The Civil War presses its stamp on myriad attractions and conversations in Vicksburg. In addition to several tours of 19th century residences, there’s the Old Court House Museum, which contains many war artifacts, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s chair, the stuffing bursting out of the seams, and the inauguration tie of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. At the Attic Gallery’s art opening of From These Hills, I chatted up a grandson and great-grandson of Confederate fighters, a surprising fact that I doubted until I did the math.
Eventually, though, I got over the Civil War — sorry, Southerners — and shifted my focus to unifying attractions. Such as the 31 floodwall murals along the Yazoo Diversion Canal, a compilation of Vicksburg moments, including the Miss Mississippi pageant, held here since 1958. And Gold in the Hills, a play that’s the Guinness World Record-holder for the longest-running melodrama (presented annually since 1936). And the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, where parents reminisced about the beverage of their youth and bonded with their children over old-fashioned ice cream floats.
“We’d all sit on the back of the truck and open the bottles with our teeth,” a mother told her three youngsters as they studied a display of vintage Coke bottles. “That’s why my teeth are so messed up.”
The museum, housed in what was once a candy store, celebrates the ingenuity of Joe Biedenharn, who spread the gospel of the carbonated drink by bottling and delivering it to surrounding areas. (Prior to his invention, only soda fountains served the cola.) The first containers were made of glass, with a stopper that made a “pop” when opened. And that concludes today’s etymology lesson.
The class on advertising and marketing lasts much longer and takes up much more exhibit space. Gewgaws bearing the iconic logo fill glass cases, the shelves thick with such objects as an ashtray, a harmonica, ping-pong paddles, a rolling pin, a knife in the shape of an 18-wheeler, Cobot the robot and polar bears.
The museum is on Washington Street, the main commercial drag that truckers call Highway 61 and music aficionados revere as the Blues Highway. The blues are not as prominent as the easy-listening tunes piped in through hidden speakers in downtown bushes. But keep your ear in the air, and you can hear them: Tuesday nights at LD’s Kitchen; Friday eves at Martin’s at Midtown; and weekends at Walnut Hills Restaurant and the Bottleneck Blues Bar in the Ameristar Casino.
On a Friday night in early March, I weeded through poker tables, slot machines and desultory expressions to find David Dunavent and Evol Love performing onstage as part of the Vicksburg Blues Society’s Heritage Music Series. Paintings of blues musicians, many by self-trained Mississippi artists, padded the walls, and tables circled the stage.
Dunavent, backed by three bandmates, opened his mouth and released the pain of a thousand broken hearts. He sang about losing his mojo, and consequently the girl. He yodeled like a Swiss Miss stranded on a mountaintop. Then, without warning, the ghost of John Lee Hooker seemed to knock her off her Alpine peak and take over.
Two women frilled up for an evening out occupied a table beside the stage. They hooted and hollered, springing up from their chairs like Jack-in-the-boxes and pumping their fists. They’d resisted the snare of Lady Luck but had succumbed to the devil who had tempted Robert Johnson and so many other souls.