In which we visit a Lost City long gone: a world where bootleggers were demigods, whiskey was good as gold, and the blues ruled supreme.
Let me tell you a story about a Lost City just a few minutes from where you’re sitting right now. A place where millions of dollars changed hands; where blood was spilled; where the legends of blues and r & b played.
To find it, head over to Hal & Mal’s, and maybe grab a glass of Southern Pecan. Then head south down Commerce, and hang a left on Old Brandon Road. You’ll cross the Pearl, low and brown and muddy in its summer doldrums, and then the impeccably pruned levee on your left. You’re in Rankin County now, but you can still catch a glimpse of downtown’s skyscrapers in your rearview mirror.
Go slow; there’s speed traps sometimes, although there’s little traffic. There’s some tumbledown shacks on your left, an old-timey gas station, and then you’re at Flowood Drive, not far from Trustmark Park and a M-Braves game. If you bear left a bit and snake down Fannin Road you’re still only five minutes from downtown.
What you didn’t see on that stretch was an invisible city called East Jackson, the Gold Coast of Mississippi. From the 1920s until the mid 1960s it was a haven for no-label Mason jar whisky, illegal blackjack, and the finest music in the country. For forty years it reigned supreme as a haven for wildness and lawlessness, a miniature burst of New Orleans, complete with its own river. East Jackson was so spectacular it earned its own theme song in 1928 by a local bluesman.
In 1919, the United States banned alcohol, and the nation was completely rid of intoxicating liquors. Rid of them in theory: in reality, bootlegging was such a huge business that entire economies sprung up around it. One of those was our lost city of East Jackson. Mississippi had gone dry in 1908 and stayed dry even after the federal ban on alcohol was lifted in ’33. We just had a little 10% tax on whisky sales, is all, even if selling whisky was technically illegal.
One thing you have to understand about Jackson is that the physical nature of the City hasn’t changed much in the years since old Louis LeFleur pitched camp on a bluff in 1821. The downtown has hewed to the same general roads since it was laid out. The main thing that’s changed is the Pearl River, and the role it plays in the City’s life. One of the main reasons the City even exists is because you could navigate the Pearl to get here. Cars have only been common for a few decades, and the highway system as we know it now is less than sixty years old. If you wanted to travel, or wanted to move goods, you used water.
And if you wanted to sell whisky, you did it on the Pearl. LeFleur’s Bluff was picked as the state’s new capital (over Natchez) in part because it was the most central part of the state that wasn’t a complete swamp. By the 1920’s, you could ride that Pearl Highway right up to East Jackson to an astounding collection of juke joints, dance halls, restaurants, and gambling outfits. There were dozens of businesses running in a completely parallel economy to the rest of Mississippi, to the rest of the United States.
The businesses ran on bootlegged hooch, tumbling dice, and blues. All that decline-of-empire finery was soaked in cash and spilled blood. East Jackson wasn’t wholly outside the law but it was close, and fights and even murder were constants in the calculus of the locale. East Jackson was considered not just bad but Wrong; a cradle of sin. There’s a 1939 Mississippi Supreme Court murder case that talks about how one tough (convicted of stabbing a fella to death after a bar fight) had first drove across the Pearl River over to the Gold Coast to pick up a half pint of liquor, after which they drove around Jackson drinking it. You can almost see the arched eyebrow of the justice writing the case.
In other words, it was probably the damned grandest place our grandparents and great-grandparents ever snuck off to. It was so stellar that when Bo Carter sang about it in 1928, he murmured that “some people say that East Jackson blues ain’t sad.”
Even the blues could be happy in East Jackson. But not for long.
Next: The Music of the Gold Coast; the Governor Declares War on East Jackson; and the One Day That Killed a City.