By Sam Burnham
Still sitting on the beach. It's summertime after all, so what else should we do?
Its hard to beat a good book while you're relaxing, sitting in your chair, and sipping on a cold beverage while the waves crash over and the slip up onto the sand in front of you. If such an outing is in your future and you are planning on spending that time somewhere on the Gulf Coast between Ft. Morgan, Alabama and Panama City Beach, Florida, I have just the beach read for you.
I just finished Dr. Harvey Jackson's The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera. You may have heard me mention Dr. Jackson before here on the blog. He was one of my history professors in college. He happens to have some first hand experience on "The Riviera" after many vacations and even several years as a resident. Add to that experience several years of scholarly research, interviews, several thousand encounters with genuine and imitation rednecks, as well as an undisclosed number of trips to the Green Knight and the Flora-Bama, and you have a well-informed volume, a detailed history of the Redneck Riviera.
He calls it a rise and decline because the story is a journey. It's an odyssey of sorts. A tale of how a few remote and hard to reach communities, in which sand fleas and beach mice outnumbered people, even on the 4th of July became what you see there today, some scattered small towns and several major cities filled with high rises and and folks doing what they couldn't do at home. It rose after World War II to become a playground for the working class. It was like the South of France, but Southern, blue collar, and probably a little tacky. Basically, it was nothing like the South of France. The decline may seem more like a success story to modern eyes but much of the area got a lot fancier, maybe a bit stuck up. It ceased to be what it was and became something else entirely. It became fancy, shiny, commercialized. To a plumber in Georgia or Alabama, that might just be decline.
My biggest regret with the book is that I read it after returning from our 30A trip instead of before. His narrative of the towns and the people who shaped them would have added a further level of interest to my experience there. The story really is intriguing and reads much like his lectures, informative but with no shortage of laughs. For those who aren't faint of heart, look up some of the songs he mentions, the sound of the Riviera or "trailer park rock." I dare you to give them a listen and see how quickly one gets stuck in your head. I've had the name "Old Milwaukee" run through my mind more this past week than in my previous 42 years.
At several points in the book I could hear him giving his Southern History and Culture disclaimer. He warned us each semester that there would be times in his lecture that we would think he was beating up on the South, perhaps even hated it. But then he assured us that he loved it dearly, and presented it honestly. I really got that feeling from this book. It's a fair and honest telling of the story of The Riviera, warts and all, told by someone who loves it. As I mentioned in my previous post, I grew up visiting Atlantic beaches and my gulf experiences have been both positive and negative. But I can tell you that reading this book, I can't help but love the place. I'm sure if you give it a read, you'll feel the same.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire