Editor’s note: On Memorial Day morning, May 27, we awoke in the parking lot of the Isle of Capri Casino on the east bank of the Mississippi River. From Vicksburg to Greenville and now Lula, we availed ourselves of the well-paved hospitality of the American gambling industry. We’d accomplished the Mississippi Delta Casino Hat Trick. In that light, my descent into a swamp of self-loathing should come as little surprise. That funk worsened yesterday, when we passed through Friars Point without so much as stopping to the get out of the Behemoth and wave at a passing stranger.
I resolved to get off my ass today and do something. I only hoped I had the fortitude to follow through.
Like Robert Nighthawk, I am going back to Friars Point.
The rest of our Sunday expedition requires little telling. After passing through Friars Point like RV-bound ghosts, we found our way to U.S. 49 and followed it across the Mississippi into Arkansas.
Hello, Helena. We were there for the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 2003, when Becky made an end run on Pinetop Perkins‘ officious handler and secured me an interview. I still marvel at her intrepid insouciance.
Last night we wandered Helena in search of some vague something we didn’t find. We stopped at a supermarket and bought a bottle of wine. When we saw a sign for a Confederate cemetery, we thought it might offer an appropriately absurd setting for a Memorial Day lark.
We tried to find it. We got lost. We drove through some of the most distressing poverty we’d seen yet. I thought of James Agee and wondered what it must be like to be a man of substance.
And I thought of that rebel graveyard, wherever the hell is was. I imagined myself traipsing through a Confederate cemetery surrounded by a neighborhood full of poor black people.
I saw furtive eyes watching. I imagined they’d see me as an unrepentant white supremacist come to pay homage to the fallen defenders of slavery. I didn’t like what I saw. Not at all.
Of course I am a coward.
Perhaps this is the theme of the entire journey.
So we left Helena, returned to Mississippi and holed up at the Isle of Capri casino, which had been our operating base in 2003. We slept in Becky’s old Dodge Neon in this lot for three nights running.
On the second night, we cooked Cajun Sloppy Joe’s on our one-burner propane stove and dined in the comfort of folding chairs we’d bought at a Walmart in North Wilkesboro, N.C.
We were dining in savory bliss when a security truck rolled up next to us and stopped. The guard got out. We braced for his admonition.
But James Parks didn’t admonish us. He didn’t even tell us to leave. Instead he engaged us in delightful conversation. We talked blues. We talked Delta history. He encouraged us to visit Stovall Plantation, where Alan Lomax twice recorded Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress.
James Parks made our day. We were struck by his gentle manner and passion for the musical history of the Delta (which he admitted, is hardly a common trait among local blacks). I wondered what James was up to now.
But mostly, I couldn’t stop thinking about “Traveling Riverside Blues.”
Robert Johnson was a traveling man with a notorious weakness for female companionship. He had girlfriends all over the Delta and far beyond it. He sang about them all the time.
But his Friars Point woman, she was something else. She was a lusty siren who weakened his knees and haunted his mind.
She was the sexy vixen who held a mortgage on his body and a lien on his soul.
I got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee
I got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee
But my Friars Point rider, now, hops all over me
I mean, um, damn.
Who was this Mississippi Salome, this seductress who plagued the thoughts of one of popular music’s most iconic figures?
She’s one of the great temptresses of song, and she is lost to history.
In 1969, Led Zeppelin copped Johnson’s bawdiest line from “Traveling Riverside” lines for “The Lemon Song,” which further cemented this lascivious lass in the annals of pop culture.
Robert, you were a naughty fellow.
Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my …
(spoken: Till the juice runs down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talking’ about)
You can squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg
(spoken: That’s what I’m talking about now)
But I’m going back to Friars Point if I be rockin’ to my head
While I drove out of Friars Point yesterday, I started to become obsessed with this temptress. Being a light-weight dilettante, I hadn’t scoured the Johnson literature, but I don’t remember hearing about any researcher turning up a story about her.
I did a few mental calculations.
If she was 18 years old on June 20, 1937, when Johnson recorded “Traveling Riverside Blues” in Dallas, she was born in either 1918 or 1919. She would be in her mid-90s today.
It’s a long shot, but she might still be around. It was in the realm of possibility, from an actuarial standpoint.
If she were there to be found, it’s likely some industrious field researcher would have found her long ago. The Robert Johnson trail has become a lucrative if cutthroat business. But, what the hell?
If time has passed by Friars Point, at least the Mississippi hasn’t. Named for lumberman Robert Friar, it’s the only Delta town in Mississippi that hasn’t been cut off from the river. It still sits here, levee at its back, just like it has since 1836.
In the decades prior to the Civil War, Friars Point was a bustling steamboat port. When the war came, it was occupied by the Union and used as a staging ground for the assault on Vicksburg. Per Grant’s orders, General William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter met here in December of 1862, and 45 Union gunboats and some 20,000 troops followed.
We came into town the way we’d left it yesterday, through the back door. We turned off U.S. 1 onto Seepwater Road, which meanders through the countryside for a couple miles before it reaches Second Street at Friars Point.
When we got to the jacked-up cop car, I pulled over to take a look at the Mississippi Blues Trail marker across the street. It honors Nighthawk, who lived here for a time when he worked on a plantation owned by a man name John McKee. The marker is planted in front of the building that houses Hirsberg’s drugstore.
As an aside, I love me some Robert Nighthawk, if only for his preternaturally nasty slide guitar. Speaking of such, here’s one of my favorite videos, from “And This is Free,” Mike Shea’s 1964 exploration of Chicago’s Maxwell Street market, “And This is Free.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, crowds gathered on the sidewalk here to listen to Johnson, Nighthawk (aka Robert Lee McCoy and Robert Lee McCollum) and other itinerant blues musicians. Muddy Waters once saw Johnson play here, and according to the story was so intimidated by his skill that he got depressed and quickly left.
Part of this is included in this bit of hit-and-run history:
Muddy Waters recalled Robert Johnson drawing a huge crowd for a street corner performance in the 1930s, when Friars Point was a bustling center of river commerce and a weekend shopping mecca for residents of the countryside. Johnson also reportedly played at a local barrelhouse called the Blue and White Club, and on a 1937 recording, he sang, “Just come on back to Friars Point, mama, and barrelhouse all night long.”
It doesn’t mention anything, however, about lemon-squeezing or musician-hopping.
As I moved about tentatively to get a photo of the marker, a woman exited the door to the repair shop and called in my direction.
What the hell did she want?
She wanted to know if I wanted her to move her SUV so I could get a better picture. She introduced herself as Charlotte, and the daughter of the proprietor.
I told her not to worry but thanked her for being so solicitous of my needs. As she turned to go back in, I called out to her. I walked over and asked if she knew of any older women in Friars Point who might be able to provide me a bit of institutional history.
That was when she told me about Miss Nettie Greer. Said she was 95 or 96 and likely knew more than I could handle. She gave me directions to Miss Nettie’s house.
Fate has a way of smiling on me while engaging in simultaneous mockery. Humbled, I thanked Charlotte enthusiastically and walked back to the Behemoth.
Becky greeted me with some urgent news. Max needed to poop.
Damn. I lowered my head. I kicked at the curb with pointless impuissance. I surveyed the surroundings. Not a McDonald’s or Burger King in sight.
I knew what I must do. I must see Charlotte again.
I grabbed Max’s hand, crossed Second Street and poked my head inside the little store. Sure they had a bathroom, Charlotte said. Sure, Max could use it. She’s a real sweetheart.
And for the record, the bathroom, it was immaculate.
On the way out, we met her dad, Prophet Giles. That’s a major league name right there. Prophet Giles.
He looked at me, looked out the window, and looked at me again.
“That’s your RV?” he said with a sly grin. “I saw you yesterday.”
Prophet Giles was the guy in the tractor seat pulling that doublewide trailer into town.
After sizing up the limited stock of consumer goods, we bought a bag of artificially flavored, day-glo orange cheese puffs and a handful of Tootsie Rolls, thanked Charlotte for a third and final time and set out in search of Miss Nettie.
Of course I got lost. I circled her neighborhood two or four times before stopping to ask directions of two men engaged in a little Memorial Day yard work.
In less than a minute we parked on Alice Street in front of Nettie Greer’s house.
Less than a minute after that, we were face to face with 96-year-old Nettie Greer.
We shuffled up the short driveway and knocked on the front door. No answer. We went around to the kitchen door and knocked again.
The kitchen door opened and Miss Nettie came into view, a vision of defiant dignity and ageless beauty in a worn house frock.
I asked if she was Nettie Greer.
She nodded, smiled wanly and delivered some bad news.
“I’m not feeling well today,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to help you today. My blood pressure is sky high. I really can’t think well enough to help you today.”
My heart sank.
But it would rise again soon enough.
Because 90 minutes later, Miss Nettie was still standing in the same spot, propping herself against a wooden railing and talking as if she could keep talking till Labor Day if she had to.
And when we finally said goodbye, she wouldn’t let us go without plying Max with crackers and candy.
If getting old is hell, she did everything possible to make it seem heavenly.
“I’m on so many medicines,” she said, “they’re fighting each other.”
Miss Nettie said she was born out in the country, but allowed she knew a fair bit about Friars Point.
“I was born just a little out of Friars Point,” she said. “We didn’t move to town until ’26.”
Having come this far, I wasn’t going to shrink from my responsibilities now. I asked Miss Nettie if she’d met Robert Johnson or seen him playing outside Hirsberg’s or inside the Blue and White Club or some other juke joint.
“In my family in my day, the blues, it was a sin,” she said. “And I didn’t go anywhere like that. Some of ’em I heard out of town like if I was visiting in Chicago. In my day, blues was low-class. It was shunned by some people. In the ’20s and ’30s, people of high-quality didn’t fool with the blues. Back then it was just low-class music.”
I got the idea that her father, Will Greer, would have taken a dim view of Robert Johnson running around with his daughter.
Her dad worked as a sharecropper, but there was much, much more to Will Greer.
“My father had a lot talents that his parents didn’t recognize,” she said. “So they didn’t try to sacrifice to send him to school. He could tame any animal. As a boy, he built the boiler room at the cotton gin. He picked up old water pipes, stove pipes, tin cans and built the boiler room at the gin.
“My father was the first black alderman here.”
He was born Jake Greer, but he didn’t much like that name. So he rechristened himself and took the name of his father, Will Greer.
She told a story about the time her uncle, who was a river roustabout, shot and killed a white man on a boat.
Her eyes are blue, with a clarity that belies her age and more than a trace of mischief. She is 96 and sassy. Feisty. You probably have a hard time getting to 96 without a feisty streak.
“When I was a little child,” she said, “I could stand and fistfight any boy my size.”
She said her grandfather raised his sons to not take any crap from any man, regardless of skin color.
“His father had told him that you don’t have but one time to die, and if somebody come after you, they better have a cause,” she said. “You tell them they better have a cause to die, because you were born with one; you were born black. That’s the way their father raised them, and that’s the way my father raised me.”
I asked about her travels beyond the provincial world of the Delta.
“I worked in Detroit,” she said. “I helped make B-29s. I worked on the wing sections of B-29s. That wing was longer than this house. I tell people I helped make the Enola Gay. Someone told me once, ‘You joking, but you might have.’ Because just that wing tip was made in that section where I was. Parts were made all over the United States. So I helped make the Enola Gay.
“I quit a big bookkeeping job that was paying well because I wanted to work in the war effort. I had friends in Detroit, and two of them had invited me to come visit. I just settled down there.”
I ain’t goin’ to state no color but her front teeth crowned in gold
I ain’t goin’ to state no color but her front teeth is crowned in gold
She got a mortgage on my body, now, lien on my soul.
I was beguiled by Miss Nettie, almost so much that I neglected my mission. She might be sweet and beyond reproach, but I wasn’t going to let Miss Nettie get away without asking her about Robert Johnson one more time. Real bulldog reporter, I am.
What do you know about Robert Johnson and his Friars Point women, Miss Nettie?
She shook her head sadly. She’s not willfully ignorant of the blues tradition. She knows of Johnson and Nighthawk et. al and is conversant with their cultural significance, but she walked in another world. She grew up in the sacred tradition, her mother and father teaching her to sing shape notes.
As if to underscore the point, she looked behind her and pointed to the old brick Baptist Church looming over our shoulders.
“I directed a choir there for 40 years,” she said. “After a while it got so most of the music I didn’t like. I didn’t like that some of my people liked it. Shape music was changing. I couldn’t do what they were happy with, so I got out of the way.”
It was about time for us to get out of her way.
I wasn’t going to get any salacious dirt on the sexual life of Robert Johnson, but I was OK with that.
Miss Nettie, with an assist from Charlotte across town, had saved me from myself. I couldn’t thank her enough.
I thanked her anyway, and we climbed back into the Behemoth, followed Friars Point Road out to the Great River Road and headed back toward Clarksdale.
I no longer had the blues in the Delta.