THE ROCKIN' CHAIR: MY SOUTHERN TOWN

By Tom Speed

Sandwiched between Clarksdale – the home of Delta Blues — and the sprawling rolling hills to the east that bore the Hill Country Blues of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Mississippi Fred McDowell, you'll find the small town of Oxford, Mississippi. It's a cool town, my home.


Oxford, Mississippi
But it's weird - and not in the ways you might think. Oxford is home to the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, with all of the Old South Plantation imagery that comes along with it. Frat boys and debutantes put on their Sunday best to sweat out hot afternoons in the Grove, sipping (no, slugging) whiskey under chandeliered tents before home football games.

The specter of the racial ugliness of decades before, events that happened before my lifetime, still linger despite the enormous progress that's been made. Occasionally, you'll still see flourishes of ignorance. Until recently, the confederate flag was a mainstay at Ole Miss sporting events, a source of misplaced pride and unintended ignorance more than overt hatred or racism, not that it matters much.

But her underbelly is inhabited by a rich and diverse culture of artists, writers and musicians. This Oxford is in many ways the opposite, in many ways the same. It's a small enclave of blue stated-ness in possibly the most red of states (in more ways than one). Yet these elements are part of the same soul and often contain the same people.

Yep, when it comes to The Duality of the Southern Thing, Oxford has it in droves.


Rowan Oak :: Home of William Faulkner
Oxford, Mississippi
People much smarter than me have extensively studied why such creative endeavors spring from this great state, a state whose true heart is on display in this little town. It's the duality of the southern thing, as another person much smarter than me put it. It's a cauldron of fierce pride and sore shame, but it provides its own character. And character breeds creativity, just as conflict does.

It's a town of just 12,000 or so residents (I told you it was small) that just about doubles in size when Ole Miss is in session. On football Saturdays, it sometimes swells to 80,000 or so, about the number of people who hit up that field in Manchester last weekend.

In many ways, Oxford is the cultural center of the state, and before you laugh at me for mentioning Mississippi and culture in the same sentence, hear me out.


William Faulkner
Oxford is not just the home of William Faulkner and the inspiration for his fictional town of Jefferson and county of Yoknapatawpha, though that's often the first thing that comes to mind. It is home to a long line of literary genius. In a town this size, it seems the twin crowns of literary and music heroes are passed down through the generations, and Oxford has known its share of literary icons, starting with Mr. Faulkner, sure, but continuing with Willie Morris and Barry Hannah, then the late Larry Brown and now Tom Franklin.

Each of them mines the duality of the southern thing in prose both poignant and violent. And Oxonions do the same through their music, though their approach is cathartic as often as it is introspective.

Until fairly recently, there simply was no music scene in Oxford. Despite a centuries-long love affair with brown liquor, Mississippi remained one of the last holdouts to the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition. Many counties in the state remain dry, barring the sale or possession of alcoholic beverages (a predicament which every few years or so results in the local Baptist Churches and county line liquor stores conspiring to keep the status quo, albeit for altogether different reasons, but that's a story for another time and probably another place).

Oxford itself was dry (as in no liquor, at all) until the early 1970s. And like it or not, live music thrives on bar sales. Sure the house parties and more specifically, the rural picnics, have been keeping and advancing music forever. But as for live music in this small college town, it just didn't happen. And Oxford didn't become Oxford until it did. Not this Oxford anyway.


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