Back in 1902, W.C. Handy sat just to the left of these tracks on a station platform that no longer exists, and heard a local musician slide a knife on the strings of his guitar and sing about “goin’ where the Southern crosses the Dog” (a reference to the Southern and ‘Yellow Dog’ railroad lines). Handy gave us our earliest written account of Delta Blues, a music that had clearly been developing as a regional style for some time.
Handy had a band in Clarksdale in 1902 and began incorporating the forms, rhythms and imagery of the blues in his compositions. Handy has been called ‘the father of the blues,’ although that is somewhat misleading. A quick and literate musician, Handy authored The St. Louis Blues, which remains a fundamental part of the jazz and blues canon. In this photo, we are looking in the direction that Handy was headed, north-northwest toward Clarksdale.
Chellie Lewis, the proprietor of the Queen of Hearts for decades, agreed to pose in front of his juke joint. As he straightened up for the picture, I said, “Now, Chellie, try to look better than you do!” He started to chuckle and I took this photo. Chellie said, “Most people say, ‘cheese.’” I said, “Yeah, man, that stuff don’t work any more.” We laughed and he invited me in.
This venerable joint is still operating in the Georgetown section of Jackson. It couldn’t be 20’ x 40’ inside, with a small corner of the room raised for the band, a bar on the side, and a pool table in the back.
Just across from the now-defunct Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination, I looked up to see these signs juxtaposed in the fading evening light.
The flat expanse of the Delta is relieved only by its low places – the oxbow lakes, froggy bottoms and cypress swamps where water gathers – or, closer to the river, by the height of its man-made levees. Over the past 15,000 years, the Mississippi has snaked its way all across the Delta, cutting and re-cutting its way through the silty topsoil on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Swamps like this dot the Delta and are evidence of a former path the river abandoned when a spring flood shifted its course.
I lingered in Friars Point through dusk and took this photograph as I was starting back to Clarksdale. Muddy Waters remembered seeing Robert Johnson play to a crowd in front of Hirsberg’s Drug Store in Friars Point sometime in the 1930s. Robert sang:
If your man gets personal,
Want to have your fun,
Just come on back to Friar’s Point, mama,
Barrel house all night long.
After years of struggling to control the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi, in 1877 the legislature established the Levee Board to raise funds, build and maintain levees along the river. All the levees are posted land, though some private roads cross them.
Hidden behind its levee, Friars Point was fairly ineffectively shelled during the Civil War by Union boats that couldn’t see the town from the river. Here the levee is seen from the main street, belying how vulnerable the town is to flooding. The structural and economic fragility of the town is evident everywhere.
The sun is just getting ready to break the horizon over the cypress swamp across from Stovall Plantation. This is a sight that Muddy Waters would have seen many a morning as he prepared to go to the fields. Muddy Waters was thirty years old when he finally took the plunge and – begging off work for the day – took the train out of Clarksdale for Chicago.
Mentioned in Robert Johnson’s Travelin’ Riverside Blues, Friars Point was a county seat until the white power structure abandoned it after being flooded out one too many times. It became a black river town. As of the 2000 census, the town remains more than 94% black.
In the days before mechanized cotton pickers, the length of a row of cotton could be daunting. Seeing the scale of the plantation fields in the Delta was sobering. Dragging a 9-15 foot cotton sack down rows that could be up to a mile long would make schoolwork look good.
Driving west toward Friars Point from the Stovall Plantation office and home place, I came upon the charred remains of this small house. The bark of the pines sixty feet from the house was blackened; the branches closest to the house singed and dead or dying. The chimney, a few bricks of the foundation and the three concrete steps were all that remained. For a house that had met such a violent end, the site was strangely quiet and peaceful.
This is the last remaining slave and sharecropper cabin along Friars Point Road on Stovall Plantation, eight miles north of Clarksdale. These cabins were built of first cut cypress logs that were split, hewn and fitted by hand. It was in a one-room cabin, about 400 yards south of here, that music researcher Alan Lomax found and recorded Muddy Waters in 1941 (Waters’ given name was McKinley Morganfield). Shortly after making and hearing these recordings – and following a dispute with the overseer about his hourly wage – Waters made up his mind to go to Chicago.
The Riverside is located on Sunflower Avenue on the western edge of the black part of Clarksdale long known as New Africa. The Riverside is currently run by Frank ‘Rat’ Ratliff. The front section of the hotel was the old negro hospital and is where Bessie Smith was brought on Sept. 26, 1937, after being badly injured in a car accident north of Clarksdale. Justifiably billed as ‘The Empress of the Blues,’ Smith died of blood loss and internal injuries within two hours of her arrival. The room where she died remains a shrine in the hotel.
Robert Johnson mentions hot tamales in his hokum blues tune They’re Red Hot, and this advertisement and atmosphere of this hallway caught my eye. Backing up on the Sunflower River, The Riverside costs a little more than the chain hotels in Clarksdale (and there’s a bathroom down the hall), but being befriended by the proprietor, Frank ‘Rat’ Ratliff and the history and creaky, wooden soul of the place are more than ample compensation. According to Rat, everyone at the Riverside is family.
This 10,000-acre plantation on the banks of the Sunflower River between Ruleville and Cleveland had its own church and sawmill and is widely regarded as one of the significant birthplaces of the Delta Blues. Just over 25 miles east-southeast of Rosedale on Highway 8, Dockery Farms is where Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf all met and fell under the spell of a first-generation Delta Blues original, Charley Patton.
Driving out of Memphis, I glanced into my rear view mirror and pulled over to take this picture.
The second floor space above King’s was the home for the Hooks Brothers’ Photography Studio when Robert Johnson had his formal portrait taken. Begun by Henry A. Hooks Sr. and his brother Robert B. Hooks in 1907, the studio was first located on Main Street then moved here to 164 Beale St. where it remained for more than 40 years.
The studio subsequently moved to Linden Avenue, where the Hooks School of Photography operated, and finally settled at 979 East McLemore St. in the 1970s. Hooks Brothers’ remained in the family and operated throughout most of the 20th century. By the time it closed, it was the second oldest black-owned business in Memphis.
The downtown business district of Tunica retains much of the character and architecture that it would have had when Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines were playing the joints here. The colorful decay and the evening light on this corner at the tail end of a storefront on the main street caught my eye. It’s right across the street from the Tunica Police Department.
This part of downtown Greenwood is essentially unchanged since the days when Robert Johnson was walking the streets here, except that it is now virtually deserted, day and night.
Robert Johnson had a rented room in the Baptist Town section of Greenwood and, after allegedly being poisoned by a juke joint owner, Johnson was carried to a little house in this neighborhood where he lingered for a few days. The revered actor (and blues fan) Morgan Freeman – founder and co-owner of Ground Zero blues club in Clarksdale – was born in Baptist Town in 1937. Robert Johnson died there in 1938.
Some enterprising entrepreneurs have bought, moved, stabilized (and air-conditioned) a number of sharecropper’s cabins, a commissary building and a general store to create Tallahatchie Flats outside of Greenwood. Situated next to the Tallahatchie River, you can move in here ‘for a day, a week or a month’ and sleep just a few miles from where Robert Johnson went to his eternal rest.
Moved three times and now in serious need of stabilizing and restoration, this is the house in which Robert Johnson was born to Julia Major Dodds. Julia’s husband Charles, a well-established carpenter and furniture builder, built this house for their large family. An altercation with local whites caused Charles to flee Hazlehurst under cover of night. He left Julia behind with their ten children, hoping she could hold onto the house.
Charles settled in Memphis under the alias C.D. Spencer and took a mistress. Over time, Julia secreted the older children up to live with them. For company and protection, she took up with a local sharecropper, Noah Johnson, who became Robert’s father. Shortly after his birth, she lost the house and slipped with Robert and her younger children into the migrant labor camps of the Delta.
Mrs. Rosie Eskridge, a lifetime member of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, remembered that as a young wife she brought water to her husband, Tom, as he was digging Robert Johnson’s grave in this church yard. That mid-August afternoon, Johnson’s body lay in the shade while Tom dug the grave. Mrs. Eskridge did not approve of Johnson’s music. She wasn’t pleased to have the bluesman buried in their churchyard and never much spoke of nor sought to profit from her knowledge. For these reasons, Little Zion has come to be thought of as the most reliable final resting place for this Delta Blues legend.
One of the reasons that contemporary church members are less than pleased to have Johnson in their sparse little cemetery is that his grave has become an impromptu shrine for blues pilgrims who drink on the property, leave personal trinkets, guitar picks, empty liquor and beer bottles at the gravestone.
The handwritten note reproduced here on the headstone was found in the papers of Carrie Dodds (Spencer) Thompson, one of Julia’s younger children and Robert’s half-sister who remained with their mother when the family was torn apart in 1909. Carrie helped raise her little brother Robert as Julia moved through the labor camps of the Delta.
The photographs in this exhibit were taken in April, 2010, as Blues musician Scott Ainslie was touring through the fabled Mississippi Delta.
In Ainslie's Delta Blues Pilgrimage you'll find twenty-five photos including the railroad tracks in Tutwiler, MS where in 1902, W. C. Handy (the self-titled “The Father of the Blues”) first heard a black guitarist sliding a knife on the strings of a guitar. Handy published the first formal Blues hit and gave us our earliest written account of the Delta Blues.
The iconic Dockery Farms plantation building, some miles east of Rosedale, MS, represents the plantation where Delta Blues originator Charley Patton (1891?-1934) influenced three generations of Blues musicians.
Ainslie also happened on the full moon floating over Friars Point, a black river community that was formerly a county seat but was abandoned by the white power structure after being flooded out too many times: the scene of Robert Johnson’s signature Travelin’ Riverside Blues
You'll get a private glimpse inside Robert Johnson’s birth house in Hazlehurst, MS, a fragile and dilapidated structure that is a quarter million dollars away from being restored and is not yet open to the public.
The exhibit will be hung at Aegis Artworks in the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro for viewing the weekend of December 2-4. It is available for showings by arrangement with the artist.
Signed matted 10 x 14 prints, ready for an 18 x 22" frame are available at the show or on this site.