Inez Williams, a copywriter for a record company, travels to the South to interview Mississippi Ham Rider, an old blues singer whose music her company wants to reissue. Her job is to both interview him for record liner notes, and to encourage him to travel to New York City to record some new sides.
He does not talk much during his interview, so she looks up Isabele Rider, Mississipi Ham's daughter, who runs a curiosity shop. When Inez enters the shop, she is welcomed by Isabele's daughter Melanie. Melanie tells Inez that no one in her family ever leaves their town, and asks Inez why she has come.
Inez explains that her company is reissuing some ‘race records’ by blues and country singers of the 1920s. Many of the companies that originally published the race records went out of business during the Great Depression, and the singers returned to their hometowns, leaving the music business for good. Mississippi Ham Rider is one of these singers, and Inez needs to interview him so she can write copy for his new record. Melanie invites her to join the family that night at Mama Teddy’s restaurant for dinner.
Inez then finds her white colleague, Neil McLoughlin, in the town. Neil has traveled south with her. She informs him that Ham refuses to leave his hometown to record new material, and he comments on the strangeness of the community.
At six, they head to the restaurant and meet Mama Teddy, who graciously welcomes them and reveals that Ham is more interested in going to New York than he pretends. Inez, whose parents are from the South, is enthralled by the smell of soul food. As Neil chats with Mama Teddy, Inez idly regrets exploiting Ham by bringing him back into the public eye.
When Ham arrives at the restaurant, he jokes with Neil and Inez. Inez senses a disconnect between his sense of humor and her own. He agrees to go to New York and sing if his family can come along as well. He explains to Inez that he “don’t sing no cotton songs ... And I don’t sing no nappy-head church songs neither. And no sad numbers about losing my woman and losing my mind” (55-56). Instead, he promises to play a birthday song and a song about “a little lady with long legs,” inspired by Inez herself (56). He teases Neil, who is coughing because of the cigarette smoke, and then begins to sing for them.
Inez Williams, the narrator of “Mississippi Ham Rider,” is a unique character within Bambara’s oeuvre. There are several important differences between her and the underprivileged young girls who narrate famous stories like “Gorilla, My Love” and “The Lesson.” Readers can infer from Inez’s references to Alice in Wonderland and Edgar Allan Poe that she is highly educated. She is also more critical of her surroundings than Bambara’s other narrators typically are. Although these other narrators may notice problems within their surroundings (such as the crumbling rooftop in “The Hammer Man”), they do not seem to consider those problems addressable. They merely observe, whereas Inez assesses problems and considers solutions.
The upbeat ending of “Mississippi Ham Rider,” which comes after Inez makes efforts to connect back with her Southern heritage, suggests that despite their great differences, people like Ham and Inez have much to learn from each other. This is an instance of friendship based on empathy and understanding, rather than upon a shared background. The motif of unusual friendships appears in many stories throughout the collection. It is important to note that in “Mississippi Ham Rider,” Inez and Ham must both make compromises in order to connect with one another. Inez makes an effort to repudiate her city habits in order to reconnect with her Southern roots, while Ham must open himself to a relationship with someone from a different background. He must drop his instinctive front, and accept Inez as a kindred spirit before he agrees to go with her to New York.
Like “My Man Bovanne,” this story explores the meaning of black identity. Although Inez and the Riders are all African-American, there are major cultural differences between them because Inez is educated, from New York City, and seems to have financial security. These differences cause serious tensions between them at first. For example, a waitress calls Inez a “high-yaller Northern bitch” (48). For her part, Inez criticizes Ham’s family, and wishes she could explain to Isabele that “they didn’t have to live in this town and hang around in this store and eat sweet potato pie for lunch and act like throwbacks” (49). She is undoubtedly aloof. In fact, Bambara seems to imply at the beginning of the story that Inez culturally has more in common with her white colleague, Neil, than she does with these Southern African-Americans. Through these tensions and interactions, Bambara suggests that black identity is more complex and multi-faceted than many people, black or not, realize.
The context of Inez and Neil's visit also helps to understand the tensions. In the 1950s and 1960s, many black blues musicians were sought out by record companies in this way. The question of exploitation was always controversial and present. Were these companies trying to reconnect with an American musical tradition, or simply trying to make a quick buck? The fact that the company sends a black woman and a white man might seem like a crass, calculated move to the Rider family. At the same time, these musicians, who had lost the agency to make money from their talents, were often desperate for the opportunity. The potential for exploitation made these encounters quite fraught, and full of suspicion and distrust on both sides.
However, Inez and the Riders ultimately bond over the elements of black identity that they do share.
Most African-American families who came to the United States before the Civil War have some ties to the American South. It has been years since Inez visited, but Mama Teddy’s Southern food reminds Inez of her childhood in Georgia, and allows her some common ground with the Riders. Despite their initial awkwardness, Inez and the Riders ultimately realize that they have some common ground, and Neil – who is nauseated by both Mama Teddy’s strongly-flavored food and the aura of cigarette smoke – is the one who is left out. Food is central towards this connection. Inez begins to relax into her surroundings when she becomes attracted to the smell of soul food, and Ham is far more jovial and loquacious when he can speak to her over dinner.
Perhaps more than any other story in the collection, “Mississippi Ham Rider” is informed by the fraught relationship between history and the present. Inez and the Riders are brought together by history – she goes South, to an economically stagnant community, to interview Ham about records he made in the 1920s. His career was destroyed by a combination of racism and the Great Depression, and he must live with that reality even though conditions have improved for black musicians over the years. At the beginning of the story, Inez judges the Riders for being “throwbacks” – that is, they have not done enough to distance themselves from the insularity and deprivation that African-American communities experienced in the past. However, Bambara also emphasizes the importance of upholding certain traditional elements of black culture, such as its music and cuisine. She suggests that these traditions allow African-Americans to relate to each other despite differences in their age and background.