judging was done by members of the Kansas Press Association and the comment on this photo was “Love it!”

Best little newspaper in Mississippi

A short time after beginning my time as publisher/editor of The Clarksdale (Ms.) Press Register, I picked up a single second-place award given out by the Mississippi Press Association for work done by the newspaper in 2017.

At that time, in June 2018, I silently set a goal in my mind that we’d exceed that number – that lone second-place award – with our work in 2018.

Exceed it, we did.

On Saturday, during a gathering of the state’s journalists in Biloxi at the summer convention of the Mississippi Press Association, the Clarksdale Press Register was honored with 26 awards in the association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including a General Excellence, marking it as the top newspaper in its class.

The awards were a culmination of a nine-month period, from our arrival in mid-March to the end of the contest period in December, in which the newspaper staff and contributors took on the challenge of making it one of Mississippi’s best newspapers and one that the community would be glad to call its own.

There were longer hours, more work asked of everyone and a call to do things a different way.

In the end, those efforts were recognized by members of the Kansas Press Association, which judged the annual contest, as well as the community with an increase in our readership and circulation numbers.

According to judges, the Press Register had, in addition to the overall General Excellence award, the best Lifestyles section and Magazine/Periodical (Coahoma Living) in its category, consisting of other weekly newspapers across Mississippi. The paper also received second-place awards for its design and Editorial Page, while our Women in Business special section received a third-place honor.

Staff writer Josh Troy received five awards, including a first-place award for best magazine story with his feature on Roger Stolle, owner of the Cathead music store in Clarksdale.

My talented wife – and unpaid volunteer writer – Danette Banks received a third-place award in the Feature Story category with her profile on local musician John Mohead. And the two of us combined to win the entry for Best News/Feature Package with her story and my photos and layout of a profile on another Clarksdale musician, LaLa Craig.

I was lucky enough to beat out some talented journalists and receive 15 awards. Included in that number were four first-place awards: the before-mentioned News/Feature Package; best Business Story with a profile on Mary Williams and what prompted her to start an urgent-care medical facility in Clarksdale; top Commentary Column with my entry of three columns addressing such things as crime and apathy in Clarksdale; and first place in Feature Photo with the photo linked to this post that shows children enjoying a concert on the lawn of the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale.

I knew that we had done good work during our time in Clarksdale and Coahoma County, but was still surprised by the sheer number of honors thrown our way. Secretly, I was hoping we’d win six to seven awards and then reach middle figures the next year and continue to build on our success.

These awards and turnaround in a very short time only reinforce the effort and talents of the limited number of folks who were able to put out an award-winning product in the Mississippi Delta and show what can be accomplished with initiative, hard work, talent and a bit of sacrifice.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who played a part in The Press Register’s success.

Moon Lake magic and Tennessee Williams

Many of the characters and locations that turn up in the timeless works of playwright Tennessee Williams — including scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Orpheus Descending” — originated from a small town on the flat open land known as the Mississippi Delta and an oxbow body of water named Moon Lake.

By Michael Banks

So many of the characters and scenes that have been shared on a world stage through the words of Tennessee Williams can be traced back to the time the famous playwright called Clarksdale, Miss., and Coahoma County his home.

An assortment of Blanches and Stellas have whispered the words Moon Lake while audiences sit transfixed, deep within their own visions of characters and scenes drawn from Williams’ Deep South and life in the Mississippi Delta.

And it is still now, some 35 years after Williams’ death at the age of 71, in which this area is still celebrating and creating new ways to showcase its small part in all that was Tennessee Williams.

For Clarksdale and Coahoma County is very much a part of what Tennessee Williams was and Tennessee Williams is very much a part of what Clarksdale and Coahoma County is and can become.

‘Home is where you hang your childhood’

It is believed that Edwina Dakin Williams and her two children moved in with her parents in a church rectory on DeSoto Avenue in Clarksdale sometime during the late spring or early summer of 1917.

Tom, as Tennessee was known then, would have been six years old at the time when he and his mother and older sister, Rose, moved in with his grandparents, the Rev. Walter E. and Rosina Otte Dankin, who lived in Clarksdale from 1917-’32 while the Rev. Dakin was the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church.

Tom and his mother and sister would live in Clarksdale for about 16 months with Tom attending Eliza Clark School until the trio moved to St. Louis in 1918 to join his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, who had been a traveling salesman for most of Tom’s early life before he finally landed a desk job.

Still, Tom and his sister would make frequent trips to Clarksdale to visit their grandparents, who by this time had moved into the new rectory located on Sharkey Avenue beside St. George’s Episcopal Church.

And Tom and Rose would live with the Dakins in Clarksdale at different times due to their mother’s poor health following the birth of their brother, Dakin. Tom lived in the Sharkey rectory for 16 months in 1920-21 and completed fourth grade at Oakhurst Elementary School.

He would then visit the Dakins most summers until graduating high school in 1929.

Panny Mayfield, a Clarksdale journalist who has done a number of stories on Williams through the years, believes the days and nights Williams spent in Clarksdale and Coahoma County was “an idyllic, quiet time.”

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life.”

— Panny Mayfield, Clarksdale (Miss.) journalist

“I think he was very happy here. It was the happiest time of his life,” she said.

Acting coach and documentary filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas agrees, pointing to a popular quote attributed to Williams: “Home is where you hang your childhood.”

Gold buckle of the cotton belt

She says the Clarksdale of Williams’ time in the 1920s is very much different than it is now. At the time, Clarksdale was called “Little New York,” Kohlhaas said, as there were as many millionaires per capita here as there were in New York City.

“It was known as the gold buckle of the cotton belt. It was one of the richest small towns in America because of the cotton boom,” she said of the planters who were getting up to $1 per pound of cotton at the time.

But those heady days wouldn’t last as the cotton futures market crashed and the price of a pound of cotton sunk to a nickel as many lost fortunes.

“People lost everything,” Kohlhaas said. “But still, they continued on. It was the gambler mentality. That whole rise and fall with how good of a crop you were going to get.”

And it would be these people, that mentality, that would serve as characters in many of Williams’ future plays.

“These are the people he is writing about,” said Kohlhaas, who makes her home in New York City and has been working on her documentary of Williams for the past eight years.

“Up here in the North, people tend to paint the South with one brush. But the Delta is so incredibly different from the Old South, like Virginia. It was sort of like the Wild West as opposed to Gone With the Wind.

“I did not understand it at all until I started working on this project. As I learned a lot more about the Delta and Delta personalities, I began to see and understand how that is embedded in his plays.”

The people who gave his stories life

Kohlhaas believes the story of Williams is not so much the tale of “this little boy remembering his time here” but rather “it was a constant association with the place through his grandfather.”

She also believes Williams was “deeply sensitive” and pulled from his experience of “being both inside and outside the society of Clarksdale.”

Being the grandson of the town’s beloved Episcopalian priest gave the family social status, but Kohlhaas says “at the same time, he did not fit in with a lot of the kids in town.”

This could help explain Williams’ fondness for “compassion and understanding for people on the edges of society,” Kohlhaas said.

“He would spend his time writing and alone. He wasn’t the typical Delta boy who wanted to go out and fish and hunt. He and his sister both had big imaginations and were very creative.”

Mayfield said she has heard the tale that the character Brick Pollitt from Williams’ play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof was based on a boy who lived right down the street from the rectory and had apparently beaten up Tom on one occasion.

She said that a family member of Brick’s relayed to her on a later occasion that “they thought that Tennessee Williams got even” with his portrayal as Brick as an alcoholic, aging former high school football star who is in a strained marriage.

Williams drew on memories from his Clarksdale childhood as material in his plays. Names such as Blanche, Stella, Brick, Laura, Wingfield, Cutrer and Baby Doll became namesakes for famous Williams characters. He also referenced local stores, towns and landmarks such as Moon Lake and the stone angel in Grange cemetery.

Shown is a marker noting the property beside Moon Lake that has become a destination of Tennessee Williams fans as the “Moon Lake Casino” that was featured in many of his Williams’ plays was located at the site. (Photo by Michael Banks)

She said Williams didn’t like the time he spent in St. Louis.

“He loved the people, the wit, the humor, the style of people like the Cutrers,” Kohlhaas said.

“He hated it and didn’t take to it at all,” Kohlhaas said. “He wanted to come back to Clarksdale.”

Williams would continue to have a strong relationship with his grandparents through their remaining years. His grandmother would send him money until he finally achieved commercial success with “The Glass Menagerie.”

“She truly believed in him,” Mayfield said.

His grandfather, who lived to be 95, would visit Williams after he became famous and his grandson would always ask about the residents of Clarksdale as Mayfield said he kept up with the Cutrers and the Clarks and their stories.

Kohlhaas said the last documented visit by Williams to the Mississippi Delta, that she can find, is his trip to Beloit in December 1955 when he visited for the filming of “Baby Doll.”

A ‘research center’ for actors

With its history and the preservation of several landmarks mentioned in Williams’ plays, this area has attracted both professional actors and common tourists seeking the Tennessee Williams experience.

Mayfield says Clarksdale has become a sort of “research center” for actors and actresses portraying characters from Williams’ many works. She has served as host for many, including Ruth Wilson who portrayed Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire during a London run and also the famous English actress Lia Williams, who was recognized for her role as Blanche du Bois in a production of Streetcar in Dublin, Ireland.

Recently, accomplished actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited the county as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum. In addition to many film and TV roles, Robins has portrayed the character of Blanche from “Streetcar” on many occasions and one of her first leading roles was in the role of Alma Winemiller in the Williams play “Summer and Smoke.”

Actors Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins visited Coahma County as part of a fundraiser to assist in the opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum in Clarksdale. (photo by Michael Banks)

“In my imagination, I had often wondered who Alma was and who she is. All actors want to do research and see what inspired the character they are portraying,” Robins said. “What he writes of is in all of our DNAs. It captures us as human beings.”

Kohlhaas was able to take the Cuccioli and Robins to many of the notable areas in the county mentioned in Williams’ work. One moment that sticks with her was watching Robins as she visited Uncle Henry’s, the site of one of Williams’ most riveting scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“She stood there, exactly where the Moon Lake Casino was, and looked out toward Moon Lake, walking the steps that Blanche would have taken. She, literally, began to cry as it was that moving to her,” Kohlhaas said.

Clarksdale is Shakespeare’s house

There is something special about coming to this area, Kohlhaas said.

“Clarksdale is a huge American theatre history location. It’s like Shakespeare’s house. I just hope to bring more and more awareness to it.”

One thing she is doing is serving as curator for the soon-to-open Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum at 106 Sharkey Ave. in Clarksdale. Plans are for the museum to open Oct. 12 during the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival.

The museum will document Williams’ childhood in Clarksdale and his family history, as well as the local people, places and history that Williams featured most in his famous plays. Kohlhaas said it’s “been like decorating a giant doll house.”

The mission of the museum is to educate visitors about Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta history as they appear in Williams’ work.

Not far from the rectory is a Tennessee Williams Park that was dedicated in October 1994. Other popular spots to visit are the former Moon Lake Casino and the Cutrer Mansion, which dates back to 1916.

Jen Waller, who is director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center/Cutrer Mansion, said they see a steady stream of people wanting to see the home of the family mentioned so often in Williams’ works.

Clarksdale’s founding father, John Clark, had nine sons and one daughter and her name was Blanche Clark Cutrer. She married John W. Cutrer in a ceremony that was presided over by the Rev. Dakin and was considered to be one of the most lavish events of its time.

“We don’t have as much traffic as I wish we did, but I do love it when tourists stop by and I get to tell them about the Cutrers. It’s almost always because they’ve seen the house connected to Tennessee Williams,” she said. “We do have a small tourist traffic, but not tons. Maybe it will increase with the rectory museum.”

The main event tied to Williams here is the Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival, which is now in its 26th year. This year’s festival will run from Thursday, Oct. 11 through Saturday, Oct. 13.

There will be a kickoff dinner and dancing, historic tours and a panel on the Cutrer family and Clarksdale history. Saturday’s events include a monologue and scene competition for students from all over the state, followed by an afternoon of plays performed on porches on homes located in the city’s historic district.

One of the leading organizers of the event is Mayfield, who was involved with the first festival in 1992.

“She’s really been legendary over the years,” Waller said of Mayfield. “She’s been carrying this torch for Tennessee Williams and the blues even before anyone else was really doing it.”

Appreciation only grows

Mayfield said Williams’ stories persevere as he was “very courageous” in his writing.

“They still have meaning… he wrote of difficulties in relationships,” Mayfield said.

Kohllaas, who originally wanted to finish her documentary two years ago, said it’s been “quite a process” of putting together the film with the working title “Tennessee Williams and the Mississippi Delta.”

She said, “There’s just so much material and I want to make sure it’s correct. It’s been like making a giant quilt.”

Still, Kohlaas has learned much about Williams during the process and it has only enhanced her appreciation of his talents.

“He is the Shakespeare and the Chekhov of America. He used lyricism and poetry in his writing like Shakespeare, but like Checkhov, he wrote of a decaying society and an aristocracy that was steadily descending.”

She adds that those hundreds of hours spent in the Carnegie Public Library researching Williams and the countless visits she’s made here have also revealed “just how much the Delta actually influenced him, especially early in his career, which are considered some of his greatest pieces of work.”

Waller has spent most of her life in Coahoma County and admits it wasn’t until 1996 when she first became aware of Williams’ association with Clarksdale. As part of the Williams Festival that year, there was a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the former Larry Thompson Center at the old movie theatre on Yazoo Avenue.

“It was excellent. I remember going to that and thought it was amazing,” said Waller, who admits her favorite Williams play is “The Glass Menagerie.”

But the worldwide impact hit her even more when she and Clarksdale resident Eva Connell visited New Orleans for that town’s Williams Festival two years ago.

“We were at this one place and they did a reading of a one-act play. I’d never heard of it before, but it was all about Friars Point and Moon Lake. This was in New Orleans in front of people from all over the world. That was eye-opening. The ones that really didn’t get much play, he used these same landmarks in these shorter plays.”

Waller said, “It’s become such a valuable piece of our history and it’s really become known worldwide.”

These words written by Williams are now being spoken in many dialects. There’s Baby Doll in German. Blanche in a thick Irish brogue. Or Stella on a South African stage.

Williams and his wonderful scenes and these stories of the people and places of Clarksdale and Coahoma County continue on.

As Kohlhaas says, “This little boy who lived in Clarksdale ended up reaching the entire world.”

Author Hank Burdine is definitely Delta

Author Hank Burdine’s latest book is a collection of his stories about the people, places and things that make up the Delta.

And Burdine is the perfect person to share those stories with his Southern drawl and storytelling ease that leaves one craving a sip of whiskey as they sit along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Burdine was in Clarksdale on Thursday, reading passages from his new book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.” The event, held at the Cutrer Mansion, was part of the Community Book Talks lecture series that is sponsored by the Carnegie Public Library in partnership with the Coahoma County Higher Education Center.

The book is a collection of stories Burdine has shared in the monthly Delta magazine. He has been writing for Delta magazine since its inception in 2003. His first column was titled “Why Mississippi Will Always Be My Home.”

“That was 67 issues ago,” Burdine said.

During Thursday’s event, Burdine read the introduction in his latest book, as well as the story “The Night I Lost My Pants at a Debutante Ball.”

He is proud of the work and thankful for contributions by “two dear, dear friends of mine”– authors Julia Reed, from Greenville, and Richard Grant, who wrote “Dispatches From Pluto.” Reed wrote the foreword, while Grant wrote the epilogue.

“I’m honored those two cats wanted to put something in the book,” Burdine said.

In an article, Grant wrote, “Hank Burdine is a writer, raconteur and bon vivant, a big-hearted, loud-drawling, whiskey-loving son of Greenville, Mississippi.”

Burdine said he hasn’t received many compliments in his life, but one of the greatest compliments he ever received was when he was described “as a Rule from Ruleville.”

The introduction to his book reflects on the Delta and memories of his mother.

“So, it is my belief, in agreement with my momma, that while the people of the Delta are what makes it so unique, it is the fact that in most cases, it was our grandparents and great-grandparents that were the true pioneers of this region.

“And it was that pioneering spirit and blood and guts and tears and sweat that beat the Mississippi River back, felled the trees and began to plow and mold the richest land imaginable in order to give us, today, the Mississippi Delta.”

Burdine said Clarksdale and its surrounding area “has got a real, deep part in my heart” and is a special place for him. He talked of Coahoma County’s Robert E. Bobo and his exploits as a bear hunter.

Burdine, who is also a commissioner on the Mississippi Levee Board, spoke of the twists and turns of the Sunflower River as it makes its way through the county and eventually heads to Ruleville and the rest of the lower Delta.

“We’re all so connected and it’s such an integral part of everything as this Delta is. It’s the uniqueness of this Delta, not only to us that live here and have been here, but to folks who want to know about it,” he said.

“The Delta is very special right now. It’s very hot right now,” said Burdine, who recently hosted the second annual Hank Burdine Blues and Greens Festival at the Shack Up Inn near Clarksdale. He pointed out that 80 percent of the inn’s clientele are visitors from Europe.

That’s an example, Burdine said, of the people learning about the Delta and wanting to know more about it.

“It’s not the high glitz and neon glory, but it’s the old stuff, the way we know it. It’s the Delta stuff,” Burdine said. “It’s the deep stuff. It’s the stuff in our guts. This is what we got. This is who we are.”

He said when people ask where he’s from, the answer is simple.

“I’m not from Clarksdale. I’m not from Greenville. I’m from the Delta.”

He said that simple statement covers a lot of people, a lot of races and a lot of creeds and nationalities.

“But, it’s us and it’s our Delta.”

Want a copy?

Hank Burdine’s book, “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy,” is sold exclusively through Delta magazine and authorized dealers. Call 662-843-2700 or go online to deltamagazine.com to order a copy.

(This article first appeared in the Dec. 12, 2018, issue of The Clarksdale Press Register.)

Grace under fire

One winter morning earlier this year, Bernadine Reed suddenly found herself in a life-and-death situation, trying to calm and corral 40 panicked first – through fifth-graders as smoke filled Darlington Public School Bus No. 3071.

Photo by Milton Morris.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine.

By Michael Banks

Two years ago, Bernadine Reed, who grew up in tiny Dovesville, S.C., left the noise and chaos of Baltimore, Md., to return to the piece and quiet of small-town life in rural South Carolina.

But on one winter morning earlier this year, Reed suddenly found herself in a life-and-death situation, trying to calm and corral 40 panicked first – through fifth-graders as smoke filled Darlington Public School Bus No. 3071.

“I told everybody, ‘We have to get off this bus now,’” Reed recalls.

A vehicle had slammed into the back of the bus after Reed had stopped before a railroad crossing on Jan. 22 at about 6:30 a.m. The only adult on the bus, Reed was able to guide the children, who were all crying and upset, out of the bus and to a nearby field. While flames consumed the vehicle, Reed was able to reach her supervisor and then called each child’s parents to let them know they were safe.

“Everybody looks at this as me being a hero. I tell them, ‘I’m just a mother that got 40 kids off a bus. That’s all.'”

— Bernadine Reed, bus driver in Darlington, S.C.

Reed, who had never driven a bus before, attributes the intensive training she had undergone in December for staying calm under fire. She had only been a driver for 45 days prior to the accident.

“I’ve been around children all my life,” said Reed, who had been a special needs educator and also ran her own daycare in Maryland.

Reed says she has a passion for her “babies,” which is what she calls the children who ride her bus.

“All my kids love me. They call me ‘Miss BeeBee,’” she says. “I think kids are just drawn to me. I’m like a magnet for kids and they listen to me. They know they’re on Miss BeeBee’s bus and Miss BeeBee don’t play. We are on this bus to get to school and home, safe and sound.”

Bernadine Reed

Age: 49

Home turf: Darlington

In the family: Reed’s 27-year-old daughter, Shantee Jacobs, recently moved from Maryland to Darlington and also became a school bus driver. She believes her entire family, which includes four children and three grandsons, will eventually move to South Carolina.

Accolades: While the parents of the children she rescued rewarded her with flowers and candy, Reed was also honored by the local school system and received a key to the city of Darlington.

“I told them, ‘Y’all don’t have to do this. This is my job. This is what I do,’” Reed says.

If a movie’s made, who plays the role of Bernadine Reed? “Queen Latifah,” she says with a laugh.

Did you know? Reed admits to being “a little bit adventurous.” She wants to go bungee jumping and says she likes to climb trees and “I want to jump out of an airplane, at least one time.”

The reality of Wright Thompson

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

The role of family, specifically, that of the father, in the life of some of the greatest athletes in the world is at the heart of Wright Thompson’s newest book, “The Cost of These Dreams.”

And the Clarksdale, Miss., native didn’t have to go far in searching for inspiration in telling the stories, as he counted on the life lessons he learned from his parents, Mary and Walter Thompson, and the community he grew up in.

“You talk about the things you get from your parents. The thing I got most of all was, for better or for worse, a complete, abiding belief that if I wanted to do it, I could do it,” Thompson said. “I kept believing despite severe evidence that suggested I should quit.”

“The Cost of These Dreams” is a collection of stories that he has written over the years for ESPN The Magazine. The main character in a lot of the stories is “place,” Thompson said during an appearance Friday at the Carnegie Public Library in downtown Clarksdale as part of its Community Book Talks Lecture Series.

And Clarksdale, he believes, is a “crash course in how to really dig into a place.”

Thompson grew up in Clarksdale on Court Street, where his mother, who is a retired teacher from Lee Academy, still lives. His father passed away in September 2004.

Wright believes the experience of growing up here plays a large part in how he writes and his interview process in his work as a senior writer for ESPN and as an executive producer of the television series “True South” on the SEC Network and “Backstory” on ESPN.

“When you’re confronted with so much hypocrisy, it makes you either want to cut through myths… which is basically what these things are, really,” Thompson said, holding up his book. “There is a through-line for all of these stories. Every one of them is trying to tell a story that someone doesn’t want told.

“That’s certainly formed here (in Clarksdale). At an early age, I think you decide if you’re going to tear it down or become part of it. And that’s very little middle ground. I understand how people come to both decisions.

“I don’t think any of this happens if I’m from a suburb of Atlanta with the exact same parents and the exact same situation. The exact same neighbors and the exact same schools. Same teachers and same people in the classes.

“I got to think there’s something from being from this place that gets into you and, if you can get out of the place, you can carry that like a sword and a shield everywhere you go for the rest of your life. If you crawl your way out of this, there’s not a single thing in the world… I mean everything after that is easy. It’s almost like the greatest possible training you could ever have.”

The 1996 Lee graduate attended the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He would work for various newspapers, including The Clarksdale Press Register, Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Kansas City Star, before he landed a job as a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine in 2006.

He has written hundreds of articles for numerous publications, including a recent article in Garden and Gun magazine about Moon Lake and Katherine’s restaurant. He’s won a number of sports journalism awards and also an Emmy for his E:60 on noodling, the sport of fishing for catfish with bare hands. He is a member of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Sports Hall of Fame.

And as much appreciation as Thompson has for this community, Clarksdale residents are as equally supportive as more than 100 people turned out for the author’s appearance Friday.

Thompson jokingly said he thought about titling his latest book “Back For More Cash,” which got large laughs from the audience, but he admitted it was a bit of a chore narrowing down the 14 stories that eventually made it into the publication.

“When I read it, it sort of took my breath away,” Thompson said of the book’s preface, which he wrote over 90 minutes spent at a booth in the Yazoo Pass restaurant downtown. “They (the varied stories) really do fit together in an interesting way and speak to each other in an interesting way that was completely unintended. That was a total accident.”

During Friday’s appearance, Thompson read portions of his story titled “Michael Jordan’s Not Left the Building,” which detailed the 50th birthday of Jordan and how the former basketball superstar and one of the most famous people in the world was learning to live a life where “now you’re just a guy whose knees hurt.”

Reflecting upon Jordan and his voracious appetite for competition, Thompson told the audience, “He very much seeks out that part of his life that’s gone.”

And that adjustment of fading from the limelight is at the heart of his newest collection of stories.

“I feel like you spend 48 percent of your life wanting to be something, four percent of your life being it and 48 percent of your life having been it. And that’s certainly true for every person in this book.”

He believes there is a bit of a “mourning period” for athletes once they retire and try to decide how the next part of their life is played out.

“It’s interesting because people want to be famous because it sounds fun. But when they get famous, they want to give it back. And you can’t give it back because you’ve already made too many deals with the devil that you can’t unmake.”

As for Wright Thompson, the author said life is good. The 42-year-old now makes his home in Oxford where he lives with his wife, Sonia, and daughter, Wallace, and often makes trips home to Clarksdale to see his mother and friends.

“Everybody has a story they tell themselves about themselves.  And everybody has a story that other people tell about them,” Thompson said. “What I really want to do when you break it down… the essence of it…  is to figure out what those two stories are… and the most important is figure out what is the space in between, why does that space exist.”

As an example, he said he’ll often tell people that he grew up “working on a farm” from his days spent working in the cotton fields for local farmer Cliff Heaton. But what he’ll not say is that his father “was a pretty successful trial lawyer.”

Thompson said, “It’s because I have a self-image of myself as someone who got here by working really hard and one thing confirms the way I feel about it and the other thing doesn’t. Am I lying? I don’t know. But it feels true to me.

“When I look at and see my own journey here, and all the people who started wanting the same thing… and watching the winnowing happen and seeing who gets stripped away and who is left standing when we get to the top of the mountain… it feels to me, the single most important thing was not talent, but hard work and the ability to believe ‘someone’s got to do this, why not me?’”

(This story originally appeared in the April 10, 2019, edition of The Clarksdale Press Register.)

Thirteen months later, the lesson of a late-night encounter

It was on that dark stretch of rural road, hemmed in between stands of towering oaks and deserted railroad cars between Clarksdale and Lyon where I came upon him one recent Tuesday evening.

Driving home near midnight I was the lone vehicle along that stretch of road when I noticed a faint figure ahead of the beam of my headlights. Downshifting, I slowed my pickup until I came to a dead stop and shifted forward in my seat, hands and chin on my steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

He didn’t budge from the center of the roadway. Not a flick of a muscle.

Caught there in the glare of my beams he stared right back into my eyes. I clicked my lights, thinking that might scare him off.

No chance. It was as if we were in a stand-off.

I couldn’t tell if he was, quite literally, caught like a deer in headlights. Or rather, he was in some indirect manner telling me this was his turf and I was the intruder.

He was a rather scrawny fox. Kind of beat-up around the edges. Looked a bit older and it’d been a while since he’d had a decent meal.

We continued our staredown for a few more seconds until he glanced around and slowly strolled off to the side. I put my truck in gear and resumed my drive home.

I’ve thought often about that fox over the past few weeks. And in some ways, he’s sort of become symbolic of life now.

Earlier this month, me and my wife were faced with one of life’s decisions. An opportunity to return to the Carolinas, closer to family, beckoned. But it wasn’t an easy decision as we had made several new friends in our 13 months here and we believed good work was being done at The Clarksdale Press Register.

Yet, in the end, the lure of home won out as this is my final column as the publisher/editor of The Clarksdale Press Register. Just as my nocturnal neighbor was faced with that decision to stay or flee, we too opted to turn for home.

And, in my opinion, that fox caught in the headlights is also symbolic of current-day Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

It seems as if this community is torn right now on which direction to head in regard to so many heady issues it faces.

There are some ready to jump ahead and embrace all new things. Yet, there are others who are proud of the traditions and success of yesteryear and have a reluctance to deviate from what’s worked in the past. And, unfortunately, there are a good number of folks who really don’t care either way.

Oftentimes, when sides are pulling from opposite ends, you are left with a stalemate. You end up with inaction — that deer-in-the-headlights look as the future steadily bears down upon you.

And Clarksdale and Coahoma County cannot afford to stay frozen in place. To do so would be a failure.

Tough questions need to be asked about education in this county. Why are the three public school systems in the county failing? Are these schools meant to educate or rather provide employment? Can consolidation happen?

Crime continues to be at the forefront. It’s almost as if being broken into or having some of your property taken from your car or shed is as acceptable and as much a part of life here as having blues music 365 days a year. That needs to change.

There’s a shortage of available middle-class housing. As renters, we moved four times in the 13 months we were here. To find a good home where you don’t worry about being broken into or being flooded is a real challenge. And as this community continues to bring in new industry – and with it middle-class renters – there should be a concerted effort to make that a priority.

Take these challenges to heart, but also know there are so many good memories that fill my mind when I look back at the past 13 months. Things I will truly miss.

The taste of the honey-hot sauce on Pete’s Wings. The drawl and timbre of Charles Langford’s voice. The smile of Rena Butler. The smooth as silk delivery of a Valmadge Towner speech. Hartley Kittle’s comical comparisons. The awesome view of cypress trees rising into a clear blue sky on a Moon Lake pontoon guided by John Mohead.

I’ll miss Ed Seals’ monthly plea for city crews to plug those potholes in his ward. And I still crave to have a bourbon in hand as I sit and listen to Hank Burdine and Wright Thompson read their words. I’ll cherish hearing the sounds of the Coahoma Community College choir and a Sunday afternoon in a Mound Bayou church. I’ll miss Big A and Lucious and LaLa.

I’ll never forget the sight of John Ruskey pedaling down Yazoo, that hair and hat flapping in the wind. The weekly emails of encouragement and that living wall of musical history that is all Panny Mayfield.

Who couldn’t help but smile as they watched a gassed Clarksdale mayor Chuck Espy pull along a 180-pound dummy, only to collapse at the finish?

And who couldn’t help but to be overcome with dread and helplessness, watching as coaches pounded on the chest of a high school football player on a Friday night sideline, trying to ensure life was not lost.

It’s the candor of Bo Plunk. The diplomacy of Jon Levingston. The desire to do good by Christine McDaniel. And the friendship of Jerry Gardner and Travis Haggan. It’s the honesty of Paul Pearson. And the helpfulness of Demetria Jackson.

It’s life here in Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

On several occasions this year, I heard Mayor Espy quote actor Morgan Freeman from the movie “Shawshank Redemption”  when saying:  “It’s time to get busy living or get busy dying. And I choose to get busy living.”

Do that, Clarksdale and Coahoma County.

Get busy living.

(This article first appeared in the April 23, 2019, edition of The Clarksdale Press Register.)