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Essay Tupelo, Mississippi: Place and Name by Thomas Harvey Everyone says to us, "Why Tupelo?" —Gaylejacobi1 I am interested in landscape, local history, and sense of place. This is a common avocation for southerners; we identify strongly with our region. I am particularly fascinated by Tupelo, Mississippi. I was born there in 1951 and grew up there, but my interest goes beyond simple hometown nostalgia. In the winter of 1970, while living in Chicago, I awoke one morning to a radio announcement reporting the temperature outside: "It's two below in Tupelo." It was mildly entertaining then—they were obviously not talking about Tupelo, nor was there any further explanation. "Tupelo" was simply a word—a place name—to throw in. I thought little more of it then, but over the succeeding years I have come to perceive "Tupelo"—the name—as something special. On a per capita basis, Tupelo must be one of the most commonly referred to place names in the country. Thus, Tupelo has "place identity." I distinguish place identity from sense of place, local history, and landscape; though related, these concepts are not the same. Neither Tupelo's history nor its landscape offers anything remarkable, and in thinking about Tupelo and in reviewing much that has been written about the town, I have found that the conceptual framework of sense of place does not work. Sense of place, as Kent Ryden notes about much place writing, is grounded in "personal memory, community history, the physical face of geography, a sense of emotional attachment to it all."2 Place identity, on the other hand, is an identity largely projected onto a place rather than the identity stemming from it, although place identity may be loosely related to the essential qualities of a place. In the case of modern-day Tupelo, it is primarily the media that have established the city's place identity. The name "Tupelo" evokes images—a quality that lends itself to place identity—and it is this imageability, as much as actual events, that has attracted media attention to the city. Four different media-generated concepts associated with Tupelo present disparate images of the city that contribute to its place identity . These images cannot be fully reconciled, nor should they, for Tupelo, like 296Southern Cultures most places, has multiple identities. The references are not always accurate, nor even logical, portrayals, nor are they meant to be. Taken together, however, these images associated specifically with Tupelo represent significant aspects of southern history in general. First, there is the name with its fuzzy references. The sound of the word makes it appealing to use in a variety of musical references, newspaper bylines, and as incidental story settings. Second, there is Tupelo as Elvis's birthplace—a pilgrimage for tourists, travel writers, and cultural reporters. Tupelo's place identity is shaped, in large part, through identification with Elvis. A related "Tupelo-as-home-of" theme is the media attention paid to Donald WiIdmon and his American Family Association, would-be censors of television and movies. Third, there is the published history of Tupelo—typically packaged, by insiders and outsiders, as an economic model of the progressive New South. This image is almost, but not completely, at odds with the Elvis/Wildmon theme. Finally, there is the Tupelo that a couple of writers, dealing with their childhood and their own sense of place, recall—the Tupelo in which they and I grew up. Tupelo in Popular Culture In the past quarter century, the name "Tupelo" has appeared in country, blues, and rock songs. Bobbie Gentry sang, "my brother bought a store in Tupelo" in "Tallahatchie Bridge"; the Charlie Daniels Band could not wait to cross the Tupelo County line; Leon Russell, in "Amos Reed," announced, "I was born down in Tupelo"; and even the Proclaimers, a Scottish group, sang, "Sean, I'd say the best one came from Tupelo, Mississippi." Tupelo appears in song titles. Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" refers to the túpelo gum tree rather than the town. John Lee Hooker's "Tupelo Blues" deals with a disastrous flood. Jerry Reed sang about the "Tupelo Mississippi Flash." Recently, Tupelo has appeared in two bands' names...


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pp. 295-313
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