Friday, August 19, 2005

Neshoba Fair is a 'Missippi' Thang

The reader's request sounded simple enough: "Why don't you write about this Neshoba Fair thing?" He's not from here, bless his heart, and I think he's trying to understand the draw of "Mississippi's Giant House Party," aka the hottest place on earth in July, where thousands flock to party, sweat, listen to passionate political speeches and bands, sweat, eat fried chicken-on-a-stick and, did I mention sweat?

Upon further reflection, his request wasn't simple. I can't really explain the Neshoba County Fair. Sure, I have reams of articles where other writers, from here to the New York Times, have attempted to explain it. But I can't find where anyone really did. They do all seem to mention it's hot as Hades, they can't be called out there. They give some history: It started as a farmers' picnic in the late 1800s, although I think there's some debate over exact details. It's been synonymous with Deep South politics since the 1890s. It was once a notoriously segregated event, but now draws a somewhat diverse crowd of thousands, emphasis on the somewhat. It has the state's only legal horse racing track. And as one profound writer (me) once wrote: "The Fair is known for its political speeches from state election hopefuls, and occasionally a president, let-your-hair-down partying, hot, humid weather and red-clay dust."

Did I mention it's hot? But none of this satisfactorily explains the Fair. About the closest I can get is this: It's a Missippi thing. That's Missippi with only two "S"-es, and I think it's pronounced "thang." Missippi thangs are usually complex, bittersweet, and they are often both good things and bad things, maybe changing, but ever so slowly. I think the Neshoba County Fair qualifies on all counts. Now, I'm no gentleman planter's son, but I do have some Neshoba Fair memories I'll share. My earliest memories of the Fair are of grade-school jealousy; many of my classmates had been to it and I hadn't. One of my friends had a bow-and-arrow set he claimed to have gotten from real-live Choctaw Indians at the Fair. (I later bought a similar rig at a Stuckey's, so I harbor doubts to this day). But I soon got to go with a friend and his family. I remember eating a lot, watching the horse buggies race, running around, having kid fun. A second trip followed in my youth, a side trip with family friends who were going to Philadelphia for some other reason. This trip is memorable primarily because me and my young friend rode in the back of a pickup from Edwards to Philadelphia. There's probably a Jeff Foxworthy "You-might-be-a-redneck-if" joke in this somewhere. On the way back, we were cramped in the truck bed with a load of shoe-peg corn the family picked up in Philadelphia and I was covered in chiggers upon return. More fun trips followed in college. I was friends with a guy and his sister whose family owned cabins at the Fair. That's the true way to experience the event, staying in the fabled cabins. One of these visits was a true college road trip, three carloads of us, including several pretty co-eds, but I digress.

I remember preparing for this trip; we were loading the cars down with cases of beer and one of my housemates, Louis, who was is black, had declined to go. In fact, he asked us if we were out of our minds for inviting him.

"There's black people there. It's not like it used to be," my cabin-family friend explained to Louis. "Walter Payton has a cabin there." But Louis was unconvinced, and I still recall his parting words: "Y'all tell Massah I said hello." I don't remember a lot about this trip (note the cases of beer reference above), but we all agreed we had a good time. I don't recall that we attended the political speeches that trip, but I did learn that the temperature at the Fair grounds is downright pleasant at about 3 in the morning. Louis didn't bear any grudge about missing the trip. We never saw "Sweetness" Payton. My subsequent trips usually have been as a working journalist, with the emphasis not on working. Last year an accompanying photographer sarcastically noted, after observing me listen to a speech, interview two spectators, bang out a story in 20 minutes and then seek air conditioning, "That was a tough day's work, eh?" Also last year, me and some other journalists had fun judging perhaps the first-ever "Who's the Sweatiest Politician" contest. As I recall, a large, soaked down-ticket pol won the overall, but of the majors, I think former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove won. Neshoba is fabled as the demarcation point for politeness, where candidates take off the gloves and really bad-mouth their opponents. But last year Gov. Haley Barbour and Musgrove had been slinging mud for months prior, so the stumping was somewhat anticlimactic. I'm afraid I've failed at really explaining the Fair, but I gave it a shot. I can say this: You should go. It runs all this week and the political speeches are all day Wednesday and Thursday.

If you're a Mississippian, it might make you, for a brief time, feel like a Missippian. You might grab a chew of tobacco and start yelling about politics or soybean futures. If you're not a Missippian, like my questioning reader, bless his heart, you'll probably get a kick out of watching some in action.

And on a personal note, the air conditioning in my truck is broken. There's probably another Jeff Foxworthy joke in that somewhere. Did I mention it's hot at the Fair?

The Sun Herald

Reprinted from the Daily Times Leader,
West Point, Mississippi