Allan Little's journey: Parts 1-4

Allan Little's journey: Parts 1-4

Allan Little

BBC World Affairs correspondent Allan Little hosted the second part of the journey, across the South.

In this section he travelled from Dallas to Memphis.

Part four: Rhythm and blues

The Talking America bus is parked up by Beale Street, in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

This is the world capital of rhythm and blues. There is live music in WC Handy Park. That's where we found Blind Mississippi Morris.

He grew up in the racially segregated south of the 1950s, working the plantations of the Mississippi valley as a child of 12, pulling water carts along a two-mile rutted track in the blazing mid-day sun.

"Anyone can learn to play an instrument technically," he told me. "But you can't make it cry for you, scream for you, die for you unless you lived through the despair and the pain. These emotions I draw from my own life."

The music of the Mississippi Valley is shaped by the accumulated experience of generations.

You can draw a straight line from this sun-drenched happy music filled city-centre park to the nineteenth century, when Memphis was home to one of the biggest slave markets in the United States.

The music that grew out of the adversity, the poverty, the toil of generations is still alive in the rhythms and cadences and the rise and fall of Blind Mississippi Morris's powerful voice.

Yesterday I reported here that someone had told me that he loved the landscape of Memphis despite its poverty and visible decay because, as he put it, "this landscape has memory."

It strikes me that the same is true of music in Memphis. It has memory too. You can hear in it the voices, the pain, the despair, the joys and hopes and loves and longings of generations long gone. It is irresistible.

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Part three: After the debate

An early breakfast at the Big Bad Breakfast Cafe in Oxford, Mississippi and we begin to unpick the meaning of last night's debate.

If the point, for the candidates, was not to put a foot wrong, not to make a mistake, then both men won.

Tad Pierson and his Cadillac

Tad Pierson runs tours of Memphis in his Cadillac

"There was a debate?" one man says. "Are you sure? It looked more like a joint press conference to me".

From Oxford, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. I am sitting in a 1955 pink Cadillac outside the squat little brick-built apartment block where Elvis Presley lived in his teens.

The Cadillac belongs to Tad Pierson, who runs tours of the city's extraordinary musical heritage.

Cotton and slavery built Memphis. You can see the legacy in the segregated neighbourhoods to this day: blacks on the north side, whites in the more prosperous mid-town.

Memphis is poor, a cityscape of boarded-up shops and derelict factories. "But I love this landscape," says Tad. "This landscape has memory."

Elvis Presley cut his first record, That's Alright Mama, here in 1954.

When it was first played on the radio, says Tad, everybody thought the singer was a black man.

Only when he said, in an early local radio interview, that he had gone to the racially segregated whites-only Hume's High School, did the penny drop: that this remarkable black man's voice came from the throat of a white boy.

"And that's what Memphis is," says Tad.

"A fusion of different cultures, different influences into something special, something unique."

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Part 2: Will they, won't they?

Mississippi University campus

There is a real buzz around Mississippi University - but will it get its big day?

It has been the "will they won't they" day.

The stage, at least, is set, and I went to take a look at it. It is striking how small the venue is. There are seats for three or four hundred at most.

It makes for an intimate little atmosphere. As intimate as you can be when you know there are perhaps a hundred million Americans who are also - vicariously - right there in the room thanks to television.

This means a lot to the University of Mississippi. The ghost of its past is ever-present. There is a statue here to James Meredith, whose story we told here yesterday.

Ole Miss - as the University is known - occupies an unfortunate place in the American imagination. It was thought of for years as a citadel of white privilege, white supremacy even.

The current Chancellor, Robert Khayat, was a student here in the fifties, when it was a "whites only" school. He knows the legacy of that segregation lives on.

When he took over here, he told me, he decided to try to ban the use of the old Confederate flag as the university's unofficial emblem, because of all the historic baggage it carries. His post bag filled up with hate mail from across the south. There were even death threats.

The chance to host a presidential debate in which - for the first time in American history - there is a black candidate carries huge resonance here. For Ole Miss it's a chance to show America that it's turned the page on all that.

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Part 1: Mobile homes

Vicksburg trailer park

Trailer parks act as a stop-gap for people needing housing

From Dallas, out across the endless dusty flatlands of Texas and east, to the poorest state in the union.

To get there you cross the great river from which that state takes its name: the Mississippi.

The slow, muddy, churning immensity of it takes your breath away.

It drains almost half the territory of the continental United States. It is part of what made this country the richest in the world.

But there's not much sign of that wealth in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

As Democrats and Republicans argued in Washington about the terms of a $700bn bail-out for America's banks, we headed into a trailer park on the edge of town and knocked on a few doors.

"I think it sucks," April Grey told me on the stoop of the mobile home she shares with her two children and her sister's family. "They can bail out the banks but they can't help us when we need it."

"We live from pay cheque to pay cheque," Almanee Tobias told me.

"It's my dream one day to have my own home, not a mobile home but a house built from the ground up. But that bail-out for the banks will help upper class people, not us".

Our BBC campaign bus is pausing overnight in the Mississippi state capital Jackson.

From here we're off to Oxford, Mississippi for the first head-to-head presidential debate on Friday.

Their subject is foreign affairs.

But everywhere Americans are suddenly more concerned with what has gone so calamitously wrong at home - and, for many, with how too keep a roof over their heads.

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Click here to read Ros Atkins diary from the first part of the journey (Los Angeles to Dallas).