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A Native Mississippian on a hot, dusty Delta Blues Day

October 1, 2010

Together let’s return back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, and we’ll go back to our great and beautiful, flat, landscapes of our Mississippi Delta.
We shall leave our great and beautiful hill landscapes of Starkville, and travel about one and a half hours, heading west, down Highway 82 until we come to Carrollton.
On the last hill top we suddenly began to see both the hill as well as to the tops of trees covered with big clinging green vines called, kudzu. We almost feel as if we are in mountains rather than a hillside.
Suddenly our car just drops off into “Death Valley,” and we are in those flat lands of our great and wonderful Mississippi Delta where we can see for miles and miles of white cotton swaying and dancing with the Delta blues music all dressed up in long and pretty 100 percent cotton white dresses. We are going to dance to the music of the famous live band called “The Red Tops” all dressed up in red tuxedo tops.
As we drive along heading to Greenwood, we see “Devil Winds.” This is brown dusty dirt moving in circles which look like a small tornado making its way down the rows and rows of white cotton. These “Devil Winds” are everywhere as the slight breeze blows them along those miles and miles of rows and rows of “popcorn” cotton fields on this very hot hot dusty Delta day.
We can almost hear the Delta Blue’s music being sung by our very own Mississippi singer, B. B. King.
We are coming nearer to Main Street Greenwood, and our car hits the old brick streets right in front of the famous Crystal Grill where you can stop and taste the best home cooked dinner in all of Mississippi.
Fresh turnip greens picked, served and eaten every day topped off with a piece of lemon pie where the white fluffy topping goes to the sky.
Their food is mouth watering delicious, and the hospitality of Johnny and his daddy as they are certainly welcoming, as they stop by each table to simply say, “Hello,” and make you feel right at home. This is the Delta!
We’ll pass by the beautiful very old First Presbyterian Church where you see as you walk outside the Sunday Church Service at 12 noon time into the bright sunlight all the Delta farmers looking upward to the sky and saying to themselves, “is it going to rain today or just be sunshiny?”
Farming the land is their life as well as their lively hood. They depend on good or bad weather to make each and every crop successful.
Suddenly I over heard someone say, “Hey there is Frank Davis from Mississippi State University, and did you know he has found a hill girl to become his wife from up there at Starkville?”
“He is Mallory Coleman (Bill) and Josephine’s second son. Think he is getting his Ph.D. in Entomology. They will be getting married March 21 in the First Presbyterian Church in Starkville. Did yall know this news?”
We keep going on towards Money, Mississippi, passing by the famous WABG Radio station right smack in the cotton field to the left of the road. We are heading to see the old bridge where Bobby Gentry wrote her song that goes something like this, “It was the third of June...when Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge!”
We stop and look down into those muddy waters and wonder and think that we might just see the face and body of Billy Joe McAlister floating by, but we don’t see him so we just keep going on down the dusty dirt road.
Along the way we see the green mossy looking water with those big bald cypress trees above where the fish are jumping, and the big old frogs are sitting on a lily pad.. It is hot, hot, hot summertime, and the big mosquitoes are humming by too.
We are traveling to Four-Fifth’s Plantation just north of Greenwood on Highway 49 heading towards Clarksdale to a little crossroads community known as Shell Mound.
Four-Fifth’s Plantation is 3,000 acres of rich farm land where the sweetest delta farmer, Mallory “Bill” Coleman Davis, Sr., and his wonderful Delta wife, Josephine Holloman Davis became my Delta father-in-law and mother-in-law on March 21, 1964.
They were both native Itta Bena, Mississippians where Josephine’s own father was Dr. Frank Marvin Holloman, a country Delta doctor in Morgan City.
My husband, Frank Marvin Davis, Sr., was named for his mother’s father, Dr. Frank Marvin Holloman.
Mallory “Bill” Davis farmed and managed this large plantation where, at one time, there were over 100 tenant houses and families living right there on Four-Fifth’s Plantation.
Cotton was called, “King Cotton,” and was the absolutely top crop of the Delta. You could see men, women, and children out in those cotton fields with their hoes as they hoed the grass and weeds from taking over the fluffy popcorn cotton in those cotton patches.
You could spot the nine foot canvas burlap cotton sacks pulled by a strap slung over a shoulder which had a tar bottom to help make the canvas bag stronger and easier to slide up and down the cotton rows.
Suddenly the farming began to change from the old ways of doing things to the modern way and life of farming.
The old hoes were replaced with herbicides and the cotton canvas burlap sacks were replaced with big mechanical cotton pickers. Our entire life here in Mississippi was changing for a better life. Those 100 tenant houses disappeared, and “Bill” Davis began to have the latest and most modern production procedures used on his Four-Fifth’s Plantation. He now had 10 or 12 tractor drivers. The land where those tenant houses use to be, became vacant land where cotton was then planted.
Suddenly as the years rolled by, cotton was no longer, the “King” crop, but soybeans, corn, cotton, and rice became all “Four Kings” as well.
Mississippi farming was in a transitional time between the old-fashioned way of farming to the more modern way of farming with more modern machinery. Farming became more efficient way of life.
Memories of growing up in our Mississippi Delta in the tiny little town of Money, Frank, my wonderful husband of 46 years remembers the hot, dry days, seeing the summer time of hoeing of the cotton fields by hand labor and those many white washed tenant houses dotting the landscape.
The autumn of the year seeing the cotton being picked and the long nine feet of cotton canvas burlap sacks being pulled up and down the forever and never seeming to end cotton rows that would go on for miles and miles.
Winter time was desolate and lonely, and spring time was the beginning of tilling and planting time and starting all over again with a new cotton crop for that new year ahead.
One of my very favorite paintings in my collection of work is this one titled, “A Native Mississippian On A Hot, Dusty, Delta Blue’s Day.” This is one of the most moving portraits I have had the honor to sketch and paint. I found him right outside, in front of his white-washed tenant house in the middle of a cotton patch on Four-Fifth’s Plantation in the year of 1970 in that Shell Mound community
This is a 40 year old painting, and every time I look at it, my own heart skips a beat, and I remember painting it as if it were yesterday. I want to share it with you.
I introduced myself to my subject, and told him I was an artist. “May I sketch and paint your portrait?” He graciously said, “Yes,” and walked back into his tenant house to get his “suit going to church coat” to put on. He did not put on a white shirt, only his coat.
He was born right here on Four-Fifth’s Plantation, and spent his entire life there tilling, hoeing, picking cotton. We would say that he had a hard life, but it was the only life he knew.
His work was hard as he hoed the grass and weeds around each and every cotton plant. He picked and slid that burlap cotton canvas sack up and down the cotton rows as he sang and hummed his day away. His favorite music was the Delta Blues.
The hot sunshine beamed down on those same shoulders and that same face for years and years. Hard work and hard labor as he tilled, turned the soil, and then picked the mature cotton out of those cotton fields in the flat landscapes of Mississippi every early morning at sunrise until every late afternoon at sunset. All day long every week day till Sunday rolled around. Sunday was a day of worship and rest.
He was a gentleman all dressed up in his “suit coat!” He was an average sized gentleman. Look at the pride within his very eyes, Look closely at his nose and his lips as if he is telling us all about his own life.
His face, his portrait, tell us his life story. I remember how much my father-in-law respected him for his knowledge of cotton production. He was both loved and respected by him.
Look at his forehead, and see with your eyes the map of his entire life as it is etched within those wrinkles and scars of what life must have been like for him. Look at his hair and the top of his head.
Look at the neatly pressed ‘ready to go to church suit coat’ quickly grabbed out of his one closet inside his tenant front door house that he quickly grabbed to slip on for his portrait to be painted that day.
His house was a simple one, small and cozy that had just been white-washed with fresh white paint outside. The inside was old weathered brown wood which looked very sparse and barren much like a Delta winter time season.
He stood right in front of his house, and you can see the front door and one window along with a tiny porch in the background of his portrait..
The white washed house lends itself well against his black skin, black hair, and greyish/blue “Sunday Going To Church Suit Coat.”
As I painted his portrait, he talked to me and told me his story of his life. See his lips are talking to you as “my viewer” right now. His face is so very expressive and he is telling you his story right now of his entire life.
Cotton use to be “King Cotton” in our flat landscapes of Mississippi. To me, a “hill girl” in our hill country of Mississippi, this very, very moving portrait of his face...he is “My King Cotton” on this canvas that I painted in 1970.
Today it is the year of 2010., and 40 years have come and gone, and deep down in my heart, I still am touched by his portrait. He was a proud gentleman who I took time to get to know, love, and paint him.
I captured this time 1970, this moment, this second of a kind human being... A NATIVE MISSISSIPPIAN ON A HOT, DUSTY, DELTA BLUES DAY!

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