Saturday, 8 November 2014

Grenada, Escatawpa and Yazoo City: The beauty, mystery, romance and weirdness of Mississippi place-names

Over on his Low Cotton blog, Mississippian Erik Bartlam has been travelling through the region on business. For his readers, this often results in a slew of great blues and rhythm ‘n' blues music, photographs so evocative you can almost hear the Delta slide-guitar playing and bloodhounds baying in the background, and a list of place names so weird, wonderful and beautiful that they seem to conjure up an impossible, mythical land. I’ve written about the mesmerising quality of American place-names before, but reading about Mr. B's  latest excursion ("Highway 49 Revisited", here) made me realise that, for sheer exoticism, variety and mystery, Mississippi is surely without equal.

For me, it all started with Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, with its mentions of Carroll County, the Tallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw Ridge. This was reinforced by the husky-voiced singer-songwriter’s “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which introduced us to the city in the title, along with Biloxi, Kosciusko and Chickasaw. Then there were all those places to do with the blues – e.g. Clarksdale (which many claim as the birthplace of the blues), Rosedale (from Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues”), Parchman Farm (the Mississippi State Penitentiary), Indianola (B.B. King’s birthplace), Tupelo (Elvis’s birthplace – been there) and Avalon (Mississippi John Hurt’s hometown). Then, in my mid-twenties, I travelled across the state on a Greyhound bus, and when I was 40, drove through it (with the added benefit of being able to listen to local radio – the Sunday morning gospel music was special) – and each time, the names on the signposts and the roadmaps proved a constant source of delight, from historic Natchez to Oxford to Yazoo City. (Yes, there really is a place called Yazoo City – how great is that!)

Reading Mr. Bartlam’s account of his latest travellings send me straight to Google. Here, split into two lists, are my favourite Mississippi place-names, with their origins, where known, or where they aren’t screamingly obvious. I found most of them here – the rest on Wikipedia:

Cities & Towns
Olive Branch (oddly, a suburb of Memphis)
Pascagoula (Ind. tribe – “bread nation”)
Picayune (a Spanish coin)
Pontotoc (Ind. “weed prairie”)
Poplarville (the man who ran the local store was nicknamed “Popular”)
Senatobia (Ind. “white sycamore”, a symbol of rest for the weary)
Rosedale (of Robert Johnson fame)
Yazoo City (Ind. “to blow on an instrument”)
Avalon (birthplace of the great Mississippi John Hurt)
Indianola (birthplace of B.B. King)
Biloxi (Ind. “worthless” or “turtle” – take your pick)
Escatawpa  (Ind. “trim cane”)
Itta Bena (Ind. “forest camp”)
Iuka (Ind. named after an Indian)
Kosciusko (named after a Polish patriot)
Mound Bayou
Okolona (Ind. “much bent”)
Pass Christian (for one Nicholas Christian L'Adnier)
Bogue Chitto (Ind. “big creek”)
Cherokee (guess)
Chulahoma (Ind. “red fox”)
Winona (Ind. “first born daughter”)
Starkville (where Johnny Cash was briefly incarcerated)
Ebenezer (Biblical city)
Belzoni (Italian archeologist)
Hernando (Hernando de Soto, discoverer of the Mississippi River)
Rienzi (Roman tribune)
Coffeeville (General John Coffee, Indian-fighter)
Crystal Springs
Holly Springs
Pearlington (pearl fisheries established by the French)
Love (no, not that – named after a colonel)
Satartia (Ind. “pumpkin place”)
Jacinto (Sp. “hyacinth”)

Tallahatchie (Ind. “river of the rock”)
Coahoma (Ind. “red panther”)
Bolivar (Simon, of course)
Yalobusha (Ind. “tadpole place”)
Itawamba (daughter of an Indian chief)
Leflore (named after Choctaw leader, Greenwood Leflore)
Tishomingo (Ind. “warrior chief”)
Noxubee (Ind. “stinking water”)
Neshoba (Ind. “grey wolf”)
Tippah (wife of an Indian chief)
Oktibbeha (Ind. “ice there in the creek”)
Panola (Ind. cotton)
Copiah (Ind. “calling panther”)
Attalah (Indian heroine in romance by Chateaubriand)
Tippah (Ind. “cut off”)
Choctaw (Indian Tribe: “flathead”)
Chickasaw (Ind Tribe: “rebel”)
Lincoln (named after Honest Abe – how did this get through???)
Pachuta (Ind. “possum creek”)


  1. It's the middle of the day on Saturday in November...I'm occupied right now but I will be back.


    As for the war criminal Lincoln that...almost certainly comes from a period of intensive reconciliatory efforts by the U.S....starting with their need for our assistance in their war to Liberate Cuba from not being American...and running through the progressive era. I'm watching the idiot Georgia Bulldogs now and their fight song uses the tune from Battle Hymn of the Republic...GEORGIA now.

    Thanks for the mention...I'm going back next week.

    1. Ah yes, Cuba - PBS is showing Ken Burns's series on The Roosevelts here at the moment. Utterly fascinating. I'll admit I knew next to nothing about the Spanish-American War. Someone described the young Orson Welles as a "monstrous boy", and the description would seem to fit Teddy Roosevelt.

  2. Excellent post. It reminded me that Australia's highest mountain is called Mount Kosciuzsko [named after the same gentleman, apparantly] and if you flew anywhere near it the turbulence was terrible; that "Timoshingo Blues" is one of the books by Elmore Leonard that remained unread so I ordered it up on Kindle and am now stuck into it; and that one of my favourite songs from the Southern Part of the US [not Mississippi - "Polk Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White - was inspired by Bobbie Gentry so I have now listened to that a few times . Tony Joe had a special wire contraption on his guitar to hold his burning Chesterfields. What a great voice.
    Two questions? Why do so many Southerners bear twin barelled Christian names [sorry, given names?] like Joe Don, Billy Bob etc. What brought this custom about - one that they share with Scandinavians? Also, why do American place-names lend themselves to to so many great songs ["Promised Land", "Route 66" etc] whereas ours would just sound risible in a similar context?

    1. I think the point in your last sentence rather understates the inherent romance and mystery of English place names captured in song, SDG. After all, the B side of Wonderful Land, the 1962 No1 by the Shadows, was the evocative Stars Fell on Stockton. Ian Dury's Billericay Dicky perfectly captures a typical night out in Essex in his encounter with Nina, than whom a seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener in the back of his Cortina. Admittedly, when Squeeze rhymed 'happen' with 'the girl from Clapham' in Up the Junction standards dipped a bit but I would choose Waterloo Sunset over Ode to Billie Jo, even if Ray Davies was only gazing over a bridge rather than dropping an unidentified package off one.

    2. To be fair, sticking the name of a city on an instrumental doesn;t quite cut the mustard. SDGs right - Britain as a whole is ill-served by pop songs celebrating, say, Nuneaton or Wookey Hole - but London's an exception. There are, literally, hundreds of songs about the capital - most of them quite ghastly, and few of which actually celebrate the areas they mention (for instance, Mark Knopfler's "Junie Doll" references Turpike Lane and my local station Turnham Green - but he's not actually saying anything about either place). I'm working on a Top Twelve of great London songs - meanwhile, I've done one for Texas, ending with Kinky Friedman's memorable "Asshole from El Paso".

    3. Two non-great London songs - "Winchester Cathedral" [1966] by the New Vaudeville Band and "Durham Town" [1988] by the slightly creepy Roger Whitaker. I was about to listen to the latter when I remembered his whistling solos.

    4. Yes - and it was made worse by the odd contorted expression on his face as he ruined whichever song it was as he whistled away. I am not sure that it is Britain so much as England that, with the exception of London, doesn't have places that capture the same romantic appeal. There are plenty of songs that celebrate the Scottish and Welsh landscape and other joys - Marty Wilde's 'Abergevenny', 'The day we went to Bangor' , 'Mullet of Kintyre'. The trouble is that with one or two exceptions they're not much cop.

  3. It's not Scandinavian. I mean...who doesn't love the Scandinavians but there are probably more legitimate reported sightings of Black Panthers down here than of Scandinavians.
    Though, according to my dear Cumbrian friend adamparsons...who digs up Viking graves for a living, tells me that this practice is fairly common in the North of England...Marybeths, etc...which would make sense. Often these names are hyphenated with family names...John-Mother's Maiden Name...or Mary-Grandfather's Christian name. Most of the time a Southern woman will change her middle name to her maiden name after marrying...anyway, the point is there is precedent for it in parts of England and that these customs come down through Viking in a round about way...Yes.
    Unless of course I've gotten it all mixed up...which is always possible...even likely. :)

    My brother used to leave one string long and poke his cigarette down on it.

    I think the place names work because they've been used from the start...Indianola doesn't really say blues anymore than Islington.

    1. I have a cousin called Inger Lise, and her son is called Per Øyvind - so, as you and SDG say, there's a lot of it about in Scandinavia, that's for sure. And, of course, it's common enough in France - might that have influenced the habit down South as well, what with the French in Louisiana?

      As for Indianola, it seems to have gone through a lot of name changes: 'Between 1882 and 1886, the town's name was changed from "Indian Bayou" to "Eureka," then to "Belengate," and finally "Indianola," which was allegedly in honor of an Indian princess named "Ola."' Yes, I know - I need to get out more.

      Apropos of nothing, I've been reading W.J. Cash's "The Mind of the South" (1941), and was surprised to learn just how many towns and cities in the South sprang up in a relatively short period in the first half of the 19th century after the invention of the cotton gin and the rapid spread of cotton production which resulted from it.

    2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Marie le Pen
      Endless Italians called GianCarlo, GianLuca, ...
      Could there be a Protestant/Roman Catholic/Christian contribution to this custom, inserting saints' names into your children's for good luck or to demonstrate faith (the saint being chosen irrespective of the sex of the child)?

      Some people might wish that their parents had observed this custom. My No.1 daughter was at school with a girl called Teresa Green. And my No.2 daughter invigilated a Latin-speaking competition for schoolchildren yesterday where one of the contestants was Charity Pickup.

      I rather like the innovation of the Snopes family in the works of William Faulkner. A child was born to one of them in October 1929 on the day of the Wall St Crash. They called the boy Wallstreet.

    3. I think I've got to the bottom of it...Charles I took it from the French, it became fashionable in England...we brought it to The South and because we are still the same people...we still do it. Like Appalachian English. The major adaptation is probably the use of maiden names...we're still giving my sister grief for not naming her second son John-Bartlam.

  4. With ref to D Moss's Teresa Green, my father had a girl work for him, who, having married, was called Lillian Skinner and a great friend was at University with a North Londoner called Fanny Hymen - really.

    1. Marginally better than Mike Hunt, I suppose.

    2. For Wimblebum residents of the sixties: you may recollect that there was a serial flasher on the common who appeared frequently in front of the beak.
      His name was a Boro News' sub-editor's dream: Patrick L Balls. My how we laughed.

    3. I can dimly recall a robust response delivered to a man exhibiting his genitalia in the vicinity of a female connected to the Blog Maestro's clan. He was given short shrift, as it were. Or is age playing tricks with my memory?

    4. I suspect you're thinking of my grandmother's comment to a Glasgow flasher: "No, thanks - I don't smoke Players Weights".

      (For younger readers, I should explain that Players Weights were tiny.)

  5. The Icelanders have an interesting custom with regard to family names. The patronymic system gives every generation a new family name by combining the father's first name with "son" [son] or "dottir" [daughter]. For example, if our esteemed blogger was Icelandic and had a daughter called "Beryl" her full name would be Beryl Scottdottir. It means, of course, that brothers and sisters have different family names.
    In case the father's identity is unknown [difficult in Iceland, increasingly mandatory in the UK]] there are matronymic provisions.
    So why is the late Magnus Magnusson's daughter not known as Sally Magnusdottir? I dunno.

    1. Who else but the Irish could either devise, understand or operate this system:

      ... A son has the same surname as his father. A female's surname replaces Ó with Ní (reduced from Iníon Uí - "daughter of the grandson of") and Mac with Nic (reduced from Iníon Mhic - "daughter of the son of"); in both cases the following name undergoes lenition. However, if the second part of the surname begins with the letter C or G, it is not lenited after Nic [citation needed]. Thus the daughter of a man named Ó Dónaill has the surname Ní Dhónaill and the daughter of a man named Mac Gearailt has the surname Nic Gearailt. When anglicised, the name can remain O' or Mac, regardless of gender ...

    2. Formal logicians? That subject made as much sense to me as the above.