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The Hermitage (From The Hermitage.com)

An Englishman in the American South

Five Southern states in 11 days: scattered views from the old world.

Music is everywhere in Music City, not all of it welcome. Bouncing along pockmarked roads on the edge of Nashville, the only sounds came not from the radio but rattling from a car suspension struggling to navigate years of under-investment. We’d finished honky-tonking, and loaded up on Johnny Cash gear (it would be wrong not to), and were heading off for our latest rendezvous with the Seventh President of the United States.This one was deliberate but we found him everywhere regardless.

For a country obsessed with driving, the roads sure are a mess.

For a man dead the better part of 170 years, the ghost of Andrew Jackson pursued me around the South. A fiery populist who broke the Eastern monopoly on American power and dirtied his hands expanding the United States at the expense of just about everyone, he remains largely unknown in the old world. That’s no surprise when one of his most famous achievements came in defeating the British outside New Orleans. No wonder my country chooses to forget him.

The Southern States certainly haven’t. In monuments, museums, and a collection of eponymous cities, Old Hickory left his mark far beyond a picture on a $20 bill. Americans, I imagine, are used to this, but it’s a different story for new arrivals. Andrew Jackson was not to be my only discovery. Before the plane touched down in New Orleans, it’s fair to say my knowledge of the American South consisted almost entirely of broad preconceptions drawn inaccurately from film, TV and literature. I felt like I knew the place without ever visiting, a belief wrong in all the fundamentals and right in the sense that it invariably colored everything I experienced in 11 days travelling across five states.

That’s not unexpected. When you’re the cultural hegemon, which the United States indisputably is right now, everyone thinks they know you. This goes doubly for someone from the old world, grown up on the same language (more or less) and a diet of American entertainment. When I drove across the arid plains of northern Spain, all I saw was the dustbowl of The Grapes of Wrath, and whenever I go to sports stadiums I can’t help but imagine Robert Redford destroying the lights with a baseball. So to me the Deep South is a world at once familiar and far removed; a place of stereotypes that come from a base of truth, since warped far beyond original context.

Even though I know it won’t be like this, the part of me steeped in stereotypes came looking for signs of rugged individualism and Southern manners, and on the flipside, grinding poverty, oppressed minorities and ignorant redneck hillbillies. But stereotypes don’t allow for nuance, and crude characterisations do no one any favors. The only red neck I saw was my own after too long cooking under the Southern sun.

It wasn’t just the sun making an impression. The moment I stepped outside the air-conditioned baggage hall at Louis Armstrong International Airport, a wall of humidity hit. I imagine, given it was only early May, it wasn’t even particularly gruelling for locals. Try telling that to someone from the perpetually mild south of England. In London, my former home, we get rain but it’s rarely heavy, sun but it’s hardly ever too hot, and snow only on lucky occasions. Air-conditioning, something that seems to be built into the American experience, is an afterthought. So this humidity, enough to immediately stick me to the ridiculously heavy jeans and long-sleeve shirt I’d for some reason thought it was acceptable to wear, came as a shock. The following ten days, although the heat switched from humid to dry, were equally testing.

New Orleans was the start, and the finish: in-between involved a large arc up through western Louisiana into Mississippi (technically Arkansas as well but one night in a motel should probably be disqualified), Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia before returning to the city of jazz. Along the way there would be time for swamps, Andrew Jackson statues, Elvis, giant rivers, towns named after Andrew Jackson, abandoned furnaces, honky-tonk, Andrew Jackson’s home, and more BBQ than a person can safely consume. It also required an awful lot of driving, a chore I dodged as I haven’t even got as far as a driving lesson, never mind a licence. Luckily my partner was around to do the hard work while I enjoyed the view.

At least New Orleans, a city that lives in the imagination of the world according to John Goodman in Treme, didn’t require any driving. The air-conditioned car might have been nice though. Southern Louisiana was nothing like the other four states. They were hot but not touch-something-and-you-stick-to-it hot. I have no idea how anything gets done in such a climate. I spent the whole time feeling like the fluffy cat we saw in the French Quarter that could barely summon the will to look in my direction.

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Louisiana swamp (photo by Stephen Mayne)

It wasn’t just the climate in the South, but the odd combination of scale and remoteness I couldn’t shake. The five states combined, five states that make up less than ten percent of the landmass of the United States, are together nearly three times bigger than the United Kingdom. Yet the combined population of these five states is not even half that of the UK. So we’re talking a road-trip across land that is vast compared to what I’m used to, far hotter than I’m frankly equipped to handle, and eerily quiet much of the time.

That’s the kind of thing you can figure out with a handy guidebook beforehand though. Besides, none of it (well maybe the humidity) was apparent starting off in New Orleans. The city, packed full of partying tourists, is about as far from the sedate sights that made up large parts of the journey as can be imagined. Which is to be expected. In general New Orleans was as expected, at least on the surface.

At first glance it looks just like the city of jazz, creole cooking, and non-stop fun it purports to be. The historic French Quarter bustles with confused tourists stumbling around in search of voodoo memorabilia and sickly sweet beignets. Street musicians sit on every corner, always ready to indulge the unimaginative with a burst of When the Saints Go Marching In. Families out early to tick off sights walk past drunken partygoers making the slow stagger home after a night of overindulgence. People were everywhere doing just about everything.

It’s hard to tell how representative the heaving streets of the French Quarter are. Even the nearby Tremé district, deserted by comparison and full of charming if occasionally dilapidated buildings, will be nothing like the majority of the city. But at the same time, tourism has become so central to New Orleans that the sanitised gimmicks of balcony strewn old streets is almost as real a representation as anything else. It’s certainly the one the city prefers to sell to the world, even if it doesn’t take much walking to find other areas of interest, punctuated by long avenues full of the same fast food restaurants (I’ll make an exception for Popeyes, founded in New Orleans), gas stations, and Starbucks.

Walking between different parts of the city is a revealing experience, particularly in a country that seems unusually averse to the idea of pedestrian travel. Cars are more aggressive on crossings, happily choosing to ignore foolish foreigners trying to pass. On more than one occasion I’ve had to cede right of way for my own safety. Most of the time sidewalks seem like an afterthought.

Vehicular perils aside, the 45-minute walk to the Garden District was fascinating. Moving between districts is odd. It involves entering an indistinct urban wasteland full of concrete bridges, cracked sidewalks and decaying tenements. Then suddenly this lush former plantation land full of giant trees and beautiful mansions appears. Maybe the generic bands of urban sprawl between points of interest help maintain individual identities by preventing different areas from merging into each other, or maybe it just seems that way to someone seeking distraction from a downpour.

Some downpour it was. We were the only idiots out on the streets in rain that fell so heavily it came through my waterproof top. When it stopped, I had to drain my shoes. Taking shelter on the stoop of a lavish wooden mansion was both chastening and kind of thrilling. At least the water was warm. That’s life in the tropics for you.

On the way back to the center we stumbled across a statue of Robert E. Lee mounted on a giant plinth. Black Lives Matter was sprayed onto the base, a not wholly unexpected sight. The lingering racial divide in the Deep South is not usually as blatant as the defacement of Confederate bogeymen, but it drew a particularly vivid line between the historic lionising of local heroes, and the anger they inspire in others.

Lee wasn’t the only dead white man mounted on a plinth. Back in the French Quarter stood good old General Jackson, my first encounter with the hot-tempered Commander-in-Chief. He’s the supreme example of that earthy frontier spirit turned estate owner that still shapes the image of the South. A visit to his plantation outside Nashville summed up the contradictions of the region better than any other part of the trip. But there are many miles to go before. First we had to leave New Orleans and travel, via a swamp tour outside Baton Rouge (alligators and a slight feeling I’d entered Jurassic Park), up the Mississippi to Natchez, and along the Trace Parkway to the outskirts of Memphis.

For a country obsessed with driving, the roads sure are a mess. Perhaps that’s because everyone loves driving so much, but an aversion to taxation can’t help. Even the many Interstates we drove on, supposedly the gold standard of motoring, are bumpy endeavours. Long stretches aren’t much better than gravel tracks. What’s with all the blown-out tires on the side of every road as well? It hardly instils confidence. I’d rather see destroyed rubber than dead animals, mind. Unfortunately, my first Racoon and Armadillo were spotted spread across the hard shoulder. I didn’t hold much hope for the turtle moving slowly across the road, either.

Look a little further and the scenery is something else. The magic of Eisenhower’s Interstate plan, at least for the idle passenger staring from the window while his partner does all the driving, is that it simply scythed a route through the middle of nature. It makes for gorgeous views of lush green swampy forests, glittering lakes, iconic rivers, and rolling hills. The ride up to Natchez, and then along the first 200 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway proved consistently stunning.

Natchez was not so impressive. An air of ornate sterility hung over the well-preserved Southern mansions in the historic center. The past ruled the present, a recurring theme. Along the journey there were constant signs for battlefields, forts, and countless boutiques selling Civil War antiques. It’s not like New England, especially Boston where I now live, isn’t full of historic reminders of course. You can’t move without coming across a plaque to no-one in particular. But Boston is a booming modern city. Many of the areas of the South that we visited were not. The past stood out here because it was undiluted by a present yet to arrive.

There were exceptions, both geographically and thematically. The Civil War hangs heavy, Civil Rights stand proudly. In Nashville the public library contains a room dedicated to the movement, one we had only minutes to view before a conveyor belt of school kids flooded the place. High up on the walls stood a series of still photos, chilling and powerful reminders of a struggle that has concluded in some regards, and barely begun in too many more. Many places we visited had similar reminders.

And then there are the constant Jacksons. There’s a Jackson in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee, and of course Mississippi where they named the state capitol after him. It’s hard to move for signs directing you to another of his towns.

The Ubiquitous Andrew Jackson

He did get himself involved in some pretty momentous events. The man saved the Union from the British, sort of, depending on how you read the Battle for New Orleans. He won back the country from the pompous elites of the East Coast, returning it to the people, though that was a time when “the people” was a category only really consisting of white males. He fought for state rights but wouldn’t compromise national security, and most controversially, forged further expansion at the expense of Native American tribes. It was also during his era that the old battle lines of East vs West began to switch to North vs South, cementing a much fought over divide that hasn’t exactly gone away.

Nowhere did the contradictions of the South shine through as brightly as at the Hermitage. It’s part-shrine, part-historic monument, and full-on conflicted when it comes to the man who built it.

Not that these affairs were at the forefront of my mind when we arrived outside Memphis to visit Graceland. With the exception of “Suspicious Minds”, because it’s just plain awesome, I’ve never had much time for Elvis. But with all the gold suits, pink Cadillacs and blue suede shoes, his house had to be quite something right? Well to an extent. It was actually a far classier affair than I’d hoped for. The décor was admittedly trashy, but no more so than any other interior decorating travesty emerging from the ’70s. The highest ratio of gold to the rest of the rainbow came in the records room, the place it’s most definitely acceptable.

The one thing that still surprises about America as a whole is the lack of commercialisation everywhere, at least comparatively. Fed on stories of rampant capitalism, I washed up on US shores expecting the streets to be lined with consumer items. Supermarkets would be well-ordered temples dedicated to the art of stuffing yourself. The fact that it’s all quite normal comes as a bizarre disappointment. Or perhaps it actually says more about the UK now than the US. At sites like Graceland, where I expect to be assaulted by all manner of gifts, the collection proves oddly mundane. Much like the mansion experience, it’s calmer than anticipated.

One thing the South definitely has is music. Graceland is only the tip of the iceberg. New Orleans is obsessed with it, Memphis is obsessed with it, and then there’s Nashville, a city so consumed it goes by the moniker Music City. One straight shot on the Interstate, past another historic battlefield or two of course, and we’re in a city of just over 600,000 people that somehow manages to have a geographic footprint in excess of places ten times larger. That crazy amount of sprawl seems to be treated as a selling point. Far more so than our walk through New Orleans, it creates a collection of island communities surrounded by no-man’s land. Walk 20 minutes from the center and the downtown towers still loom nearby, but it feels like you’ve entered a different world.

The excessive sprawl impacts the beating tourist heart of the city. Head to Broadway and the stretch of honky-tonk bars is impossibly enticing in a gaudy throw-your-hats-in-the-air way. We found ourselves on a balcony overlooking pedestrian madness below, a couple of local beers in our hands and a decent band rolling through country classics behind us. Everyone seems to be a musician. From bar staff to taxi drivers, it’s a town made of music. The vibe, at least right there, is inclusive and energetic. But walk one street up in any direction, this was peak time on a Saturday night as well, and it goes deathly quiet. It’s a common occurrence around the South. Too much space and not enough people means only small areas ever seem to pack out with life.

With honky-tonking ticked off, and a car loaded with memorabilia, Andrew Jackson surfaced once more. The Hermitage, his old plantation, is hard to miss in Nashville; that is until you get right up close. Then remarkably discreet signage does what it can to either send you the wrong way or cause traffic collisions by encouraging last second swerves across lanes. With a bit of careful GPS navigation, we finally made it off the main road to his quiet retreat.

Nowhere did the contradictions of the South shine through as brightly as at the Hermitage. It’s part-shrine, part-historic monument, and full-on conflicted when it comes to the man who built it. The house, compact for a two-term President and the most famous man of his day, is wonderfully preserved, right down to the furniture and wallpaper. The grounds are littered with reminders of his deeds, good and bad. That he lived off the profits of a slave-worked cotton plantation and remained ambivalently quiet on the issue of slavery is not forgotten, or airbrushed out.

That is until you step inside a colorful, entertaining and hagiographic run-through of his life in the visitor centre. There the focus is on his glorious victory over the British, one misrepresented in subtle ways when it comes to scaling ladders, and certainly not on his ground-breaking two-term spell as President. That he remains the one Commander-in-Chief to be censured by the Senate is conveniently brushed aside, as is detail on an approach that drove Native Americans from their lands. He believed in freedom, championing the common man against aloof East Coast patricians, but as bumper stickers all over cars in the area attest, freedom isn’t free, especially if you have the misfortune not to be a white male.

This curious confusion between buffing unpleasant edges and showing vice with virtue carried over to the young man providing tours of Jackson’s mansion. When questioned innocently on the fate of the orphaned Native American child Jackson took in, he launched into a strangely defensive statement using the adoption as proof Jackson’s treatment of native tribes was all above board. Out in the grounds the picture is more rounded. There the impressive audio guide is careful not to forget the many slaves that made the South of Jackson’s time tick. There’s a little bit of desperation in the constant references to his provision of medical treatment for slaves but the picture emerging is that of a man neither at the forefront of racist oppression, nor willing to do anything to stop it.

Relying on slavery both made the Southern economy and undid it. Signs of that undoing were everywhere. In Georgia, where we swung by to jump onto a Walking Dead location tour (because we’re that cool), it’s easy to see why AMC chose to shoot a post-apocalyptic horror series there. Out in the countryside it already looks like an abandoned wasteland gradually being reclaimed by nature.

If that sounds bleak, it’s because it sometimes appeared that way, but renewal is out there. On brief glance much of the South can look like a beautifully decaying graveyard, a memorial to something we shouldn’t really be memorializing, but that’s to generalise horribly, and to ignore the areas of hope. The music centers boom and tourists cannot be kept from New Orleans. Then there are places like Birmingham, Alabama, a small industrial city that looked to have died with its industry. Existing for iron, the future went down the drain when metal left in the decades after the Second World War. So what has it possibly got going for it?

Quite a lot actually. Added to the itinerary mostly because it’s named after the second biggest city in my homeland (admittedly not even a place most people are all that excited about going to in the UK), it turned out to be the surprise of the trip. Everything they say about Southern hospitality proved true when we abandoned motels for trusty Airbnb. We ended up with Ashton, a host who couldn’t have gone further out of her way to make us feel at home while pointing us to all the hip places. Birmingham is a city in the midst of revival. It’s quiet, but parts of it feel like the hipsterish café culture of North London, in a good way.

They’ve also made the most of lost virtues. The abandoned Sloss Furnaces is no collapsing ruin. Now a National Historic Landmark, it’s open for people to walk around, used for live shows, and turned into what I can only imagine is the most terrifying Halloween night ever. Strolling around in the beating sun, it would be easy to understand if everyone simply hid indoors, but there were plenty of people out jogging, cycling and even, heaven forbid, walking. Gentrification brings its own problems, but it certainly seems to be a city embracing itself. Wandering around Ashton’s apartment, her love for Birmingham comes through in several posters. That pride helps explain why it’s recovering.

There’s still room for improvement, however. For a city nearly three quarters African American, most of the people in the restored areas enjoying beers and pizza were white. It seems old divides do live on, though walking around Sloss, the explanatory signs assiduously detailed the treatment meted out to African American workers.

The Civil Rights Institute in the heart of Birmingham goes even further. Walking step by excruciating step through the persecution and then the movement to right almighty wrongs, it’s a devastating rebuke to systemic abuse, and a moving memorial to the people who fought back against a rigged world. Perhaps the most important section comes right at the end, after the landmark battles of the ’50s and ’60s have been won. Here it’s made clear that changing laws does not automatically create a fair society. Despite significant progress, if anything the battle is harder now, racism much more of an insidious undercurrent. Unfair laws provide a rallying point that simply isn’t there when trying to right broad economic and cultural wrongs.

For an outsider, race relations are usually the first thing that comes to mind when the South is mentioned. It seems astonishing that anyone would fly a Confederate flag, a symbol that usually means one thing alone in the UK. I suspect it means the same to many Americans as well. And yet there they were on cars and outside houses, a symbol of a way of life that is no more. Driving around, there were several faded billboards advertising the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization. It’s a sign of the ongoing disconnect still lingering that these societies exist in the same place where someone has built a Civil Rights Institute. If countless people over more than one century have failed to reconcile such different worlds, it’s hardly likely a stranger from a strange land visiting for a week and a half is going to have any great insight, but a divide of some form is immediately apparent.

That’s no note to end on as it paints an image not in keeping with the positive feelings we both came away with. The negative stereotypes associated with the South are there, though it’s a far hazier and confusing picture than my broad preconceptions would have it. It’s also a beautiful place steeped in history good and bad, a land of postcard backdrops, rocking music scenes, ridiculously good food, and unexpected signs of rebirth.

Plus that Southern politeness spiel is no myth. When we arrived in Senoia for the Walking Dead tour, our inability to handle time zone changes meant we missed the tour bus. A kid in the gift shop ran a full mile in the burning sun to help us, and then despite holding them up, everyone seemed delighted when we finally boarded. The guy we sat next to even said as much. Show the same accidental tardiness in the UK and you’ll most likely meet with silence and angry glares. There is much in the South I could get used to. If only it wasn’t so hot.

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