When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
The first Japanese Americans began leaving for internment camps in the spring of 1942, effectively banished from their homes by the United States government. Norman Sagara, six years old at the time, can still recall how it played out for him: the FBI visiting his farmhouse in southern California; his older siblings translating for his parents, simple chicken ranchers; his family packing up their belongings and, then, late that summer, boarding a train. “We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Sagara, now seventy-eight. “They wouldn’t tell us. And three days later we ended up in McGehee, Arkansas.”
Walking through the sliding glass doors of the Peabody Hotel, across plush carpets under high industrial chandeliers, the first person I saw was a guy in a t-shirt and kilt. Not a plaid kilt, but a leather kilt—more like a skirt that a Roman soldier might wear. The man had a name badge around his neck with ribbons hanging from it and it turned out he was one of the conference organizers. Welcome to SSAWG, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group—weird farmers of the South.
An excerpt from a play by Charles Portis, with an introduction by Jay Jennings.
MR. PALFREY: Oh, I know what I want. I just don’t see it here. What I want is a fat yearling coon roasted with some sweet potatoes. What I want, young lady, is some salt-cured ham that’s been hanging in the smokehouse for about two years, along with five or six big cathead biscuits, and some country butter and ribbon cane surrup. But I can’t get that, can I?
KATE: You can’t get it here.
A photo essay from the Spring 2016 issue.
In late summer of 1995, photographer and musician Richard Leo Johnson and his wife, Jane, lost almost everything they owned when their friend’s storage barn burned down in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Furniture, antiques, books, records, master tapes, and the whole of Johnson’s photography career over two decades—prints, negatives, everything—incinerated overnight. Last fall, a box of negatives was discovered in a Little Rock attic, hundreds of photographs from Richard’s early career—black-and-white pictures of everyday life in rural northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas.
Letter from the editor.
Oxford American readers will want to know what to expect now that the magazine has again changed editorial hands. The OA has always published vital, important stories—from the borderlands, the Gulf Coast, Appalachia, and many locales in between. This will not change.
From the summer fiction issue.
At half past ten the guy from the corner mart came into the shelter. Naomi had only seen him a few times, but he had a distinctive look, to say the least. He was young but rugged, with short-cropped hair and broad shoulders. It figured that the most attractive man in town her age was also a triple amputee.