Sorry to leave you hanging with the last few installments of my USA holiday memoirs. I’ve been a bit busy with life.
Now, then – where was I? That’s right – Tippo, Mississippi.
We were winding our way through the deep south on ol’ Highway 51 in search of weird towns and decrepit landmarks from yesteryear, and the next stop of our trip was something I’d been looking forward to for quite some time.
Late last year, when I was planning the trip, I googled “abandoned Mississippi” and found a real doozie of a place to explore: The Tallahatchie Flats. Situated on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, a few miles down the road from Robert Johnson’s official grave, The Flats was home to a number of old shotgun shacks. Kind of like a shotgun shack graveyard, really. They were sitting there, falling apart…. and you could stay in them – if you were game.
From the photos online, the Tallahatchie Flats looked like something I could get into. I wasn’t even perturbed by the terrible Trip Advisor reviews which said things like: “we saw rats in the kitchen,” and “there were cockroaches under my pillow,” and my personal favourite: “I felt itchy the next morning.” Whatever, Trip Advisor! I wanted to make up my own mind about the place. I was willing to risk being itchy.
We arrived at the Flats in the late afternoon. It was stinkin hot. In contrast, our welcome was freezin’ cold. The owner, a big imposing black dude called Joe, made it clear that he was inconvenienced by our arrival. He wasn’t used to people rocking up unannounced, he said. He was still wearing his sunglasses even though it was very dark in the Reception area, so you couldn’t be sure whether he was actually looking at you or not. I paid cash and then waited for about 20 minutes while he painstakingly counted and re-counted out the money – just in-case I was trying to rip him off – until eventually he handed me the key.
It didn’t look like any changes had been made to the shack since it had arrived at the Flats. Most walls were covered with newspaper. The floors were bare and the furniture was knocked around.
I liked it.
We sat on the porch and had a beer. Joe sat on a chair outside Reception with his arms folded.
After finishing our drinks we decided to get something to eat. Both of us were hoping we’d be able to find something vaguely nutritious for once. You see, when you’ve spent weeks living on a diet of white bread, condiments and meat your bowels begin to, umm, how can I put this… seize up.
We went into Greenwood to check out our dining options. Soon after, we came across a garish placard on the side of the road which read “JUSWUNDAWG!! THIS WAY.” Lured by the creative spelling, we pulled into the parking lot and went inside to investigate.
JUSWUNDAWG was situated down the end of a corridor in a little shopping mall. It was the only place open. Fluoro lights lit up the enormous dining area, which was sparsely decorated with a few mis-matching 90’s looking tables and chairs and some 50’s rock’n’roll memorabilia. A transistor up on the wall was pumping out soft-rock classics from the 70’s. It was all a bit confusing. The owner, John came out from the kitchen and said “I hope you guys are in the mood for some DEEEEEE-LICIOUS home-made food!”. Hell yeah, John, was our reply. He went on to describe the process involved in making each hotdawg and bun and how much love and care went into chopping the ‘slaw. My mouth watered. Finally, I thought, a delicious meal where I could savour the flavours without having my tastebuds assaulted by Paul Newman’s Ranch Dressing and Smokey BBQ Sauce! We put in our order and sat down at one of the tables. I expected great things.
When our meals arrived at the table I could barely see my sausage for the sauce which spewed out either side of the bun. There was at least one bottle of BBQ sauce on there, possibly two. The slaw was the same. I ate it and said a little prayer for my poor bowels.
Afterwards we went to the supermarket and stocked up on fruit and vegetables. It was nice to see them again. Later that same afternoon, we went back to Tallahatchie Flats and watched a storm roll over our rickety verandah. All the while, Joe sat outside Reception, watching us.
By sun-down the mozzies got nasty, so Danny went over to ask him if he had any repellent. He just laughed. He still had his sunglasses on.
Regrettably, the next morning we checked out of the Flats. As I was dropping the key back to Reception I managed to get a smile out of Joe when I asked if I could buy one of his souvenir t-shirts. He only had XXL, but I bought one anyway. I came to the conclusion that Joe wasn’t so bad – some people are just naturally grumpy, I guess.
We kept trucking through the Delta passing small and mostly deserted towns, and pausing occasionally to read Blues Markers. The thing that struck me about travelling this part of the world is that there really isn’t much left to see. For example, alot of the old jook joints have either shut or burnt down. There are a couple of exceptions (see Po Monkey’s Lounge and Blue Front Cafe), but that’s it.
For the most part, there just aren’t enough people around. And even if there ARE people around, most of them don’t want to listen to old music. You only have to hear the gangster rap cranking out of passing cars to figure that out. So, apart from the occasional die-hard tourists like us, there’s no demand for jook joints these days. Nor is there any point in maintaining any of the remaining Blues relics. Thankfully, though, there’s one very important landmark which is still hanging in there – the train station where W C Handy first encountered the Blues in 1919. We sat on the platform for a while and enjoyed the silence, trying to imagine what it would have been like in the early 20th century. Unfortunately the silence was soon replaced by Danny hollering and jumping around in pain, because an army of angry fire-ants had bitten his feet.
Back on the road again, and still undecided about where we were going to stay, we diverted into Bentonia -the birthplace of Skip James. We’d been told about a jook called the Blue Front Cafe which was still open for business. It was late on a Monday afternoon when we arrived, and the proprietor – Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, was sitting out on the porch in a plastic chair. He got up and went inside to get us a couple of beers and we sat and talked to him, mostly about Skip. Then Jimmy fetched his guitar from behind the counter and showed Danny how to play the Bentonia style of blues.
It was tuned right down to Open G (which is very low), so the strings were flopping around all over the place. It sounded great when Jimmy played, but Danny needed more practice. Jimmy was patient and really chuffed to have someone to teach his licks to. Hours later, when we were leaving, he told us he was having a party the next day and invited us to stop by again. We said we might. He said he’d keep one eye open for us.
It was getting on to midnight when we rocked into the next big town, Jackson. Danny was keen to try out one of the ratty looking hotels on the edge of the city. Personally I felt like a bit of ritz, so we settled on the Marriott hotel, which was the biggest accommodation splurge we’d had all trip. Disgusting, really.
The next morning we consulted our Blues Travel Book – just as we’d done most mornings during our trip through the Delta. It stated that Farish Street was the most historic street in the city and that it was perfectly safe to explore on foot. So we set off.
The West end was ok, but as we walked further along, things got weird. Most of the buildings were boarded up and graffitied.
Further up the street, smashed glass littered the sidewalks; the nature strips were overgrown and a couple of burnt-out cars straddled the curb. I put my camera away. We got to a cross-road and I could hear whispering and evil giggling coming from around the corner. I could see a pair of legs sticking out beside a wall. That was enough for us. We turned around pronto and headed back to the refuge of The Big Apple Inn – one of the few shops still trading in the street.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, the Big Apple Inn was the place to dine. Sonny Boy Williamson lived above it for a period of time, too. From the sidewalk it looked like any of the other buildings in the area (i.e.: very uninviting). The blinds were drawn, the windows were grubby and it was hard to tell if there was anybody in there. But when we pulled open the door we were met by a queue of at least 15 people. They were all waiting to place their orders.
The grill, the counter, the tables and chairs are all original, but not ‘original’ in the sense that it’s all been lovingly looked after over the years – it’s all just miraculously hanging together. Letters had fallen off the menu board or were sitting slightly askew. Faded postcards and old advertisements clung to the wall behind the counter. The green and orange plastic dining booths were covered in a film of grease. Nope – The Big Apple Inn certainly wasn’t interested in being hip. Its modus operandi was serving up good sandwiches – just like it has been doing since 1939. It was beautiful.
The Inn’s signature dish is Pigs Ear Sandwiches – otherwise known by the locals as “Listening Sandwiches”. But after standing in the queue and watching those big floppy lobes frying on the grill, my mouth wasn’t exactly watering. When it came time to order, I chose the Smoke sandwich instead. It was delicious. Predictably, Danny placed an order for not one but two Pigs Ears sandwiches – a choice he regretted immediately. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
That afternoon we went back to the Blues Front Cafe to check out Jimmy’s party. In contrast to Monday evening, the car park was full of Harley Davidson’s and Mustang convertibles. People were milling around on the porch in there Sun Studios, Graceland and Clarksdale tourist t-shirts. They had their iPads and cameras pointed at Jimmy who was playing his guitar. It turns out this party was arranged for a group of Swiss tourists who go road tripping through the Delta every year. Inside the Cafe a band played, but it was pretty MOR stuff and I don’t think they enjoyed playing it. I saw the drummer roll his eyes on a few occasions. I felt annoyed by the crowd because they were treating the band and the locals like exotic circus freaks. Everybody had their camera out, zooming in on them and snapping away relentlessly. I saw one of the Swiss chicks pat one of the neighbourhood elders on the head. I found myself wishing the place was empty like the previous evening. Then again, if it was empty Jimmy wouldn’t be making a buck. He seemed happy enough sitting outside on his plastic chair. I hated the experience, though, and was glad to leave.
It was dark as we drove back into Jackson. We decided to swing by a dive bar we saw on Martin Luther King Ave called The Queen of Hearts. As we approached, a large woman in cut-off shorts and a tank top stepped out into the road and tried to wave us down. We slowed down, because we thought she needed help, but then she started yelling at us so we sped off into a side-street. As we rounded the corner, a dude stumbled into the middle of the road and pulled a gun at us – at least, that’s what it looked like. Lordy!! We didn’t stick around to find out. We put the pedal to the metal and got the hell outta there.
The next day we set sail for New Orleans.