Just Another Mississippi Catfish Day!
April 6, 2003

By Ron Grant

(Belzoni, MS) - Well, I am pretty fortunate to be hunkered down here in Greenville, Mississippi with fellow PC800 rider Mark, a contact I made through the PC Internet club. Fortunate because Mark is a superb ‘bon vivant’ cook, musician, history buff and computer expert, as well as being a great host! Also, today I had planned for a bit of rest and recouperation from the much motorcycle riding and event participation of the last week. Alas it is also the first day since I left Los Angeles in early March of full on rain! So much better to spend it in an antebellum southern ‘manor home’, than in a tent!

On Friday, Mark and I rode the 150 miles north to Memphis, where we participated in the memorial of the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, held at the site of his shooting, the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine has been maintained exactly as it was when King was shot, even his 1963 Cadillac sits where it was parked, below the room balcony. Around the motel they have constructed the National Civil Rights Museum, which we spent a few hours touring. It was a superb and emotional experience, but that is a story for another day. Today’s story is about CATFISH!

Many months ago, when I was playing around on my computer in Brisbane to look for events in the USA worth seeking out for this trip, I came upon a notice for the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni, Mississippi. At first, I was mildly interested, but then when I ‘clicked’ on the pictures of the 2002 festival ‘Queen’ competition, I took a double take, and a triple take! The picture of the four finalists lined up on the county courthouse steps, were an absolute revelation! These four women were among the most beautiful women I had ever seen! (try the website yourself, www.catfishcapitolonline.com) I did some checking.....the latest census shows Belzoni as a town of 2,663 inhabitants, of which 70% are black, and 35% live below the poverty line! These ladies were all white, and I was certain that we could not find such a group of lovely ladies if we had a Miss Brisbane contest for our city of 1.5 million people! I HAD to investigate! Well, yesterday I found all the answers to my questions.

This Catfish Festival is a BIG deal. People of both Black and White races descend on Belzoni from miles around for the festival. I suspect the total crowd numbered well over 5000 people. And....there are TWO festivals. The one I found on the website, is certainly the main one, and it appeared to be entirely organized and staffed by white folk. Around the corner, just outside the main street gated off area of town, is the ‘rival festival’, which seemed to be entirely organized and staffed by black folk. As to visitor population, I saw almost NO white people attending the ‘Black’ festival, and about 10% of those walking around the main festival area were black. Ah yes, and Mark found the website for the ‘black’ festival, I suspect they had to change the name of the fish to deter lawsuits! www.buffalofishfestival.com

We spent time at both. We took Mark’s truck, so I was able to ‘dress to the hilt.’ That means pink Thailand sweat pants, my coat-of-many-colors purchased last year from the Goodwill shop in Athabasca, Alberta, over my Cambodian script T-shirt, topped by the crazy twisted shape of my Aussie ‘Bushtuckerman’ hat. NO one confused me for a local. This was a great advantage in helping me to do what I wanted to do.

Soon after we arrived, the Catfish Queen contest began. I moved to roam around the front of the stage to secure the best possible pictures, and most spectators soon realized that there was some sort of interloper in their midst. Lots of curious stares were directed my way. They brought out the ten finalists, and I was able to get some of the pictures I had been waiting for for months. I wanted more. As soon as last year’s Queen, Rebecca Moulder, had sung her farewell song, and passed the crown to the new 2003 Queen, I jumped on stage. Rebecca was a bit taken aback, but when I told her that the picture of her beauty I had seen on the website had motivated me to travel from Australia to see the festival, her demeanor melted. I asked her if I could have my picture taken with her, and as the Southern Belle she is, her quick reply was a ‘Yes, SIR!’ I moved to the new Queen with the same request, and received the same reply. Hey, this is working out pretty good.

There was so much more to the festival. We walked around the town to see all the tent and craft displays. I hate this stuff because there is so much to buy that I have never seen in Australia, desperately want, and could not possibly transport back to Brisbane on my motorcycle. The good part was the overwhelming plethora of more stunning girls in the crowd, several of which I convinced to pose for photos. We had the Catfish dinners, and I coaxed a ‘Jerry W. Hawkins for Sheriff’ T-shirt out of the candidate when I was loudly praising the design to one of his campaign workers and he overheard me while in we were both in the line for shaved ice cones. Of course I had to buy the Catfish Festival T-shirt, also. We were watching the fantastically attractive 16 year old girls in the Country Music Talent Contest, when we remembered...the Black Festival!

Exiting the downtown area and walking down a few streets we came to another world. Suddenly, everyone was black. And were they DRESSED! The women of all shapes and sizes had the most elaborate waved, pressed, plaited and plastered hairstyles I had ever seen. The young men wore exaggerated baggy shorts, and outrageous printed shirts. The older men sported gold gold gold, and suits and shirts of colors and styles that would sit in a Brisbane store for 5 years without a single taker. This was ‘Dandy City!’ A black blues band was playing on a small makeshift stage on the front lawn of the Rev. George Lee Avenue church. This place was ROCKIN’! The singer was a younger version of James Brown, quite obviously not having gained the same level of monetary success, judging from the 1960’s era Silver Eagle tour bus parked behind the stage. The audience was in FULL participation mode, with the first row almost up on the stage constantly engaged in trading jibes and sexual double entenders with Bobby Rush, the singer. The rest of the crowd was bopping, jiving and howling with laughter. One well-endowed lady was up on stage with her rear projecting to the audience, swinging and grinding to tremendous applause. THIS was entertainment! Such a contrast to the polite applause greeting the Country and Western singers back at Catfish Central. To be honest, when we arrived they had had a 15 piece ‘Blues Brothers’ type band playing to great fanfare and applause also, but nothing like this.

So I learned a lot at Belzoni, yesterday; about Catfish, Southern Festivals, small town Mississippi, and the way the residents like to enjoy themselves in the short time they have between the end of the coldish winters and the onslaught of the moist, humid and mosquito laden summers. I am still learning about how Black and White folk live together in this area of the south that evidenced the degradation and even murder of so many of its black citizens up to the mid 1960’s. It’s a fascinating education.


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