The Mississippi River deposits a huge amount of silt and sediment and this causes it to change its course every thousand years or so. Approximately 4000 years ago, the river changed its course a number of times, causing the formation of the “Mississippi River Delta”. The shape of a river delta is normally triangular and resembles the Greek letter delta. The formation of the Mississippi Delta has influenced the formation of the Louisiana coastline and led to the creation of over four million acres of coastal wetlands. Dockery Farms, in the Mississippi Delta was the location of the birth of blues music, and Iris Dement celebrated the area in her wonderful 2012 album, “Sing The Delta“.
The effect of a river changing course is often to leave a body of water behind. In the case of the Mississippi River, this body of water is often called a bayou. One such bayou is called the Bayou Têche, which is 125 miles long in Southern Louisiana. In 1771, a pioneer called Firmin Breaux bought some land near Bayou Têche from a wealthy New Orleans landowner and in 1799 he built a suspension footbridge across the bayou. His wife gave birth to a son, Agricole, who married Scholastique Melanie Picou on July 25, 1796. They had five children and, in 1817, they replaced his father’s footbridge with a vehicular bridge that allowed wagon passage. On August 25, 1829, one year after her husband’s death, Scholastique Picou Breaux founded the town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana at the age of 33. She developed the area by selling land lots to other settlers. Breaux Bridge became an important trading post for farmers and was noted for the politeness and hospitality of its residents, most of whom were of French origin. A boat landing was established and many taverns, hardware stores and blacksmiths lined Main Street. A boarding house was often used as the venue for entertainment events.
In 2016, my friend Pete and I drove from Ft Lauderdale, in Florida, to San Francisco, in California. Most of our travelling was on Highway 10 and on our fourth day, having started the day in Pensacola and stopping for lunch in New Orleans, we spent an evening in Breaux Bridge.
Breaux Bridge was a fascinating place but it had seen better days. By 2016, the recession caused by the banking fiasco of 2009 had seen many Southern communities spiralling into debt. There were only a couple of shops still functioning and most of the residential accommodation appeared to be in need of renovation. The bridge itself was, to be frank, a bit of a rustbucket. A school was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and there was nobody on the streets when we went for a walk, apart from a Canadian photographer who was taking pictures of the bridge.
The hotel we stayed in was very nice and everybody made us welcome and chatted to us. Visiting a small town (population 7,000) in the USA is often more interesting than visiting a large city and it’s easy to appear snooty, patronising or condescending by rubbishing somewhere that I’ve only visited for a few hours. However, my initial impression was that this was not a place that would inspire a young person to stick around. Anyone wanting a better future would, more than likely, move out of Breaux Bridge to New Orleans or Houston.
When Iris DeMent was 25 years old, she passed a lonely looking town at the side of the highway and invented a song about it, which she called “Our Town”. In the sleevenotes she says “I just saw this town where it seemed like there were no people there“. As it happens, the town was in Oklahoma but when I returned to the U.K. and heard “Our Town”, I immediately pictured Breaux Bridge. The singer has briefly returned to the town where she grew up and she describes the places where she met her husband, gave birth to her children and buried her parents. There are six times in the song when she sings “the sun’s setting fast” and whilst, to take things literally, it is the evening before she departs the town to return to her new home elsewhere, so the sun is indeed setting, symbolically she feels that the light is fading from her hometown. She says that she cries just thinking about what her parents would say when they see the state of the town. Maybe the kernel of the song is the phrase, “Nothing good ever lasts“. The last verse is particularly moving: “Now I sit on the porch and watch the lightning-bugs fly but I can’t see too good, I got tears in my eyes. I’m leaving tomorrow but I don’t wanna go. I love you, my town, you’ll always live in my soul.” I’ve been lucky enough to see Iris DeMent perform live on three occasions and the sight of the frown on her face as she struggles to sing without breaking down with emotion never fails to move me to tears.
“Let The Mystery Be” is perfect. Melody, singing, playing and thought-provoking lyrics all condensed into a three-minute vignette. For the first song on her first album, Iris DeMent ponders the meaning of life and what the after-life might look like. She knows that “everybody is worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done”, but she has decided that she “believes in love” and will “live my life accordingly“. She isn’t going to worry about what happens to us when we die, she will “let the mystery be”. Not many songs include the word purgatory and the first four lines of the last verse are utterly brilliant.
“Some say they’re going to a place called Glory
And I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact
But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to Purgatory
And I don’t like the sound of that“
Is living in Breaux Bridge a bit like living in purgatory. I decided to let the internet decide. I typed “What’s it like living in Breaux Bridge” and this is what appeared.