A southern journey of rediscovery

Friday, May 9, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 19
By Jay Edwards

“I know there are friendly people everywhere, but southern friendliness is different.” – Mark W. Nichols

I think Jonathon Daniels would have liked “Azaleas to Zydeco,” the engaging travel memoir by Little Rock Attorney Mark Nichols. I think he would have liked it even if he were kept in the dark that he himself was the inspiration for Nichols’ “4,600 – Mile Journey Through the South.”

In his introduction, Nichols tells about a coffee shop he happened to be in that sold used books. One title intrigued him and he pulled the “old frayed volume” from out of its place on the shelf. It was Daniels’ book, “A Southerner Discovers the South.”

In 1937, Daniels, who was publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, decided to embark on a sabbatical trip, traveling through 10 southern states to “record his experiences and observations.”

Nichols bought the book and, after reading it, made the decision to take an adventure of his own, recreating the exact journey Daniels had made and even adding a few new stops of his own.

There are many fun parts to Nichols journey, and one quickly gets the impression that fun was what the author had in this literally long journey through the South.

Here are some samplings from his travels:

To many the South means NASCAR, and it was near Darlington, South Carolina, where Nichols caught up with one of the states bigger racing fans (who also happens to be a former governor of the Palmetto State), David Beasley.

Beasley told a story about a famous driver who left a barbeque to drive over to a country store outside of Darlington.

“In the old days,” Nichols writes, “drivers socialized with locals and were considered regular people.”

This particular driver left the party to go meet a young boy who was a big fan, just so he could give the boy an autographed hat and make the boy smile. Beasley said it was hard to describe the youth’s face when he saw his hero coming into the country store, just to see him.

Then there was Reuben “Buzz” Harper, who hosted Nichols and other guests for lunch at his Natchez, Mississippi, mansion. The words “eccentric” and “character” by themselves are not enough to give Harper proper description; together they come closer.

After the luncheon, Nichols asked Harper if he could photograph the man on his front porch.

Harper declined, until Nichols informed him he wasn’t a good photographer, whereupon the man smiled and said, “Well, in that case, take as many as you like.”

From Azaleas to Zydeco: My 4,600-Mile Journey through the South

by Mark W. Nichols

Published by Butler Center for Arkansas Studies (Feb. 1, 2014)


446 pages   

The book is not only entertaining and humorous, but educational, as well.

For example, I never knew that Cajuns are a “federally recognized group subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act.” Nichols cites a case in which a Mr. Calvin Roach, a Cajun, sued his employer for disrespecting him by calling him a certain familiar name, specific to the region.

Roach won, the court determining the Plaintiff had “a right to be protected from objectionable references to his heritage in the workplace.” You can gain more insight to this through one of Nichols’ informative Travel Notes.

I also didn’t know there are over 25 spots you can get tamales in the Mississippi Delta, all part of the “Tamale Trail” (which even has its own website).

Nichols found himself in the one known as “Jim’s Café” in Greenville, where he caught a tasty late lunch and some even tastier old-timer reminiscing:

Old-timer No. 1: We were open seven days a week and only closed on Christmas Day. Now those were good times.

Old-timer No. 2: I’m not as old as you. I’m only 75. I don’t remember those kind of good times.

And I didn’t know that in 1969, Chattanooga was declared the country’s dirtiest city. How dirty was it? It was so dirty that people had to drive with their headlights on during the day.

More important, though, as Nichols explains through his conversations with former Mayor Ron Littlefield, was how Tennessee’s fourth-largest city turned it all around.

You also learn that the word zydeco translates from the French, meaning, “the snap beans are not salty.” It arises from a time when Creoles used to season their food with salted meat.

During bad times, salted meat was too expensive and the food was bland. So if the snap beans aren’t salty, times are bad.

Now days, when you hear the word zydeco you think of a kind of music; but Nichols takes us inside a Louisiana joint where the word becomes much more verb than noun.

There is more, much more on his 4,600-mile journey. But you’ll want to get your own copy and take the trip for yourself.

As they say in Southern Louisiana – “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” or, in one of those other great southern stops along the author’s way, “Let the good times roll!”