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Can stimulus help the Mississippi delta?

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Mississippi

The closer it gets to the Gulf of Mexico, the more the Mississippi river seems to slow down - as though reluctant to leave behind the rich soil of the delta.

Guitar
Mississippi's blues heritage should attract tourism

And this is fertile ground, although not everything that grew here was good.

Cotton was king - although only because the black families that picked it and lifted it were slaves whose lives of humiliation and poverty built the fortunes of the white plantation owners.

Something in the tension and poverty and suppressed violence of those days made Mississippi fertile in other ways too though - this is the state of William Faulkner and the misleadingly-named Tennessee Williams. And Oprah and Morgan Freeman too, come to think of it.

And above all, it is the home of the Blues - the music emerged in a sanitised and marketable form as rock'n'roll once it had been filtered through the rich, dark soil of the Delta.

Heritage

Curiously, the Blues - that agonised chronicling of poverty, alienation and loss that can trace its roots back to the field hollers of the slaves - just might help to point the way out of recession for a state which is struggling to cope in today's hard times.

President Obama's stimulus funds may have a role to play too, of course, but the Blues might be a way for the Mississippi Delta to help itself.

The idea is to develop the tourist potential of the Blues to bring more visitors to the Delta.

When parents and their children can turn up at a school and see doors that don't need to be fixed... then you'll know [the stimulus is] working
Heather Hudson
Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi

Factories will always migrate to poorer countries in search of lower wages and leave behind jobless workers in Mississippi, but you cannot take away a heritage.

It's easy to be sceptical of course.

Show me a deprived area anywhere on earth that does not talk about exploiting its tourist potential and I will show you an area that is hiring the wrong consultants.

But the Mississippi Delta does have tourist potential as a kind of Blues Trail.

Highway 61, the road that inspired Bob Dylan's most influential album runs through here.

Robert Johnson, the greatest bluesman of them all, is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads on US 61 in return for mastery of his guitar.

BB King and Howlin' Wolf called this place home too, and loved and lost and fought and sang their way around the Delta - creating rock music incidentally as they went.

Something different

So in Washington and Tunica Counties and in the towns of Greenville and Clarksdale and others, the potential is there for development, according to Howard Boutte, a community organiser I met in Greenville.

He sees the irony though. As he says: "Isn't that interesting? To me that's a testimony that, if you're talking about the struggles that went on back then, now creating jobs for young black African-Americans - that's a positive side. I think now with where we're going it's a mechanism for creating economic activity in the Delta."

Greenville Mayor Heather Hudson
Mayor Hudson is hopeful that the stimulus will work

And the Delta needs all the economic help it can get - some of the towns along Highway 61 look like the good times never got good enough to allow you to notice a recession when it came along.

So this region is not going to make it back onto its feet by Blues Power alone - the Obama administration's huge expansion of public spending is going to have to play a role too.

And that is where Heather Hudson, mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, comes in.

You know there is something different about Heather the moment she steps out of her office to meet you.

Lining the stairway in the middle of City Hall, Greenville, is a row of photographs of every mayor the town ever had.

They are all white and they are all men - and Heather is a black woman, as much of a candidate change at the local level as Barack Obama is at the national.

Mayor Hudson has already been to the White House to be briefed by the president about how the funds from his stimulus programme will be "trickled down" from Washington to towns like Greenville.

She is becoming an expert on who can apply for what - what size of town can apply for which category of grant, how applications can be presented and how the money must be spent.

Positive mood

The question is often asked in America - how voters will know whether or not Mr Obama's stimulus programme is working.

But Heather Hudson does not have the slightest doubt.

"When parents and their children can turn up at a school and see doors that don't need to be fixed, and see new energy-efficient light-bulbs and folks see sewer lines and roadways brought up to standard then you'll know it's working," she says.

Mayor Hudson's dream is to be in a position to return to Washington to tell the president that Greenville's first tranche of money has been wisely spent. And then to ask him for more.

There are plenty of doubts about whether or not spending extra government cash on infrastructure projects can really work - and plenty of fears about the damage Mr Obama's frightening new levels of borrowing might mean in the longer term for the American economy.

But in Greenville after decades of poverty, the mood is positive. They believe that the stimulus programme will prime the economic pump and start to reverse long years of deprivation.

And of course, if it does not deliver for any reason, there is always the Blues.



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