Woodrat Podcast 24: Mark Bonta on the geography of the Delta blues and the ivory-billed woodpecker

Mark Bonta with juke joint and swamp
Mark (left) in Po Monkey's, a local juke joint. Right: old-growth cypress swamp.

Part 2 of our conversation (here’s Part 1, if you missed it). Mark and I share an interest in the blues and in ivory-billed woodpeckers, and if I know a little more about the former, he knows way more about the latter. (Long-time readers may remember my Peckerwood Pilgrimage in 2005.)

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10 Comments


  1. The photo is of Sky Lake where a boardwalk is currently being completed that accesses some of the largest trees in eastern North America. Plug for new book–Larry Pace (at right in photo) and I are currently completing a detailed guidebook to the Delta’s public lands, to be published by University Press of Mississippi in a year or two, depending on review process. Larry has taken many amazing photos for it.

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    1. Sounds great! I actually used more of that photo, and several of your others from Sky Lake WMA, to illustrate the 29th edition of the Festival of the Trees blogging carnival — here. And that other photo of your class with the giant tree prompted a (supposedly) humorous post, “Geography class convenes inside tree.”

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  2. The African-American country singer from Sledge is Charley Pride, btw.

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  3. I’ve been listening to and reading about the blues for more than 40 years, and writing about it for 25, but I’m still aware of how little I really know and understand about the context it emerged from and developed in. Listening to Mark talk about the ivory-billed woodpecker and the natural landscape of the Delta was fascinating. Some of us like to think that we’d love to get our hands dirty and experience an environment like that in all its hard and messy glory, but the closest we’ll get – and in truth, the closest most of us truly want to get – would be walking that ‘comfortable boardwalk’ that Mark mentioned. If there’s a metaphor that reaches between the two subjects of this part of the podcast, it might be that boardwalk, as my guess is that most blues fan visitors would like to observe the Delta and its music from just such a secure vantage point. I reckon that all those blues fans from around the world don’t, as you suggest, go to the Delta to learn, but that the vast majority bring their own preconceptions, and go away without having changed them, too busy obtusely searching for Robert Johnson’s crossroads to notice if an ivory-bill perched on their head. Sorry, getting old and cynical… As Mark says, ‘What the hell does the bird care?’

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    1. Ray, I’m sure you’re right. I do have these moments of cheerful optimism, but they grow fewer as I age. I must say that on rare occasions when I’m away from homw, I enjoy being a shallow tourist myself much too much. It’s disgusting.

      Anyway, it’s great to hear from a long-time blues enthusiast such as yourself. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. I really enjoyed this podcast, Dave and Mark. My mother grew up near the Delta. Her father was a small farmer and Baptist preacher (ten kids). When I was little, she would tell stories (as a way of reinforcing the importance of getting a good education) of how she had to pick cotton as a child and young woman, how hard it was, and how she hated it.

    I especially liked Mark’s observation that “the wilderness is always lurking at the edge of town.”

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    1. Hi Beth – I’m glad this resonated with your own impressions of that area. I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that you had Mississippi roots! That might explain your story-telling ability, eh?

      A fellow I know from southern Virginia who’s lived in central PA for several decades now still uses “cotton-pickin'” as an all-purpose, disparaging epithet.

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  5. Very interesting podcast in both its parts. Interested in leaderless organization myself, though too lazy to read much about it and a bit appalled that the Tea Party claims to be just such a creature.

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    1. Hey, thanks for listening to the whole thing. Yeah, the Tea Party has an inchoate populist element, but it seems that the lack of organization makes it rather more susceptible to demagogues. It’s not at all like the federated democratic structure favored by left libertarians, for example. Lack of centralized leadership doesn’t have to mean lack of structure — that’s the crucial point, I think.

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