Road Trip, Part Two
My friend Doug and I shoved off from Tuscaloosa around 8:30 Wednesday morning, headed for Mississippi Delta country. Our first detour off Highway 82 West was to swing through Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, but honestly we never saw any evidence of a university in Starkville. We decided it must be some scam to rip off federal funds. I did eat Duck Butter at a downtown café, but did not buy any to bring home. We decided to never stop in Starkville again.
We made tracks pretty good on Highway 82 until we hit Indianola, the home of BB King. We toured the BB King Museum, which not only tells all about BB, but it also depicts a lot about the culture of that area for much of the 20th century.
BB’s real name was Riley King, but after he went to Memphis, he was known as the Little Blues Boy, then Blues Boy, then BB. He initially played both gospel and blues music. But when he played gospel, the crowd would just holler “Amen” and “Hallelujah,” but when he played the blues, they would give him money. That explains why he never made it big in the gospel music business.
What prompted him to run off to Memphis was when he wrecked his employer’s tractor. He skipped town and went to Memphis to avoid the farmer’s wrath. The rest is history. Once a year BB still returns to Club Ebony near the museum as part of the BB King Homecoming Festival sponsored by the Indianola Chamber of Commerce.
We proceeded on a part of the blues trail and stopped next in Dunleith, the home of one of my favorite bluesmen, Jimmy Reed, who is famous for “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” and “Baby, You Don’t Have to Go.”
Just down the road we toured the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, which probably has as much blues history associated with this little town as any other place its size in the Delta. In 1908 Leland was called the “Hellhole of the Delta” because of so much gambling, saloons, and wild revelry. It is also the home of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and hence, the birthplace of Kermit the Frog. It is the home of a Congressional Medal of Honor winner (Korean War). Also a part of the movie Brother, O Where Art Thou? starring George Clooney was filmed there. And the history goes on. Wonderful murals are all over many exterior walls of the historic buildings downtown. This is the place I want to go back to, first chance.
Doug and I have learned that the most interesting places to visit are those you stumble upon, not the museums or other places listed in the tourist brochures. This happened to us in the little town of Rosedale, very close to the Mississippi River. As we headed through the town on Highway 1 North, I spotted a very small, very old, shack sitting on the side of the road. It had a painted white front and a sign that … of all things … said “White Front Café” and a sign for tamales. I passed it by at first, but when I asked Doug, Exactly, what is a tamale?” he indicated he didn’t really know either. So we turned around and returned to the White Front Café.
Parked outside was an old bicycle that looked as though it had collided with a garbage truck. It was decorated with all things shiny. We spooked the three black ladies working inside when they saw Doug and me walk through the door. Soon, we were chomping down on great tamales, about fifty cents each, and enjoying delightful conversation with these ladies, who were processing hundreds of tamales.
“I thought tamales was a Mexican food,” I said to one of them.
“Yes, it may have come out of Mexico way back, but as you can see … we are not Mexicans.”
Another interesting thing I learned from my sometimes friend, Mose Cotton, about tamales and the Delta. In 1928 Robert Johnson, one of the most famous bluesmen of all time, wrote a blues Delta song entitled “Hot Tamales” about “a gal, she’s long and tall, sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall … got tamales for sale, red hot, two for a nickel, and four for a dime…” Tamales have been a part of the Delta for a long time.
Rosedale was also mentioned in a version of another Robert Johnson classic, “Crossroads” by the hit group Cream. “Going down to Rosedale…” Lots of British bands were inspired and based their career on old blues songs.
Somewhere between Greenville and Helena we saw signs for casinos and followed them to their logical conclusion—two riverboats anchored side by side and folks inside giving their money away. These were not the fancy casinos at Tunica and not the Isle of Capri near Helena. These casinos were for the desperate. The parking lots, perhaps a hundred cars in each lot, were full of old, worn cars and trucks. No sport cars, Or Mercedes, or BMWs here. Inside Doug and I found the place to be choking with cigarette smoke, and the racial composition was about ninety percent black and a few whites. There was a look of despair and sadness on every face I saw.
I sat down at a blackjack table with a live dealer. I was the only player and won about $50 in ten minutes, so I quit and went to the cashier cage to redeem my chips. I stood in line twenty minutes behind others trying to arrange credit with the casino. I was the only person I saw cashing in chips. Doug and I left, feeling sorry for these people.
For the first time, we crossed the Mississippi River. It was around dusk, but we were bound and determined to at least ride through historic Helena, Arkansas before we backtracked to Clarksdale for the night. There were magnificent buildings lining both sides of historic downtown, but the vast majority of these were empty. You couldn’t help but ask, “Where are all the people?” And the simple truth is that most are long-dead, and many of the rest moved away decades ago.
I would love to revive one of these old, classic, colorful buildings into a bar, a restaurant, a club, and a few have been restored and are being used. But it is painfully obvious that without people, these buildings represent little more than what one writer called “pleasing decay.” I guess it’s like looking at the beautiful face of a ninety-year-old woman who has lived a full, long and happy life.
Helena is associated with King Biscuit radio and once a year has a King Biscuit festival. In the early days, King Biscuit radio was as important to the blues as Grand Ole Opry was the country music. In the last few years, the festival was forced to change its name to the Arkansas Arts and Blues Festival.
All in a day, we experienced customs, culture, the greats in history, the pleasing decay, and history meeting modern day.
Keith Murphy is a twice-divorced, thrice-married senior citizen, born and raised in Georgia. He got his education on a South Georgia farm during Jim Crow days, as well as a BA and law degree from the liberal, liberal arts university, Mercer, located in Macon.
He has a daughter that is a lawyer, a son who is a jet pilot, a dog named Merle, and his first wife is happily married to a wonderful guy, named Mike.
Keith retired from a lucrative law practice several years ago, recently went busted a la real estate, and now concentrates on having fun, espescially nurturing his Cooter Brown Emporium business in the scenic north Georgia mountains.
His most recent loves are his new Brazilian wife, and the Delta blues.
Editor's Note: Keith Murphy recently took a roadtrip from Blairsville, Georgia, through Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Memphis, and then back home to Georgia. This is an accurate account of his trip, so he claims.