Replies: 35 - Last Post: Jun 25, 2012 4:41 PM Last Post By: mrpenney
Jun 23, 2012 8:56 AM
South FAQIt's a Willysnout-style FAQ--not that useful, I know, but I'm tired of writing the same post every time, so I figured I'd do it once really well.
Let me know what should be changed to make this more useful. (I don't need to hear about how the FAQ thread is already overloaded--I wrote five or six of them myself.)
There's been a significant upsurge, I've noticed, in people asking for advice on seeing the U.S. South. Here's some info that may help clear up confusion and design the trip you're looking for.
First of all, if you say "the South," let's make sure we're talking about the same thing. When an American says that term, he means the old South--the twelve southeastern states that formed the Confederate States of America during the Civil War of 1861-65, plus maybe Kentucky and West Virginia, and minus maybe Texas and Florida. We sometimes get people who have looked at a map, have decided they want to go to Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and southern California, and have seen that it is generally closest to the "S" on the map; these people then tell us they are interested in the South. No--that's the Southwest. Different thing entirely.
The South is united by commonalities of culture that extend well beyond the obvious (a long-bygone history of slavery, and a more recent history of otherwise troubled race relations). It has its own food, its own speech, its own music, its own literature, its own pace of life. And yes, its own history. It's those aspects that draw people to visit.
Sometimes you hear the term "deep South." This is the culturally Southernmost states of the South--South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. No, the rest of the south is not called the "Shallow South."
Why isn't Florida included? Sometimes it is, but it's generally felt that Florida--at least the part of Florida you're thinking of--is actually south of the South, if that makes any sense. This is because central and south Florida were settled by people fleeing the harsh winters of the north. Go to Ft. Lauderdale, and you'll find people talking like they're from Brooklyn; go to Naples or Ft. Myers, and you'll hear a lot of Chicago accents.
Texas is the other special case, bringing together elements of the South, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the West. It's safest to consider Texas its own region--that's what Texans do, for sure. They're quick to remind you that Texas was once an independent country.
Also, for your purposes the interesting parts of Florida and Texas are quite a distance from the interesting parts of the rest of the South. So you're better off saving those two states for another trip.
Why are you visiting the South?
Unlike with most other parts of the country, people seem to visit the South with different ideas of what they want to find when they get there. Maybe you're looking for the ghost of Scarlett O'Hara; maybe it's the ghosts of Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong. Maybe it's the ghost of Robert E. Lee, or of Martin Luther King. If you've read William Faulkner, whose ghost also can be found, you do know that you're chasing ghosts, at least. The thing is, while the modern South is all of those, more truthfully it's none of those.
What I'm trying to say is that this FAQ is better organized by topic rather than by geography. That way you can mix and match. One bit of advice, though: DON'T skip the "mixing" part. You won't have seen the South, really, if you cherry-pick only the music bits, for example.
The Civil War
The watershed event in the history of the South was the American Civil War. With two major exceptions (Antietam and Gettysburg) and a surprisingly large number of minor ones, the battles of the Civil War were fought almost entirely in the South. Remember as you travel around that the Civil War was not thought of as a civil war in the South; from their point of view it was an independence struggle that failed.
Places worth visiting are in bold.
After some preliminaries at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, the war began in earnest at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina. The Union (northern) strategy for ending the rebellion had two prongs--capture the southern capital of Richmond, Virginia, and cut the transportation links that tied the Atlantic to the interior South. Roughly, these corresponded to an eastern theater and a western theater of the war.
Virginia is littered (almost literally littered) with Civil War battlefields. Besides all the ones around Richmond, notable examples are at Fredricksburg/Chancellorsville, Petersburg, and Manassas. Petersburg is especially interesting if you're from Europe or Australia--what happened at Petersburg was basically WWI-style trench warfare, seen for the first time there.
The western theater is more spread out. The lynchpins of the Southern transportation network were the Mississippi River and the railroads that converged on Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Mississippi finally fell after a long siege at Vicksburg, Mississippi. A major battle was fought at Shiloh, Tennessee; the fate of the western theater was decided in a series of battles around Chattanooga.
(The grand-daddy of all Civil War sites, of course, is in the north: Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania. But I figured I'd mention it here in case you find yourself really getting into this stuff.)
The Antebellum South
So you've seen Gone With the Wind and you want to find the pre-Civil War South, the South of sipping mint juleps on the veranda at the plantation home in your hoop skirts and seersucker suits. Of course, this fantasy is common enough that there's an industry out there to indulge it.
The best historical preservation is always accomplished by economic stagnation. The railroads made the old Southern port cities of Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina sink into relative irrelevance; the once wealthy city of Natchez, Mississippi became a complete backwater when the river stopped being as important. The happy result is that Savannah, Charleston, and Natchez still have that old-South charm. If you're looking for plantation tours, start there.
The old quarter of New Orleans, of course (whose architecture is actually Spanish-influenced, not French) is another example of the same effect--the French Quarter was thought of as a slum during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so it too stayed the same. There are good plantation tours from New Orleans, as well.
People often ask whether Charleston or Savannah is better; the answer is Charleston, but an even better answer is, "They're so close together, why not visit both?" If you're headed to New Orleans from Memphis--yes, Natchez is worth the detour.
The music trail
Celtic peoples settled in the Appalachian mountain regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. They brought Irish and Scottish folk traditions with them, which evolved when they arrived. Slaves imported from Africa worked the cotton plantations in the deep South--they brought African music traditions with them. Both these groups of people were dirt poor, and wound up bumping into each other over time. They taught each other what they knew. The results were bluegrass, gospel, blues, jazz, and rock & roll. That's a simplistic version of the story, but this ain't a history lesson.
Nashville is better than Memphis if you're looking for music rather than history. Nashville is not just country music--all those other kinds can be found there. And since the music industry has long had outposts in Nashville, young musicians still move to Nashville to make a career. That means that unlike Memphis, Nashville is still making vital music. Broadway in Nashville is hopping with great stuff; Beale Street in Memphis is pretty much a museum (a museum with good live music, but don't kid yourself that it's not just for the tourists).
Speaking of museums, you want to see the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which is fantastic (and I don't even like country music), and Sun Studios in Memphis. Also go to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Delta blues is an old style--the rural style, which grew up in the Mississippi delta region of northwestern Mississippi. It's blues closest to its roots. Note, by the way, that it's largely a dead style. If you want innovative modern blues--well, the bluesmen moved north, like so many other African-Americans following the lure of good jobs and good money, during what's since been called the Great Migration. Chicago is now the best blues hotbed in the country.
Jazz is New Orleans, and New Orleans is jazz. Preservation Hall is strictly for the tourists but worth a listen anyway, at least if the line to get in isn't too long. But of course it's also a museum. Want the real thing? You'll hear it pouring out of half the bars and clubs in the city. If you can't find great music in N.O. you simply aren't trying hard enough.
Just a list of the good stuff:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia/North Carolina.
Natchez Trace Parkway, running from Nashville to Natchez.
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the Outer Banks more generally, is the best seacoast in the region, in my opinion.
Born on the bayou
CCR weren't, by the way--they were born in Berkeley. But if you're interested in Cajun and Creole culture, after you visit New Orleans, head to Lafayette, Louisiana. That's the heart of Cajun country, and there are several good bayou/swamp tours and whatnot from there. Also, it's your place to get true Cajun food. In New Orleans, you should be aiming for Creole food. Aw, heck--just eat whatever looks good: there's so much good food in New Orleans it's not even funny.
More on food
Soul food is the traditional southern cuisine. Also look for barbecue, which in the South is not a verb but a noun. Every region of the south has its own style and flavor of barbecue. Just head for the joint with all the cars parked out in front.
Discrimination against African-Americans has ended in the South (at least officially). This was a result of the efforts of many people (of whom Martin Luther King is only the most famous) during the 1940s through 1970s. If you're interested in this side of the South's history, the best place to start is the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis --it's housed in the motel where King was shot, and is excellent and comprehensive. Other prominent sites are King's church in Atlanta, and civil rights museums and monuments in the Alabama cities of Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
These didn't fit elsewhere
...but are worth knowing about:
The history of the South didn't begin in 1861. Go to Charlottesville, Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson built his classically-proportioned home Monticello (and the equally classical University of Virginia). For more from the 18th Century, also head to Williamsburg, VA, and nearby Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement in North America) and Yorktown (where the American revolution reached its successful conclusion).
Biltmore House, in Asheville, North Carolina. Huge mansion, modeled on a French chateau, owned by the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt clan.
The NASA museum in Huntsville, Alabama. Pretty good if you're in the neighborhood, and a great break from all this history.
Whiskey. The Jack Daniels distillery, like it says on the bottle, is in Lynchburg, Tennessee, which ironically is in a county where alcohol consumption is illegal. If you're interested in distilleries, though, they're thickest on the ground in central Kentucky (and you'll taste a whole bunch of stuff that will make Jack Daniels taste like rotgut by comparison). Take the bourbon tour; base yourself in Bardstown for that.
But you've hardly mentioned Atlanta, the region's largest city. Why?
It may be big, but it's boring. In a nutshell, Atlanta is the New South, and the whole reason you're here is to see the Old South. If you're looking for modern urban life, yes, by all means, go to Atlanta. And there certainly are things to do in Atlanta--don't think I'm selling it short. But honestly, your time is better spent elsewhere.
Edited by: mrpenney
Jun 23, 2012 10:23 AM
1That is an excellent essay, Mr. Penny.
I would add that the collective term "The South" usually excludes "South Florida" because when "The South" really was "The South," "South Florida" was a swamp. It still belonged to the alligators and the mosquitoes. Its development as a tourist attraction did not begin until the 1920s. The development was slow until the 1950s. The explosive growth around Orlando did not begin until the 1970s. The population of South Florida today is largely "transplanted Yankees" and immigrants rather than "Southerners." "Old Florida" reminiscent to the "Old Florida" described in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling still exists in pockets, but tourists never see it unless they are hopelessly lost.
Jun 23, 2012 2:24 PM
Jun 23, 2012 2:49 PM
3You're right, of course--I just can't count. (I think I counted Louisana twice, or maybe accidentally included Kentucky). To be fair, the Confederacy couldn't count either; they claimed thirteen members. The Confederate flag had thirteen stars, wishful thinking re Kentucky and (I think) Missouri.
As for soul food--how about if I say that it is a part of the traditional cuisine?
Jun 23, 2012 3:34 PM
Jun 23, 2012 6:58 PM
Assategue Island. I know this is borderline (literally).
Jun 24, 2012 2:14 AM
Jun 24, 2012 5:07 AM
7Well done mrpenny. If TT still had its Favorite Threads on the sidebar I'd recommend this one. I guess adding it to the FAQs will have to suffice.
One thing though - I didn't see mention of the Mason-Dixon line, the political survey line defining the southern boundary of Pennsylvania and which many folks reference as the dividing line between the "north" and "south" although that puts Maryland and West Virginia as southern states which is sketchy.
Ya'll take care now, hear.
Jun 24, 2012 6:35 AM
that puts Maryland and West Virginia as southern states which is sketchy
xMaryland was Union by a thread (thanks mainly to the western counties and martial law), so not too sketchy either.
And although they were "Southern" originally, now most are included in the Mid-Atlantic. Definitions changed over time.
This really goes to show the issues with defining the regions in which border states belong, but I think it's quite well addressed by MrP.
Jun 24, 2012 6:54 AM
Jun 24, 2012 7:00 AM
Jun 24, 2012 4:26 PM
12No, I'm with mr p on Atlanta. An awful lot of Brits and other Europeans seem to think of it as a destination (just as the Aussies think of LA that way, probably because lots of flights go to each place). Certainly there are things you can do in Atlanta if you find yourself there, but it's not a place to go to on purpose.
But where he says KIng's church in Atlanta he might want to say "Kkng's church and grave in Atlanta" and just after that where lists civil rights museums he should add Atlanta.
Jun 24, 2012 4:39 PM
I COULD list the things to do in Atlanta, since I've done many of them. Besides the several MLK sites, there's also the World of Coke, the Carter library and museum, the Joel Chandler Harris home, Atlanta Underground, that Olympic park, and some nightlife. None of this is so much better than New Orleans, Savannah, or Charleston that you should pull time away from those places. It's comparable in interest level to what you find in Indianapolis (an underrated city, and one of the towns I have called home, but still correctly described as boring) or Pittsburgh. You're maybe right that I should dial it down a notch, tone-wise, but I stand by the substance of my comments.
Also, the whole point to posting this is to give constructive criticism before I post the thing permanently in the FAQ thread. You, "an Atlanta resident," can't be arsed to tell me what I should have said, so why should I do it for you?
Edited by: mrpenney
Jun 24, 2012 5:03 PM
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