To be joyous is to be a madman
in a world of sad ghosts.
William Faulkner once said, “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” It’s the poorest state in the country. A state still racially divided and segregated in a way. A state with excess crops and rampant hunger. It’s a place where the sins of yesterday loiter in the soil and the white-porticoed mansions sit majestically behind cotton fields that whisper untold truths.
So with crazy hearts and an insatiable hunger for freedom, myself and two friends set out to discover this land. We wanted to understand the world as Faulkner knew it. We wanted to step inside the America of yesterday, a land unscathed by the heavy hand of modernity. With only backpacks on and minimal packing, we left Orlando, flew into Memphis, rented a car and headed down into the depths of the Mississippi Delta, the most southern place on earth.
The delta region of Mississippi is in the western part of the state. It pushes up against the Mississippi River, all the way up to Memphis and down to Vicksburg. It’s an area known for its fertile soil, luscious crops and extreme poverty. Some of the areas remind you of a third world country with its dilapidated shacks, horrific schools, and its abundance of nothingness.
And it was here, where the sun brutalized the backs of African Americans who labored furiously in the cotton fields, that the mysterious sounds of the blues were discovered in the early part of the 20th century. W.C. Handy, the man who discovered and popularized delta blues music, once said, “The blues did not come from books. Suffering and hard luck were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching hearts.”
Our plan was to just be there. Breathe it in. Experience it first hand. No plans. We wanted to wander under the ruthless sun, drift down deserted dirt roads, sip paper-bagged whiskey with old men in front of corner stores, ramble in midnight juke joints and fall asleep in old dilapidated shacks set deep in the cut away from it all.
In the land of Faulkner, under the endless sky, we wanted to be there, madly alive, gloriously hungover, living life like a poem.
So after buying a styrofoam cooler and cold beer from the Quick Stop, we threw the windows down and turned the radio up, and headed down legendary Highway 61. This highway is just a stone’s throw from where the great blues singers like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and BB King were born. They traveled up and down this road with a guitar in hand, spreading the most hauntingly beautiful music known to man.
It was in this flat fertile land of emptiness, on the banks of the muddy Mississippi, that these poverty-stricken musicians changed music forever.
With the tires spinning on the hot asphalt and the seedy part of Memphis passing behind us, the view opened up and the horizon smiled as we sailed further south. There were soybean fields for miles and stalks of corn reaching up for the heavens on both sides of the road.
Our first stop was The Gateway to the Blues Visitors Center off Highway 61. It’s an old rustic train depot dated back to 1895. We parked and grabbed a few beers from the cooler and sat and admired the place awhile. It’s old Americana at its finest. We didn’t feel like paying for the museum tour and the sun was too violent to hang around the parking lot, so after a few photos, we shot over to the Hollywood Cafe in Tunica.
The Hollywood Cafe is where pianist Muriel Wilkins performed for years, and it’s the place immortalized in the Marc Cohn hit song “Walking in Memphis.” We stopped in and ate the most divine fried pickles you’d ever tasted, washed it down with a beer and continued south.
The endless black asphalt sliced through infinite fields of green that finally led us just outside of Greenwood to our shack. Tallahatchie Flats is a little field sprinkled with old shotgun shacks that you can rent.
A young woman, long dark hair, wearing jean overalls and a white tank top with a bandana on her head, gave us the key.
She says, “welcome to the Delta, you guys will be shackin’ up at the one on the end there”, as she pointed down the dirt path. “I live right here in the back if ya’ll need anything, just gimme a call anytime.” I told her we appreciated the hospitality.
We opened the weathered door to our shack and walked into the rustic world of yesterday. Beautiful art and old photographs plastered the wall. The floors creaked when you walked. There was a vintage radio in the back playing old jazz and blues. We threw our stuff inside, opened a cold beer, sat on the porch and looked out over the fields of eternity.
After we got settled we headed down the road to an old white church where Robert Johnson’s grave lies… allegedly.
Robert Johnson is one of the most legendary bluesmen in the world. We know very little about his life and there are only two pictures of him that remain today.
Born in 1911, Johnson grew up in the delta region and was obsessed with playing the guitar. According to accounts of other bluesmen of the day, like Son House, he wasn’t any good. But after a 6-month hiatus, Johnson returns with his guitar from God knows where, and shocks everyone with his phenomenal guitar picking. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play.
Robert Johnson became a big shot around the delta. He was charismatic, talented beyond measure, and liked to sip that whiskey and holler at the women.
One hot, late summer night, as the moon hung high over the delta, Robert was in an old Juke playing some tunes. The owner of the place, drunk with jealousy, found out that his woman had been messin’ around with Robert. So the man put a poison-laced pint of corn whiskey on the chair next to Johnson as he played. After Johnson took a few intense pulls he shortly became sick and died a few days later. He was only 27 years old.
We sat a while, sipping on that brown water, talking about Johnson and the enigma that shrouds his life and music. Then the sun dropped over the horizon giving birth to another mosquito infested summer night. We went back to our shack to get ready for what it had to offer.
We headed out to the only bar in town called Webster’s. It’s set up like a comfy little house, full of southern charm, with seating throughout. There’s a nice mahogany bar in the middle and a back patio where the band plays. We sat and enjoyed ourselves a while, hitting the whiskey, chasing it with beer and getting lost in the music.
On the way back to our shack we crossed over the 230 mile Tallahatchie River. This muddy river was made famous in Bobby Gentry’s 1967 song, ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ In the song, she sings about ole Billie Joe and how he committed suicide off the Tallahatchie Bridge. It’s a lyrical poem with underlying meanings, embodying the southern gothic style so prevalent in these parts.
We stopped right there on the bridge.
In early June, in the dead of night, drunk on life, yearning to be lost, the moon bleeding its glow onto the muddy river, so quiet, so mysterious. We were there.
No one was around. The road was desolate. The endless fields were swallowed by the abyss of darkness. It was here that we played the song from our car radio. And as the lyrics seeped out and flooded the delta, we sat on top of the bridge with a beer in hand while the muddy river calmly flowed beneath us.
It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door
“y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
The first day deep in the delta captured our souls. The history, the mystery, and the scenery are all a part of us now. We arrived back at the shack, tired and worn out from the day’s ramblin’. The midnight stars danced in the dark as the crickets sung harmoniously, competing with the old blues station playing in the background. We fell asleep to the sounds of it all.
Stay tuned for part 2. We hit the road for an epic road trip around the whole delta region, meeting some wild characters, including a legendary bluesman. We also thought we were going to die.