When he was a boy, barely five, his birthplace, a town that couldn’t spell its own name, set in a pocket of rural northeastern Louisiana that had grown comfortable with being forgotten, had finally raised enough money to construct its first-ever “city” building. It was a peculiar place; even though it had lacked any municipal facility, the Princess Theater had been an institution for nearly a decade. And this boy was also peculiar, a seemingly self-taught, multi-instrumental musical prodigy. He was playing the mandolin by the age of three, and by five, he was learning to master the fiddle.
All told, only 2,000 residents, the population of a typical suburban high school, spread across four segregated square miles, lived in Winnsboro, Louisiana in 1938.
Ten or so years later, the boy- now a teenager- left for good, enlisting in the Air Force, where he’d serve as the band leader for USO shows, traveling all across Europe and entertaining thousands. But he wasn’t famous really, and neither was his bunkmate, a gruff kid from Ft. Worth named Larry Hagman. Most Americans remember Larry by a different name: J.R. Ewing.
When his stint in the Air Force ended, the kid enrolled at Centenary College in Shreveport, though it’s likely he just wanted to be in the same orbit as the Louisiana Hayride. That’s how he met Roy Orbison, and that’s where Orbison convinced him to join his band and move to Hollywood.
He never became a superstar, though he played music alongside dozens of them. He recorded a few albums under his own name; none were chart-toppers. Yet he was always considered somewhat of a musical legend, had been since he was a boy. So, it made since when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reached out and asked for his help with their next album, which they were calling Bridge Over Troubled Water. He and Paul were the only two who played guitar during the recording of the album’s title track.
But the album’s emotional core is a simple ballad that seemed to have come together somewhat haphazardly. Some argue it is Paul Simon’s finest work; it’s the song he sang to open Saturday Night Live for the first time since 9/11.
Paul wrote the lyrics, but the truth is the song, “The Boxer,” was constructed, from the very first note, by Fred Carter, Jr. of Winnsboro, the seat of Franklin Parish, Louisiana.
Fred passed away in 2010, and already by then, he had watched his daughter Deana catapult herself into the stratosphere. Her first album Did I Shave My Legs for This? sold five million copies, and her first major single, “Strawberry Wine,” became an anthem for countless teenage girls growing up in the late 90s.
There are a few other famous people from Winnsboro (not to be confused with Winnfield, a tiny town about seventy miles west and roughly the same size but home to three Louisiana governors, including Huey and Earl, and by coincidence, one of the most brilliant literary minds of the 20th century, the nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate, William Jay Smith). Though there were more than a handful of professional athletes, elected officials, and at least one perennial candidate, Luther Divine “None of the Above” Knox, from Winnsboro, Fred Carter, Jr., while he may have never returned, left the world wealthier simply by sharing his art.
Winnsboro is the final resting place for at least one other remarkable Louisianian: Myrtis Lucille Gregory Methvin, the second woman ever elected to serve as a mayor in Louisiana. Myrtis wasn’t born in Winnsboro, nor was she ever its town mayor. Her electoral successes occurred further to the west, in Castor, Louisiana, in Bienville Parish.
Her husband worked for Roy O. Martin, Sr., the lumber baron whose scion, Roy O. the III, continues to run the family business and control an empire worth, according to some, well in excess of a $1 billion. Mayor Myrtis Methvin’s remains are interred in Winnsboro, though she was one of the only members of the family to make her way back; most stayed put in Central Louisiana. Her son became a successful lawyer in Alexandria, and last year, another Methvin woman decided to put her name on the ballot: Her granddaughter Mimi Methvin, an accomplished lawyer and magistrate judge, challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, ultimately finishing a distant but respectable second in the jungle primary. (Incidentally, although there are no indications whatsoever that she is even contemplating another campaign, her name comes up frequently as a candidate voters would like to see run again).
But since she is settled in South Louisiana, only a statewide campaign would put her in proximity with Grandma Myrtis’ headstone.
Even today, nearly a century after little Fred Carter picked up the mandolin for the first time in Winnsboro, northeastern Louisiana remains largely overlooked, unknown, or simply outright dismissed, a deceptively vast region blanketed by pine trees, farmland, and deep, multi-generational poverty.
The area is so vast that, last year, when a farmer named Jessee Carlton Fleenor from Loranger, Louisiana decided to campaign for the Fifth Congressional District, he told me that a round trip from and then back to his home in the Florida Parishes meant he’d be on the road for thirteen hours. There are sixty-four parishes in Louisiana and six different congressional districts, yet more than a third of the state’s parishes are in the fifth.
Because of the way the district is gerrymandered, depending on where you need to be, it’s sometimes actually more convenient to cut through rural western Mississippi.
Louisiana’s Fifth District is, objectively, the tenth-poorest district in the entire country. It’s split by geography, by race, by party, and often, as Jessee learned firsthand, by race within party. He lamented the number of times he would travel to a city or small town to meet with Democrats, only to learn that there were white Democratic groups and black Democratic groups who held separate meetings. “I wasn’t changing up my speech,” he told me. “I was giving it twice.”
His experience serves as a stark reminder that, even after party realignment following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there are still reasons for lingering resentments and mistrusts. Currently, the fifth has the largest population of African Americans in the country who are represented in Congress by a white Republican.
By at least one account, the unfortunately-named Lake Providence in East Carroll Parish is the poorest place in the United States. For a few decades during the previous century, there had been at least one story that seemed to exemplify the American Dream that, at least initially, was born on the banks of Providence. As a child, along with his eight siblings, William Jennings Jefferson helped his father in working for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. He ended up at Southern in Baton Rouge, where his skills caught the attention of then-Gov. John McKeithen. He earned a degree from Harvard Law, and then he relocated to New Orleans, where he served as an aide to U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
In 1990, after Congresswoman Lindy Boggs decided not to seek another term, “Dollar Bill,” as he was known even then, jumped into the crowded primary, and in the end, the hard-working, razor-sharp young lawyer from a poor family in the poorest city in America became the first African American to win a race for Congress in Louisiana. He’d win another seven consecutive terms before his luck finally ran out, but that story will have to wait for another day.
There is a reason I believe every voter in Louisiana should direct their attention to the Fifth District, and it’s not just because, like Dollar Bill and Mimi and Fred, I was born there and ended up settling somewhere else. I think we should all recognize, regardless of party, the enormous amount of work required to ensure that the district no longer ranks as one of the poorest places in the country (a problem that it has carried through gubernatorial and presidential administrations of both parties).
We should pay attention to the Fifth, because the district’s current congressman, Ralph Abraham, hopes to convince enough white conservatives (there’s no need to pretend differently) that he has done enough to earn your vote for governor.
Abraham is usually ten minutes up the road from Winnsboro, in Mangham. It’s right across the parish line. Abraham lives in Richland Parish.
If you’re the type of person who believes Washington is irreparably broken and that his chronic absences from his job are ultimately irrelevant, fine. Then let’s discuss character, integrity, and honesty.
Incidentally, the Fifth District is home to the country’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, which, unfortunately, I’ve still yet to visit. But it was genius to stick with the original name: Poverty Point.