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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Driving out of Memphis, I glanced into my rear view mirror and pulled over to take this picture.