A few years ago I wrote a review of two interesting books about Bayou Bartholomew written by Southeast Arkansas authors. Here is that book review that was published by the Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies at Arkansas State University where I taught back in the 1970s.
The photos were inserted later by me. Except for the book covers and one personal snapshot, all the photos were taken from the Web sites of the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance or the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture and used with permission.
Bartholomew’s Song: A Bayou History. By Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey. (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001. Pp. xv + 645, preface, acknowledgments, bibliography, notes, index, illustrations. $40.00, paper)
Bayou Bartholomew (A Regional Stream). By Clifton L. Birch. (Tillar, AR: C. L. Birch Publishing, 1999. Pp. v + 214, preface, acknowledgments, illustrations. $15.00, paper
Since “the longest bayou in the world” passes between my birthplace of Selma (Drew County), Arkansas, and my hometown of McGehee (Desha County), Arkansas, I was pleased to discover these two books about one of the most important geographical, historical, and cultural landmarks in the Lower Mississippi River Delta.
I was interested to note that the authors of these works were also natives of that region. However, their perspectives and presentations of it are decidedly different from one another due to their different backgrounds and purposes in writing.
In the popular cartoon “Peanuts,” after thoroughly trouncing Charlie Brown in a tennis match, Snoopy turns to the audience and wryly notes: “Sometimes we forget the difference between the true professional and the merely gifted amateur.”
That distinctive difference is evident in these two studies, the former being the work of a true professional researcher, and the latter that of a gifted amateur writer—with the word “amateur” reflecting its original Latin meaning as a lover of a particular activity or subject.
Indeed, it was the late Clifton L. Birch’s lifelong love for Bayou Bartholomew that compelled him to learn as much as possible about it through exploratory travels along it and to self-publish his findings. Therefore, his work is not a formal report of scholarly research about the bayou, but an informal journal of personal experiences with it.
As such, the narrative meanders back and forth from one aspect of the bayou to another as the author retraces his own voyage of discovery along the path of a waterway he frequented almost daily for more than half a century.
Included are interviews he conducted with a variety of interesting individuals, some true professionals but most gifted amateurs, from the bayou’s source near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to its confluence with the Ouachita River near Bastrop, Louisiana.
These personal observations and reminiscences of life on the bayou (including three different versions of the brutal murder of my grandfather’s first wife)—all conveyed in the author’s colorful vernacular (“Nah that old dog won’t hunt,” p. 95)—serve as the basis of the book’s interesting, informative, and often humorous narrative.
Thus it would be of interest to serious researchers primarily as firsthand resource material collected by an enthusiastic, inquisitive, and charmingly unsophisticated longtime local resident.
This is how the author and his work were seemingly viewed by researcher/writer Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey who quotes several times from her interviews with Birch and from pertinent passages in his book.
As noted in a November 28, 2001, preview of the work published in the McGehee Times-Dermott News, “Bartholomew’s Song: A Bayou History, is approximately 600 pages long and contains 93 old photographs. Twenty-three pages of notes and a twelve-page bibliography attest to the extensive research compiled by the author.”
Included in Part I are histories of the bayou itself, the overall bayou area, and each of the settlements along its banks. An entire chapter is devoted to the history of steamboat transportation on the bayou with a discussion of “overland travel, fords, ferries, bridges, and mighty floods,” plus “six tables contain[ing] information about commerce, populations, and the names of all the steamboats documented on the Bayou” (back cover).
Other chapters examine “slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” as well as “sawmills and timber rafting,” and “outlaws, lynching, murder, moonshining, and the Ku Klux Klan.” Following chapters discuss hunting and fishing; recreation, baptisms, courting, and “anecdotes of buried treasure and strange events”; plus an interesting analysis of the cultural differences between Delta people and hill people.
As the preview notes, “An afterword laments the ecological ruination of the bayou though the years and offers hope of its restoration through the efforts of the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance and private landowners.”
The second part of the book provides family histories of many of the area’s early settlers. An appendix is followed by a list of the oral history respondents, a name index, and a subject index.
As noted in the preface, the book was written primarily for “bayouphiles,” but “[s]tudents of history, archeology, cultural anthropology, economic geography, sociology, and folklore [as well as genealogists] will also benefit from the diverse material presented” (p. viii).
I wholeheartedly agree with the author’s handwritten note in the review copy attesting that “this book will [make] a new contribution to Delta history.”
For a copy of the book Bayou Barthomomew: A Regional Stream, send a check, payable to Bayou Bartholomew Alliance, or BBA, PO Box 665, Monticello, AR 71657. The cost is twenty dollars, including mailing.
A copy of the book Bartholomew’s Song can be purchased for forty dollars from Heritage Books at 1540E Pointer Ridge Place, Bowie, MD 20716 (800-876-6103) or from Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey at 2798 Old Warren Road, Wilmar, AR 71675; or for forty-four dollars from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com. Another related book by the same author titled Old Times Not Forgotten: A History of Drew County can be ordered from Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey at her address above for thirty dollars.
AETN, the Arkansas public television network, is producing an hour-long documentary on the history of the bayou. Further information will be provided later.
Reviewer’s bio: Jimmy Peacock, a native of rural southeast Arkansas, lives just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he is a freelance writer and contract editor for several religious and regional publishers. His humorous and nostalgic works have appeared in local, state, and national periodicals.