The South Defined
by Bob Ciminel
He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.
Peg looked at me with her one good eye and said, "Why, Bob, it is the land where kudzu grows."
I quickly tried to remember all of the states where I had seen the ubiquitous kudzu vine growing, but I was struck by several inconsistencies. Kudzu grows in southern Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois Those definitely are not considered Southern states.
"You've got to come up with a better definition, Peg, or I'll have a leg up on you."
Peg gave me an evil look for that remark. It was a good thing she never took me seriously. I'd forgotten how sensitive she was to puns like that, her having only the one good leg and all. I'd known Peg for so many years that I considered her normal. I guess her physical impairments just slipped my mind.
"Okay," Peg said, "Try this one. The South includes all of the states that grow cotton."
I laughed and said, "Ah, the fabric of our lives!"
Peg winked at me with her good eye again and said, "Maybe for you, but I prefer silk."
I pulled out my handy U.S. Atlas and pointed out to Peg that cotton grows in west Texas, but not in east Tennessee, and east Tennessee is definitely part of the South. East Tennessee is the locale made famous in "Rocky Top;" one of the most popular Southern songs ever written, if you don't count "Dixie."
I sang a few bars of "Rocky Top" for Peg in case she had forgotten the words:
Peg sat there tapping on her wooden leg with her beautifully manicured nails while she tried to come up with a Southern attribute that I could not disqualify. I could hear the gears grinding in her head. Then her good eye lit up and she said, "Gotcha!"
I patiently waited, munching on a Moon Pie and sipping an RC Cola while I whittled on a branch from a Tupelo tree with my trusty Barlow knife.
"The South is all the states that have the greatest number of houses without plumbing," Peg proffered.
"Whoa! Good one, Peg!" I said. However, according to my copy of the "Statistical Abstract of the United States," which I happened to find laying on the coffee table, I discovered that over three percent of the homes in New Mexico do not have plumbing.
"Gimme that Barlow knife," Peg said, "I'm gonna kill you with it!"
"Ah," I said, "everything a man could ever want: Great music, good beer, nutritious food, and a one legged, one-eyed woman who loves him. The only thing better, Peg, would be if you were a deaf and dumb nymphomaniac and you owned a liquor store" (That was how we described a sailor's "dream girl" when I was in the Navy.)
Unfortunately, Peg's reply to that last remark is not repeatable. Suffice it to say, I had not heard that kind of language since I'd gotten out of the Navy. I was quite impressed with Peg's extensive vocabulary, her inflection, and the fact that she cussed me out for ten minutes without repeating herself.
After Peg calmed down, and I apologized to her, she came up with another definition for the South that was hard to discount.
Her new criterion was the states most often mentioned in Country and Western songs. You know, I never thought of that; most C&W song lyrics are about cheaters, trains, jails, or pickup trucks, and sometimes all four are covered in the same song. However, as I thought about Peg's new criteria, I began to recall many songs that used the names of Southern states. Tennessee was at the top, followed by Texas and Louisiana. The problem was California came up more often than Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Alas, Peg's hypothesis was faulted. She hated to admit it, but she had to agree that California is nowhere near to being a Southern state. I complimented her on her choice of criteria though.
"Peg," I said, "let's see if we can put our heads together and come up with a definition for the South that we both agree on."
We thought for several minutes, when Peg's face suddenly lit up. "I've got it!" she said. Peg ran into the other room and came back with our local Yellow Pages.
"Let's go over to the library and look through its collection of telephone books for all the major cities that are borderline Southern towns. Then, we can count how many businesses have the word "Southern" in them. If we compare those cities with cities that everyone agrees are truly Southern cities, like Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, and Savannah, we'll have a solid set of data to work with. Any city's telephone book with more than 60 percent of the businesses named "Southern" will qualify as a Southern city."
It took us a couple of weeks, but here's the list: Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and 90 percent of Louisiana, all of eastern Arkansas, the Florida panhandle, and south central Virginia.
At last! The South defined!
Author's note: Much of the statistical information used in this article came from "The South: What is it?" an article written by John Shelton Reed, in the book "The South for New Southerners," edited by Paul D. Escott and David R. Goldfield and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1991.
*"Rocky Top" lyrics by Felice and Boudeleaux Bryant