Friday, February 19, 2021

The Meaning of "Panther Burn"

Sharkey County, Mississippi

In the book It Came from Memphis, Robert Gordon forwards one explanation behind the band name for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns: 

  • “The band’s name reflected the lore surrounding Panther Burn, Mississippi. This town was menaced by an elusive wild beast that, when finally cornered, was set aflame. Its dying shrieks so horrified the citizens that they named the community for it. The moniker was appropriate for” Tav Falco’s assembly of musicians, The Panther Burns.

It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vicksburg Whig in 1860 that explains how the town got its name.

Population in 1987: About 100 families

Industry: Panther Burn Co., a plantation with about 6,500 acres of farmland growing cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat. The plantation employs 60 to 150 people, depending on the season. 

Settled: 1832 Government: The area is not incorporated so there is no local governing board. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

Of Note: The last reported panther sighting near here was about five years ago by farmers. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Nov 1, 1987.

On February 17, 2021, I posted a link to the above blog post on a Facebook post containing an interview with Tav Falco [click here for the interview], and I was fortunate enough to get a lengthy response from Mr. Falco himself, who not only took the time to correct a couple of grammatical errors in my post--namely that I hade misspelled Vicksburg as "Vickburg" as well as got the name of the newspaper incorrect; instead of the Herald, it was the Whig. Both have now been corrected in the above post. I find Mr. Falco's response both enlightening and informative; thus, I republish it here for your reading enjoyment!

"Thank you for your comment. You have written, "It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vickburg Herald in 1860 that explains how the town got its name."

One might wonder how many panthers in Mississippi were shot down, trapped, maimed, or burned alive inadvertently or otherwise. I should imagine lots of them, esp. during the times when the wilderness was being cleared for cultivation of crops. Murdered and destroyed along with legions of other august creatures such as bear (Mr. Faulkner attested to that), bobcats, wild boar, foxes, and so on. That item Mr. Moore has cited appears to be from the Oxford Intelligencer 1860, yet it is credited to the Vickburg (does he intend VickSburg?) Herald 1860, while that newspaper did not begin publishing until 1897. Was this item a reprint 37 years later? Anyway, the point is that among the endless slayings of grand creatures of the wild, this instance of the slaughter of the 'treed varmint' may not have even been reported - as I suspect most were not - had the hunter not been a so-called "gentleman" who removed the paw of the animal and had taken it to a doctor's office for the public to view as the veracity of his claimed exploit. Does this newspaper item account for anything more than panthers were killed in the area?

This paragraph by Nick Nicholas, PhD in Linguistics from Melbourne University appears relevant to the topic:

"The English equivalent of “burn” in Scots/Scottish-English isn’t “burn” in the sense of “be consumed/damaged by fire”, it is “bourne” which has pretty much the same meaning of “stream” and is found in lots of place names like “Bournemouth” or “Holborn” in London. Both come from Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor language of both Scots and English, so it’s not that there has been a change in meaning, more that the term has survived in Scots and Scottish English, but fallen out of use in England, except where it has been fossilized in names."

So, we could surmise that in the Scottish dialect supposedly spoken around the Panther Burn area, the term 'burn' may - by a stretch - have described "swampy" conditions as alluded to in the note the Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger published in 1987. Swampy because many 'streams' in Mississippi are not flowing streams at all, rather they are swamps of brackish water.

If one happens to read my book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma, and Death, there it is written how Tav Falco learned of the Panther Burn legend. A Memphis musician, the late Sid Selvidge, had been reared - so to speak - in the planter society of Greenville 34 miles distant from the community of Panther Burn. It was he who had related the legend to Falco to satisfy his curiosity. Mr. Moore is right in that 'it is not clear at all where this supposed lore came from.' Yet we have a reality that is irrefutable. We have the reality of a legend. As legend where concrete historical dates, names, and charters can only be implied, inferred or imagined. A reality that will forever remain a mystery and as such a legacy for which we can be grateful. Are we too eager to assault our minds and lives with purported historical facts, figures, and statistics in our quest to gleefully proclaim fiction over fact?

What is passed on by word of mouth and escapes the scrutiny of microscopic, analytical, methodical, deconstructive interrogation, might be that ineffable, elusive "rara materia" from which poetry, music, and art are created. When spoken stories do become legend, they become larger than life. One might howl: superstition! shadowy Romanticism! Well, yes. There are particles of these in all tales and legends. Yet legends loom larger than textbooks. We must approach legends on their own terms for they are larger than we are. We can perversely try to pick them apart and to deflate them, but they will always return. They will return because, in the end, you find that legends are drawn from fact however obscure; otherwise they would not exist. Nor would their supra-reality be one that lives and breathes across time, fashion, class, and culture.

The choice is ours. We can disregard legend, allow ourselves to be oppressed by it, or to be imaginatively stimulated, or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, or to charge off in all directions trying to live out legends. One thing is for sure. Legends loom larger than FATE itself.

As a final aside, the Memphis (b. Earle, Arkansas) artist, Carroll Cloar, entitled his painting on the legend as "Panther Bourne."