Chit Chat: A Visit with UGA Professor and Southern Historian Jim Cobb
A trip to our beloved local bookstore in Athens, Avid Bookshop, led me to a display of books about the south by my neighbor Jim Cobb. I knew he was a published author and well respected Spalding Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia but I had never come face-to-face with his books. I perused all of the book covers and selected two for purchase, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity and Redefining Southern Culture. I dove into one and decided to immediately get in touch with him for a Q&A so the Coterie can be introduced here to professor Cobb’s perspective on southern culture. I tried to pull out some of his knowledge of the Mississippi Delta and the interrelation of country and blues music which interested me. After this Q&A piques your interest, I recommend obtaining one of his books. Start with Away Down South like I did.
Favorite Mississippi Delta destination and why?
It has always been the country store (offering a “meat-and-three” lunch and dancing to the jukebox afterward) at Onward, Mississippi, where Teddy Roosevelt went bear hunting and, supposedly, declined to shoot a small bear that had been tethered to a tree. As legend has it, that is how the “Teddy Bear” got its name. Lusko’s, an old speakeasy converted into a restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi, is a close second.
Favorite country song?
Explain how these music genres are interrelated.
There has always been a lot of borrowing and crossover between them. Country musicians, especially, copied guitar and piano stylings from blues performers, but blues performers picked up some new wrinkles from people like Jimmie Rodgers as well. Essentially, rock ’n’ roll was born at the intersection of the blues and country music.
Favorite southern author(s) and why?
William Faulkner was absolutely brilliant in capturing southerners’ mindset, mannerisms, and language. Yet he used their southern stories to explore more universal themes, such as guilt, greed, love, and, of course, the heavy hand of history.
Favorite southern cuisine and why?
Fried chicken—my Mama’s was the best. The contest for second-best remains wide open.
Favorite historical figure from the South and why?
I guess that would have to be my distinguished ancestor Col. Nestor Ambrosius Cobb, who stood with Gen. Pickett at Gettysburg and had sense enough to keep standing when Pickett started walking.
Editor’s Note: Professor Cobb told me in a side bar the following which adds to the answer so I am sharing: (IF YOU DON’T WANT TO USE THIS, THAT’S FINE. THIS IS JUST MY WAY OF SAYING I DON’T REALLY LOOK AT HISTORICAL FIGURES IN THAT WAY.)
Create a trip itinerary to spotlight the South.
Well, any worthwhile tour of the South would have to include the “Most Southern Place on Earth,” i.e., the Mississippi Delta; so I guess I would start in Memphis, the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll and then head down Highway 61 through the Delta, the birthplace of the blues, and on over to Cajun country around Lafayette. From there I would swing through New Orleans and over to Gulf Shores to take in the Flora-Bama Lounge and then head to Charleston. Next, “Deliverance” be damned, I would angle up through the mountains and eventually into the Bluegrass, where I would proceed to sip a little single-batch and put down $2 on a pony or two at Churchill Downs or Keeneland. Of course, even this extensive jaunt would not do justice to all the geographic, historical, and cultural diversity the South offers.
Please share a little about the entry on Herschel Walker you wrote for the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
I was teaching at Ole Miss, where I had seen Herschel do the incredible leap-bounce for a TD in 1981. Herschel had become an absolute superhero to my son as well; so I didn’t just jump like Herschel (Well, not exactly like him), but I leapt at the chance to write this entry. Even then, I felt Herschel was a much more complicated fellow than most realized, but the thing that I think made him so appealing off the field was that he came across to the public as nothing more or less than a southern boy who had been “raised right.”
JAMES C. COBB
SPALDING DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR
DEPT. OF HISTORY
UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA