The Delta Blues Legend Tour
Breakfast in the hotel is OK for what I wanted. There’s no late checkout though and as I’ve still not resolved the ‘boot problem’ on the car, and don’t want to leave my bags on view inside the car, I’ve got to take them on the tour. Sylvester arrives at 9.30 am in his banged-up pick-up truck, broken windscreen and all. I put my bags on the back seat and off we go. A personal 1-to-1 tour this morning!
Sylvester’s very interested in the UK but knows very little about it. Over the course of the morning he quizzes me about it quite a lot. However, as I thought last night, he’s an absolutely genuine guy (and everything in double quotes whilst in Greenwood are Sylvester’s actual words, not mine). On the tour he tells it the way it was “back in the day”, explaining that “for blacks in the Delta this means the 1920s and 30s”. But he’s not got a chip on his shoulder about those times. He says his philosophy is, “we’re here where we are now, we deal with it and get on with life; we don’t forget, we never forget, but we move forward and look to the future”.
Sylvester tells me about the history of Greenwood, explaining that it is an almost exclusively African American town and community, as are most of the surrounding areas in this part of the Delta. “You won’t see many white folks around here”, he tells me as we drive over to the district where his store is. The district is called Baptist Town and it’s a very poor neighbourhood. We go for a walk around and everyone we meet is really friendly, all the locals waving at Sylvester or stopping to chat. His original store was the local plantation gang-hand boss’ house back in the ’20s but a few years ago his PC caught fire and it burnt out inside.
He lost around $300,000… wow, tough break. But he picked himself up and bought another house a few yards up the road and turned that into a store. Most if not all of the houses here are shotgun houses, a one room house that runs from front to back. He takes me into the house next door to his store in which he showed me the treasure trove of relics he’s collected from the past 90 years or so. He hopes to open it to the public as a ‘Back in the Day’ museum in the future, documenting life as it was then.
Morgan Freeman, the actor, lived in Baptist Town as a child. Sylvester says they’ve tried on many occasions to try and get him back to visit and get involved with the community somehow but all attempts have failed. “He doesn’t seem interested in his roots here any more” says Sylvester, clearly disappointed.
“I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away” *
Sylvester’s dad made moonshine – boil up corn, sugar and water if you want to try for yourself – and Sylvester helped him make it when he was a kid. One of his dad’s customers was a certain Robert Johnson. Yes, that Robert Johnson. Sylvester met him a few times and listened intently as RJ told him stories of his travels around the Delta… He says that despite some change in attitudes that “all the black people were expected to work on the cotton farms in the 20s and 30s”. Those that didn’t had to live a kind of ‘underground’ experience, keeping out of sight of the white bosses as much as possible.
As an itinerant musician, RJ was one of these people. Sylvester explained that when RJ, who briefly lived in Baptist Town (the house is no longer standing), wanted some moonshine he always had to go the back door of Sylvester’s dad’s house, in the dark. This was so that he wasn’t spotted by the gang-hand boss who lived a few houses away. Friday and Saturday nights in Greenwood were ‘party time’ for the black community on certain streets near Baptist Town. The white people in town would not venture anywhere near this area, so when RJ played on those streets he was safe out in public.
During the morning we tour around the Greenwood area visiting all three of RJ’s ‘graves’, including the real one at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery (where Sylvester is the caretaker), just south of Money, MS. We also stop at various landmarks of RJ’s time in Greenwood. The Three Folks juke joint where RJ was poisoned was behind a church that is still standing today (the juke joint’s long gone).
Sylvester’s take on that story is that it was the owner’s wife – with whom RJ was having an affair – who poisoned him, not the owner-husband as it is widely supposed. Sylvester says that “back in the day” a man would use a weapon to attack or kill a rival. Poisoning was a woman’s method and he thinks the wife killed him out of jealousy because RJ had another girlfriend. It was to this other girlfriend’s house that RJ went after being poisoned, very sick and dying, to live out the last days of his life.
The Blues: It’s About Hope
I realise after spending a lot of time talking with Sylvester about the Blues that it’s not about sadness or misery as often portrayed, but about hope, and the dreams of a better life. The Blues came out of the plantations and the music was the workers ‘release’, it kept them sane whilst suffering the hardships they did. Saturday night was party night, Sunday – the workers only day off – was spent at church.
Sylvester told me the common saying was “can ’til can’t, every day” meaning that people worked as hard as they “can” until they could physically do no more, which usually meant a dawn until dusk working day. Sylvester himself helped out picking cotton and doing other jobs on a farm – or more likely he didn’t have a choice – when he was a kid.
I ask him about the behaviour of the guys I came across last night, plus how safe or otherwise the area is – better to be aware than not! He told me, “that’s how folks are around the Delta” and there’s no problem – which is great, given how some countries I’ve visited make you feel as if you’re not wanted there – so southern hospitality is alive and kicking! Sylvester also says it’s one of the safest regions these days and in fact he told me that “my folks” (the black community) would go out of their way to look after “any white folks who were in the wrong area or in trouble”.
He tells me they’d stop me going into areas I shouldn’t and make sure no harm came to me, “even if that caused grief to another black person”. I express some surprise when he tells me this given the discrimination inflicted on African Americans in the past. However, as he told me earlier, he believes great progress has been made – and, yes, he readily admits there’s still more to do – but that “black people today don’t want to lose what we’ve gained, or go backwards”. Hence, he says, their mindset is based on mutual respect in that hopefully whites and others will adopt the same attitude, and help create and build a positive outlook.
Optimism In The Future
That makes sense and explains how everyone around here has interacted with me, it’s an ‘I respect you, so please respect me’ mentality and ethos of life. It’s possibly an underlying aspect to why the guys last night called me Sir, although I’m still not convinced they needed to. I also know from a couple of tales Sylvester told me, especially one about the current state of Bryant’s Grocery (photo), that some of the old attitudes remain deeply ingrained in some pockets of the small white community in the region. Hopefully as the years pass such views will die with the bigots who still harbour them.
And as I’ve mentioned I’ve not experienced anything but politeness and helpfulness from all of the African American people in the Delta I’ve met. Nor in anything like a subservient way either because when talking to folks I can feel the mutual respect thing that Sylvester talks of underpinning everything. As above, there will still be people propagating ‘old thinking’. But the more attitudes like Sylvester’s become ingrained and spread to all who live in the Delta, and if visitors to the Delta have a similar mindset, the future should be a cause for optimism.
Check out Sylvester’s Delta Blues Legend Tours – it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area: worth making a special trip even…
Indianola and BB King
So the Delta Blues Legend Tour comes to an end and it’s been an eye-opening experience: a great introduction to the Delta. I head back west on Hwy 82 to Indianola. I have lunch at a Subway in town before arriving at the BB King Museum. There’s some interesting exhibits inside but it’s not made clear exactly when BB lived in Indianola. He wasn’t born there and whilst it’s documented that he played on the main drag Church Street every Saturday night, the museum is vague about when he lived there.
BB though thinks of Indianola as his ‘home town’ these days but even the museum staff can’t answer my question: when exactly did he live here? I’m asking this as I mooch around the shop – I’m the only one in there apart from the staff – and decide to buy a t-shirt and beer glass as souvenirs. They’re about to close for the day but I can’t leave because on the street outside there’s a parade from the high school nearby.
I can see all the school kids formally dressed up or in their sports gear sitting in open topped cars and on flat-bed trucks driving slowly by, with all the mums and dads lining the route. Americana personified. The museum staff can’t tell me if it’s a homecoming or what, but it’s a nice sight to see. The end of the parade passes by so I can now get out onto the road. It’s a worthwhile museum to visit. I bid farewell to the staff, go back to the car, and I’m off again.
Downtown Greenville – Take Care
The sun is starting to set as I head back out onto Hwy 82 East towards Leland – tomorrow morning’s first stop. But first I cross back over Hwy 61 and into the outskirts of Greenville. I have still not resolved the problem with the boot not locking but I notice a Nissan dealer up ahead and pull in.
I go into the car showroom and explain the problem. All the salesmen in there start laughing – not at me, but with me, as I detail my frustrations with the damn boot lock – because it’s apparently a common problem that causes them grief with customers all the time. Yes, Nissan have an ‘Intelligent Key’, an oxymoron if ever there was one. This can open and lock the doors and boot wirelessly and automatically without you doing anything but there is nothing in the owner’s guide about this. Or that there’s a setting in the car computer to disable it.
I was given two keys, one with some extra wireless functions, the other not. I had the ‘extra wireless’ one in my pocket so after I’d used the other one the lock the doors, the functionality of the ‘ extra key’ then automatically unlocked the trunk about 15 seconds after I’d locked it! Talk about a dumb operation. So one of the salesmen goes to the car and disables this stupid setting for me. Hurrah!
I pull back out onto Hwy 82E and pass the Days Inn that will be my home for the night and head into town. Sylvester told me about a bar or club (Buck’s) that plays Blues so I’m going to try and find it. The travel guide book I’m using as a reference also makes mention of Nelson Street as “Greenville’s blues landmark”. Sounds good (though there’s no mention of Buck’s). The book also however says this “is a rough part of town. Clubs… come and go with the seasons. Nelson Street… is a run-down part of town. Get local advice before heading down here on a Saturday night.” Well, it’s still quite light outside but forewarned, I keep my eyes well and truly open.
Oh. Dear. Time has moved on since the book was written. And not in a good way for Greenville. “Run-down”? And the rest… Nelson Street today is not far from a wasteland, with houses boarded up, broken windows, all dirty and unkempt. I drive up and down trying to find Buck’s but it’s nowhere to be seen. In fact, I can’t see or find a single club or bar anywhere. Or any people for that matter, the streets are deserted. There’s nothing at all music-related around here that I can see. Or if there was, I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t chance going inside. Or getting out of, and certainly not leaving, my car.
Even in the light. I can clearly tell this is not a good neighbourhood. Definitely a place to avoid: it really does have an uneasy feel to it, even in the daytime. What a dump, it’s almost ghetto-like. It’s getting darker. Time to leave this place. Fast.
The Mississippi River In All Its Glory
But as I head down Nelson Street I see what looks like a massive wall at the end of the road. It’s huge and seems to block the end of the road completely. I remembered reading about the levees on the Mississippi and begin to wonder… I drive to the end and there’s a grass ‘bank’ that is absolutely huge, as tall as a five storey building – and it appears to stretch up and down for miles. But there’s a narrow tarmac access road that leads up the side of the grass bank, so up I go.
What a sight. Greenville has some redeeming features after all! The sun is setting as I drive around the top of the levee, and then go down to the water’s edge. It’s an amazing sight. I stay for a while and watch the sun set further. But remembering the area I’m in – and it’s dusk now – it’s time to leave and I quickly drive away from the levee, finding my way back to Hwy 82. I need gas however so pull in to a gas station back on the main highway, and then stop at a Dollar Central for a few toiletries. I finally roll up and check-in at the Days Inn motel in complete darkness. The room is fine: clean and spacious – another bargain at $65.
Now over the years I’ve seen this countless times on TV and in the movies, but tonight I fulfilled a bucket list item and got to park right outside my motel room! Cheap thrills, huh? I go to Shoney’s next door for dinner for a very good turkey club sandwich (it seems the diner went downhill since my visit according to TripAdvisor when I looked a year or so later – which was obviously a warning sign as it appears it’s now permanently closed).
Back in my room I find I can’t use my mobile phone because I burnt all my credit without realising. Luckily the hotel has free Wi-Fi so I spend two hours trying to add credit but none of the websites work properly on a mobile – they’re not responsive. Idiots. Eventually I get it fixed… and time for bed. It was a good day today.
* Malted Milk by Robert Johnson