Day Three, Part Two: Dockery to McComb

Dockery Farms Plantation is popularly regarded as the birthplace of the blues.  It was here that Charley Patton, regarded as the father of the delta blues, began playing his guitar on the porch of the plantation commissary.  Robert Johnson used to travel to Dockery to play with Patton and many blues historians say that the crossroads in Johnson lore are actually located here.  I tend to agree that out of the three mentioned locations, this one makes the most sense.  The problem was trying to find it.

The crossroadsA dirt road directly across from the Dockery Farms entrance goes back about a half mile, where it meets another dirt road. This used to be old route 8 before the highway was built.  This marks the crossroads.  There are certain times during my travels where I get downright giddy and this was truly one of them.   Whether Johnson really sold his soul to the Devil that night is probably more fiction than fact, but it sure makes for a good story and it was pretty darn cool to stand there.  No, the Devil didn’t approach me, but it wasn’t midnight either.

Returning to the new highway 8, we continued east to Route 49 south and drove into Greenwood, where Johnson died and is buried.  Or at least we think he is.  Johnson’s life was nothing if not interesting and the crossroads legend isn’t the only story about him.  Johnson died at the age of 27 and that is about the only thing the people agree on about his death, the cause of which is most likely poisoning.  Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband at the Three Forks juke joint, which no longer stands.  Where he actually died as a result from that poisoning is the stuff of lore.  One site is at 289 Young St. A large sign erected there marks the site of where an apartment building once stood.

The mystery of Johnson doesn’t stop there – he could be buried in one of three locations: Payne Chapel Memorial Baptist Church in nearby Quito, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in nearby Morgan City, and Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood.  Columbia Records placed a cenotaph at the Payne Chapel site and a memorial marker is locaed at Mt. Zion.  We opted for Little Zion, a site which has been recognized on the Mississippi Blues Trail.  Oral history from the daughter of the gravedigger indicates that the grave beside a pecan tree is Johnson’s true resting place.  When we were there his tombstone was marked with several liquor bottles (one with foreign money it), a library card, and a photo – traces of fans who had paid their respects.

We had planned to stop at Berclair, the birthplace of B.B.King, on our way to Moorhead, but were running so late by this time that we decided to forego it.  Our purpose in Moorhead was to see the site of where the “Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.”  This famous railroad crossing was first immortalized in W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues.”  One of the lines no longer runs, but a section where the two rail lines used to cross can still be seen amid the grass.

Our next stop was just about 20 miles down the road and one that I was really looking forward to – Indianolo.  Although B.B. King was born in Berclair, he considers this his home.  This is where you can find the B.B. King Museum, the corner where he first used to play for money, and Club Ebony.  A blues icon, the juke joint was bought by King several years ago and he often returns there on his birthday to play.  We had anticipated having a late lunch/early supper there, but unfortunately it was closed. Just down the street is the site of the former Freedom School, which was destroyed by a firebomb in 1965 during the height of the civil rights area because it was a voter registration site.

We had one last blues stop, which was a bit ironic because even though it was our last stop, it had to do with the beginning of the blues.  Charley Patton, mentioned in an earlier post, is buried in Holly Ridge.  His grave is in a small cemetery that sits along a country road – his plot faces a gin mill.  I learned that many people buried in the cemetaries we had visited did not have tombstones.  At one time, Patton didn’t have one either, but John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival fame, donated the marker.

A three-hour drive later put us in Natchez.  While Natchez has important blues history (“The Natchez Burning” is a famous blues song about a tragic Natchez nightclub fire that took the lives of more than 200 people), we were there for quite a different reason – Mammy’s Cupboard.  This restaurant is a wonderful example of programmatic architecture.  The two story building is shaped like a woman with a restaurant located inside her 28-foot skirt.  You have to see it to believe it; unfortunately, it was after dark so I have no pictures to prove it.

One more hour and we were at our hotel in McComb, Miss., to rest after a long day.

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