Editor’s note: We spent Memorial Day weekend traveling the Mississippi Delta, from Vicksburg in the south to Friars Point in the north. Robert Johnson, he had women in Vicksburg and he had women clean on up into Tennessee. Had a lot of women, Robert did. That’s what killed him (probably).
We drove into Vicksburg on Friday night. On Saturday we visited the national military park, which was swarmed with visitors in the middle of its 150th anniversary celebration. We left Vicksburg in the afternoon and paid our respects to the late, great and totally insane Rev. H.D. Dennis, and continued north.
By evening we were in Greenville, the Queen City of the Delta. That’s where we were when the sun came up on Sunday morning.
Greenville, Miss., Sunday, May 26
The sun slants through the Behemoth’s careworn blinds, hatching shadows on the floor and calling our attention to a fine Sunday morning in the parking lot of Greenville’s Trop Casino.
The Trop, which sits just north of the Greenville levee, is modest by the standards of 21st century American gaming emporiums. It has, however, resolved to shed its modesty.
Just last week, the Greenville City Council approved the casino’s plan for a $10-$12 million expansion.
Just next to the casino, on the bank where 580 slot machines will spin and whirl and dash the hopes of small-time gamblers, a bloated fish had washed ashore.
I thought of old friends in the newspaper industry.
Just up the hill, over the levee and across Walnut Street, sits a Victorian-era brick building with arched windows on the second floor. Some of the 20th century’s most inspirational journalism was crafted in that building at the corner of Main and Walnut.
Louisiana transplant Hodding Carter Jr., with Greenville literary squire William Alexander Percy prominent among his financial backers, came here in 1936 and launched a newspaper called the Delta Star. Two years later they purchased the 70-year-old Democrat Times and merged the two papers into one.
Carter set up shop here along Greenville’s Cotton Row, rolled up his sleeves and picked a fight with his time and place. Fight, nothing.
More like a riverboat brawl that lasted a generation.
With little regard for his own well-being or that of his family, Carter challenged the tyrannical code of white supremacy that dominated life in the Deep South. His voice was an unflinching, combative plea for decency amid the Mississippi maelstrom.
Carter had established a pugnacious reputation before he got to Greenville. He entered journalism in 1931, starting a newspaper in his hometown of Hammond just to take on Huey Long’s political juggernaut in Louisiana.
His work at the Delta Democrat Times impressed outsiders and enraged neighbors. In 1946, his editorials urging racial tolerance in the wake of the war against fascism earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1955, he exposed the rise of a latter-day Ku Klux Klan movement called the White Citizens’ Council in the pages of Look magazine. He was lacerated on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives, which denounced his article as a “willful lie by a nigger-loving editor” and voted 89-19 to censure him.
Carter responded by writing a caustic editorial and putting it on the front page. It is powerful stuff.
On being branded a liar by the Legislature, Carter wrote:
If this charge were true it would make me well qualified to serve with that body. It is not true. So to even things up I herewith resolve by a vote of 1-0 that there are 89 liars in the State Legislature …”
He concluded with gleeful defiance:
Those 89 character mobbers can go to hell collectively or singly and wait there until I back down. They needn’t plan on returning.
It is hard to fathom the courage required to take on the Jim Crow establishment in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Carter lived under constant threat of violence, received a constant flood of hate mail and was burned in effigy at least once.
His retort to the latter was typically acerbic. He noted that even such a transparent act of terror signaled progress for Mississippi, which not so long ago burned real people.
Carter’s war was not planned. As his son wrote, his backers had no reason to suspect “they were subsidizing a traitor to the white race.”
We are in Greenville, where Main Street Meets the River, which is the title of Hodding Carter Jr.’s memoir. At least I thought it did. Greenville, like most Delta towns, has been cut off from the river. It sits on the east bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake abandoned by an old channel of the Mississippi.
The river, nonetheless, remains the soul of Greenville. There are many rivers in the Delta, but only one river.
The Mississippi, Percy wrote, is the “shifting, unappeasable god of the country.”
You have to wonder what Percy thought of Carter’s point of view. A planter as well as poet, he was certainly no rebel. My jaw still hangs agape after reading his explanation of the slave power’s migration to the Delta’s rich bottomlands from the Carolinas and Virginia:
“Slaveholders began to look for cheap fertile lands farther west so they could feed the many black mouths dependent on them.”
Yes, pity the poor planters. Struggle they did against the indifferent whimsy of man and nature, and with so many mouths to feed!
Yes, life was pleasant in old Greenville, as long as you fed all those hungry mouths. His description of the gay twirl of social life reads like an endless summer of Virginia reels and Spanish Waltzes aboard an elegant Mississippi River steamship.
“Each trip was like a grand house-party, with dancing and gambling and an abundance of Kentucky whisky and French champagne,” Percy rhapsodized. “The ladies (who never partook of these beverages – maybe a sip of champagne), were always going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or to shop or to hear the opera …”
How fine a lifestyle. Kentucky bourbon, French champagne and
regular cruises down the river to New Orleans.
Schelben Park is a nice, little greenspace wedged between casino and levee. The Trop’s expansion will convert half the park into a parking lot. But that will be then. This is now.
Now we sat on the pavilion stage and ate our cereal. If not for the mosquitoes, we might have lingered longer.
At a nearby picnic table, a middle-aged black couple held hands and talked quietly. Across the way, a young black man sat alone by the water’s edge, consolating his mind and writing in a notebook.
Greenville long had a reputation as a cosmopolitan sort of place. They called it the “Athens of the Delta.” Everybody from Greenville,” poet Charles G. Bell once wrote, wanted to be a writer.”
Greenville is a lovely name for a city, redolent of summer sunshine and gentle, rolling hills. You can find Greenville in any southern state.
In fact, you can find Greenville just about anywhere. It is the most popular town name in the country. There are 49 Greenvilles in 47 states. New York has three of them.
It was time to say goodbye to Greenville, Miss.
With Becky and Max in the back of the Behemoth, I eased out of the casino lot, determined to take advantage of the self-guided tour of the Delta’s “Queen City.”
At Washington and Poplar, adjacent to a vacant lot, a plaque reports Stein Mart got its start here. I had no idea. I had never heard of Stein Mart until we stumbled across one at the Frisco Bridges Mall outside Dallas in 2003. I always thought it was a Texas thing.
A Russian immigrant named Sam Stein opened a department store here in 1908, the year William Alexander Percy graduated from Harvard.
I turned left onto brick-lined Main Street and past the ionic columns of the First National Bank Building.
Three blocks up on the right, at 341 Main, is the William Alexander Percy Library. A sidewalk plaque honors Greenville’s literary sons. Up the street and to the left, the Gothic Revival spire of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church reaches for the heavens.
A little farther to the east, the onion-domed Hebrew Union Congregation offers handsome evidence of the town’s once- thriving Jewish community.
Yes, Greenville, you were a radiant beauty in your day.
We left the downtown and drove through the unsightly sprawl on the edge of Greenville. I made it back to the Great River Road, aka U.S. 1, a fool in search of a story. I am battling another of my too-frequent funks. Just driving and looking and talking to no one.
We passed through Rosedale, where Robert Johnson liked to go with his rider by his side, without showing much curiosity.
At the tiny town of Sherard we hung a right on Mississippi 322 and made an easterly detour toward Clarksdale.
We hooked up with U.S. 61 south of town and stopped for gas. I struck up a conversation with the guy on the other side of the pump. Actually, he struck up a conversation with me.
Louis Millen was on his way to work. He’s a manager at a nearby AutoZone. He’s from Drew, about 30 miles south of Clarksdale.
“You know who’s from Drew, don’t you?” he said.
I couldn’t recall, so he smiled broadly, whipped out his smart phone and pulled up a picture of a button inscribed with “Archie from Drew.” Archie from Drew is former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning, patriarch of the Manning quarterback dynasty.
We talked a little about the Delta’s rich musical heritage and the way it has become a viable tourist industry. He nodded his head and grimaced.
“I’d like to find some way to get in on it,” he said. “All those old posters of Little Richard and everyone that people used to staple to telephone poles back in the ’50s and ’60s, I wish I’d ripped them down and kept them.”
He said his great-grandfather went to the University of Mississippi and was friends with Will Dockery, who started the plantation on the Sunflower River that turned into a breeding ground for the Delta blues. Among other notables, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf all lived there at one time or another.
I asked Louis about corn.
I have neglected to mention the agricultural craze that has swept over the Delta. The last time we were here, in the fall of 2003, cotton was still a ubiquitous sight.
It’s gone now.
King Cotton is dead, killed by the great usurper, King Corn.
Speaking of cotton … We interrupt this mess to bring you a nostalgic interlude from Oct. 13, 2003, Holly Ridge, Miss.
We wandered through a potter’s field next to a cotton gin in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a harvest moon to guide our way looking for Charley Patton’s grave stone. Charley Patton, the earthiest of the great Delta blues signers.
We had spent an hour at the darkened grocery store up the street, in what one website had called “beautiful downtown Holly Ridge.” I thought this odd, but didn’t think far enough to realize it was total sarcasm. We drove up to the store, its one gas pump silent, its windows protected from vandalism by metal bars. We stopped because of the two very friendly dogs on the grounds. Becky called her folks while a semi loaded with pallets of cotton (about 40,000 pounds per, we were to learn) turned the corner and roared up the dark road in front of us.
I really thought this trip worthwhile because the website said it was next to a cotton gin. Now, I read about Eli Whitney in school but I really had no conception of what the hell a cotton gin looked like or, you know, is.
So we went up the road, all dark except for this cotton plant that was humming in 24-hour-a-day overdrive during harvest season.
We found a lumpy, soggy field with tombstones scattered about in haphazard fashion, put on our flashers and got out of the car. We stumbled dumbly, fearfully.
Next thing we know, we’re on top of a fresh grave. It is the eternal home of Jesse James Wilson, born July the 4th, 1918, and died Oct. 3 (only 10 days prior to our walkabout), 2003.
This guy was alive and maybe even well on Sept. 15, when we set out from Bremerton. A trifle eerie, under a half-hearted moonlight, next to the occasional silhouetted figure strolling about the cotton factory.
Then, a voice pierced the darkness. I jumped a little. I could barely make out what the voice said, but I thought I heard “Charley Patton?”
A truck driver, named Jesse Kimber. Nice guy, 39-year-old man from right across Highway 82 who works as a truck driver during the day and moonlights hauling cotton in harvest season. He told us that each pallet (you see them along the sides of the highways in the Delta, waiting for pickup) carries about 40,000 pounds (at about $1 a pound) of “white gold,” which is good for 17 or 18 bales. Jesse pointed us in the direction of Patton’s tombstone and suggested we might come over afterward and check out the cotton gin.
We stumbled out through the wetlands in the direction of the stone he had pointed out. We first found the grave of another musician who had died somewhat recently. Can’t recall his name now, but I do recall the description on the stone:
Anyway, we found Charley Patton, whose been dead since 1934, and drove over to the gin. We went in and chatted with Mike Davis, the guy in charge. He’s 47 and has been working there 29 years.
Now that I think of it, I can’t really say we chatted.
The ginning machines kick up such an infernal, Dickensian racket that I had to scream each question directly into Mike’s ear. My voice was hoarse for the rest of the night. And we were only in there about 15 minutes.
Mike, who’s black, said the Holly Ridge gin (owned by the Roberston family, who are white) gins about 650 bales of cotton each day. And each bale weighs 450 pounds.
Look away, Dixieland.
Where was I? Corn. Yes, corn.
Everywhere you look on this fabled floodplain, there is corn. It’s a plague on the landscape.
That corn has migrated from its rightful place on the Great Plains and sprung up everywhere owes to the controversial government policy subsidizing ethanol production.
Probably it’s misleading to characterize ethanol subsidies as controversial.
Most people agree they are a terrible idea. Even the Koch brothers are against ethanol subsidies that cost taxpayers $6 billion a year.
I’ll try not to wade into the debate, though it appears corn ethanol is at best no better for the environment than gasoline. And with two in every five bushels of corn getting converted into ethanol, the supply of food corn falls while the price rises, having potentially calamitous consequences for people around the globe.
But corn, it’s all the rage. In 2007, the acreage of farmland devoted to corn skyrocketed all over the Delta, surging 188 percent in Mississippi. In this case, the eyes don’t lie.
There are other environmental pitfalls for places as far away the Gulf of Mexico.
But I am no scientist, lobbyist or activist. I am concerned with the death of cotton and and the visual transformation of old Dixieland. I am all about the superficial.
I asked Louis Millen about all this.
“People sold all their cotton equipment and put the money in CDs,” he said, “just in case they ever need to buy it back again.”
Well, Louis had to get back to work. We drove around Clarksdale a bit and then headed back toward the Great River Road.
I wanted to visit Friars Point.
Robert Johnson had a girlfriend there. If his 1937 recording “Traveling Riverside Blues” can be trusted, this girl was one real hot mama.
And so we retraced our steps on 322 and turned north on U.S. 1. We traveled north for eight or nine miles before turning left on Friars Point Road, a narrow path through endless rows of corn.
There’s not much about Friars Point that doesn’t look depressing. Sagging roofs, caving walls, peeling paint, vacant homes. The whole catastrophe.
It appears frozen in the 1970s, overrun with poverty and broken lives. As of the 2000 census, 44 percent of its people lived below the poverty line. That was before the economy cratered.
Suddenly I didn’t know what the hell I was doing here. For the past 50 years or more, white kids have been crisscrossing the Delta in search of a connection to the old, dangerous blues. Here I was, age 50, at age 50, slipping through Friars Point with my head down.
Because make no mistake, them blues, they are dangerous. For suburban white boys of my vintage, it was a matter of proper socialization. At least suburban white boys who grew up along Philadelphia’s Main Line.
I recall the summer of 1970, when I was 7, the last year the Phillies played their home games at Connie Mack Stadium in north Philadelphia. The neighborhood at 21st and Lehigh had grown impoverished and inhospitable.
We had plans to attend a game and see the old park before the wrecking ball came for it, but we chickened out at the last minute.
The neighborhood was just too dangerous.
In the time and place where I grew up, boys like me were conditioned to fear black people. Or at least be fearful of places where black people outnumbered white people.
I’m not saying it was deliberate program of inculcation and alienation. It just was.
And a vestigial piece of this fear still darkens the underbelly of my soul. It is all quite reptilian. Did I feel uneasy as we meandered though Friars Point in our big, oh-so-white motorhome?
Yes I did.
It’s painful to confess, but it’s true.
So we drove into down, then drove out of town.
On Second Street, the main drag, we passed the police station, then an auto repair shop without a sign. Out front was a cop car hoisted on a jack, it’s hood open, awaiting a mechanic.
It was an odd sight, strangely refreshing.
Outside of Friars Point proper stands the “Minie Ball House,” the oldest structure in down. It dates to 1850 and served as Union headquarters during the build-up to the Vicksburg campaign.
It got struck by a mine ball fired from a naval ship, though I’m uncertain if it was fired by a Union or Confederate vessel.
As we got back into the country, angling east toward the Great River Road, I sank into a stew of self-loathing.
At one point I had to move over and stop to allow a wide load to get though the narrow passage. Two pickups were sandwiched around a doublewide trailer pulled by a man on an old farm tractor.
That was as close as I came to interacting with my fellow humans.
We had traveled the entire length of the Mississippi Delta, more than 150 miles from Vicksburg to Friars Point, and I had come out empty.
Something had to change.