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America’s Delta vs. the ‘Yazoo Blues Plain’

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Mississippi homeboy and delta blues icon Muddy Waters

by Len Bahr, PhD*

The unfolding drama surrounding widespread flooding from record water levels in the lower Mississippi River and some of its backed-up tributaries has re-awakened longstanding confusion created by using almost identical names for two very different pieces of southern landscape: the Mississippi Delta and the Mississippi River Delta. What’s the story?

The former term has long been used for the region known for catfish, cotton…and Muddy Waters’ blues. The latter term designates the downstream home of shrimp, petroleum…and every form of jazz known to man. I’d have thought that the extensive media coverage of the great flood of 2011 would have prompted a discussion of the ambiguity caused by the bi-polar use of the term ‘delta,’ but that hasn’t happened.

America’s Delta is my name for the real Mississippi River delta, on which the national economy is largely dependent. This world class delta is 100 miles downriver from the foot of what is known in the State of Mississippi as the Mississippi Delta. These two areas would never be conflated were it not for their almost identical common names. Here’s my modest proposal to distinguish these very different river regions.

Mississippi Delta: the ‘Yazoo Blues Plain’

While the river crest was still far upstream from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, media reports described record flooding in Illinois, Missouri and later in the Mississippi Delta, the colloquial term for the agricultural real estate of the Yazoo River basin in Mississippi.

This region, among the poorest in the US, has long been populated by a small minority of wealthy landholders and a large majority of very poor sharecroppers. For a revealing look at the patterns of population and poverty along the lower river, click on this link to an interactive map from AP that was published in The Advocate.

Back in the day, when Tennesseean Al Gore was VP, he created a Mississippi Delta Initiative to stimulate economic development in rural, river basin portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and presumably Louisiana. He announced this program on April 16 1998, speaking from New Orleans, rather than Vicksburg or Greenville or Memphis.

As then coastal advisor to Louisiana Governor Mike Foster I questioned whether our coastal restoration effort could benefit from the delta initiative. The answer was no, that OUR delta didn’t qualify as part of THE delta.

On May 10 a story by Holbrook Mohr and Shelia Byrd was published in HuffingtonPost, describing record floods in the Mississippi Delta. On May 11, NPR broadcast a story by Debbie Elliott and others with the title Flooded river takes aim at Mississippi Delta, The online version of the story included the graphic that is shown here as Figure 1. Note that the alluvial floodplain is far more extensive than the so-called Mississippi Delta, which is usually considered as synonymous with the Yazoo River basin.

Figure 1. Source: NOAA, Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR (note: I'm not responsible for the misspelling of 'occurring')

Wikipedia currently defines the Mississippi Delta (shown here as Figure 2) as follows:

The Mississippi Delta is the distinct northwest section of the state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Technically not a delta but part of an alluvial plain, created by regular flooding over thousands of years, this region is remarkably flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world.

Figure 2. Graphic of Mississippi Delta from Wikipedia

Mississippi River Delta: ‘America’s Delta’

What was until a century ago a 10,000 square mile landscape surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi River, is referred to as the Mississippi River Delta, which I call America’s Delta to acknowledge its status as the largest, most productive (and most threatened) delta ecosystem in North America.

The fact that this richly productive, but literally ‘dirt-poor’ landscape** is commonly confused with the cash-poor but dirt-rich Yazoo Blues Floodplain*** is unfortunate, to say the least.

The landscape of southeast Louisiana occupies the business end of the Mighty Mississippi. Geologists refer to this region as the deltaic plain, formed directly by the river during the past seven millennia. The deltaic plain merges on its west with the chenier plain, extending from Freshwater Bayou to the Sabine River. The chenier plain was formed by the attachment to the shoreline of westward-drifting sediments eroded from the deltaic plain. It should therefore be included as part of America’s Delta.

Figure 3.

Figure 3 is a composite of Figures 1 and 2, showing the relative extent and location of what I propose calling the Yazoo Blues Plain, in clear distinction from America’s Delta.

I don’t harbor any allusions that my call for name changes to both riverside namesakes will get traction, but I felt compelled to make my opinion known. Now I feel better.

*Founding Editor leonardbahr@gmx.com

**America’s Delta suffers from what could ultimately prove a mortal sediment deficit caused by the levees-only policy of the corps that severed the river from its delta and a 50%+ reduction of river sediments being trapped behind dams on the Missouri River.

***My friends in Mississippi should know that in no way do I mean to impugn the culture of the region that produced Muddy Waters and countless other blues icons, without whose legacy my musical itch would never have been scratched.

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  3. I’m with Ken, Junior is one of my all-time favorites. We rlelay lost a great one when he passed. Junior used to run a Juke Joint where R.L. Burnside, another local resident, was a regular. Junior and R.L. were both on Fat Possum records & collaborated a lot, as well as the Black Keys. If you dig that hill country sound, look into R.L. and drift to another neighbor, the North Mississippi Allstars.

  4. I have to rate this Eight out of 10.

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