In June, 2000, I rolled through Rolling Fork, Mississippi, with two goals in mind: (1) find my old friends Roosevelt and Louise Bailey and (2) find out why the city of Rolling Fork didn't have signs at the city limits proclaiming itself the hometown of Muddy Waters. |
And now, there Roosevelt sat. He was tall and skinny like before, but his hair was much more gray than I remembered, his face much more wrinkled. I almost didn't recognize him. I paused in the shade at the edge of the gazebo and listened as he shot the bull with two black men in their mid-twenties, both of them at least fifty years his junior and certified members of the handbasket generation. Roosevelt was giving them hell.
All three of the men beneath the gazebo nursed beer in brown paper sacks. It soon became obvious that Roosevelt bought the beer and that all three cans were empty or nearly so. "I ain't buyin' you another beer," Roosevelt told one of the much younger men. "You want another beer, go see the Chinaman."
Go see the Chinaman is an expression used all over the Delta. It means buy your own damned beer or cigarettes or whatever it is you're bumming from me. The expression is based on the fact that in almost every Delta city or town, especially the black section of that city or town, you're never far from a Chinese grocery. In the case of the Muddy Waters gazebo, there's one across the street.
The black section of every Delta city and town has at least one little shaded oasis like the Muddy Waters gazebo in Rolling Fork. It's almost always a wooden bench or a few ratty chairs beneath a shade tree. Especially on Sunday afternoons, you'll find a bunch of old black men, some with canes and aluminum walkers, sitting there in the shade and drinking beer or sipping ½ pints of whiskey and shooting the bull with each other and enculturating the male members of the handbasket generation who occasionally join the group. The old men call the shaded area the "Shade Tree." The handbasket generation calls it the "Dead Dick Bench."
I prefer to call it the "Shade Tree" in deference to the fact that an old penis is not necessarily a "dead" penis. Whatever the name of the ubiquitous shaded area, it has an important cultural function. It's a patriarchal social club without walls, windows, overhead, dues, or supervision.
The two young men sitting in the shade inside the Muddy Waters gazebo were definitely taking a tongue lashing from Roosevelt Bailey. I felt sorry for them. I stepped inside the gazebo and into Roosevelt's view. He recognized me immediately in spite of the fact that I had gained thirty-five pounds in the five years since we had seen each other.
Roosevelt and I happily renewed old acquaintance. The two young men unhappily observed us while occasionally raising their brown sack-clad cans to their lips and holding them there, draining the last drops of beer. One of them finally said to me, "Mister, you got a dollar I could borrow?"
I said, "No."
Roosevelt angrily turned to the young man. "Borrow! You mean give you a dollar! What you mean asking that man for a dollar? Ain't you got no shame? You don't even know that man. Why don't you get a job and make your own money?" Roosevelt turned to me with a look of disgust on his face. "Look at ‘em. Ain't neither one of ‘em ever known anything but welfare. Ain't neither one of ‘em ever had a job. All they know is give me money. Ain't neither one of ‘em ever made money." He turned to the two young men again. "I've been workin' since I was big enough to work. Makin' my own money. Git a job an' make your own money."
The beggar said, "I make money."
"You make money?" Roosevelt asked. "How?"
"Gamblin'," the beggar proudly said.
"Gamblin'!" Roosevelt retorted. "Boy, you don't know nothin' about gamblin'." Roosevelt laughed at the gambling beggar and looked at me. "What's that song? You got to know when to hold ‘em. Know when to fold ‘em."
"Kenny Rogers. ‘The Gambler'", I said. "Know when to walk away. Know when to run."
"That's it!" Roosevelt said.
And so as the hot Delta sun beat down upon a little shaded oasis in downtown Rolling Fork, Mississippi, the two thirsty young men there watched and listened in amazement, I am sure, as a middle aged white man and an elderly black man sang a country duet and, probably, made fools of themselves.
There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done.
We soon stopped singing because we forgot the words. We sat there laughing while the two young men sat there with blank looks on their faces and empty cans in their hands. The beggar looked at me like he was about to cry, then, like dumping air from his can, turned it over and shook it up and down a couple of times. Well, hell, I thought, I ain't never seen such a pitiful look on a man's face. So I said, "How much is a beer?"
"The Chinaman sells ‘em two for a dollar."
That sounded like a deal to me, so I dug in my pocket, found four quarters, and handed them to him. He quickly headed across the street toward the Chinese grocery. Roosevelt said he needed to go home to Louise and lunch. We made arrangements for me to meet him at his house the following morning, and we stood and parted. As I walked down the sidewalk toward the Bluesmobile, from across the street I heard the beggar's voice say, "Mister?"
I turned and watched as he walked from the Chinese grocery toward me. His hands held two fresh brown sack-covered cans of beer. When he reached the middle of the street I said, "Yeah?"
And he said, "You got change for a twenty?"
I was ready for lunch, so the Bluesmobile and I headed for a place on the east side of Highway 61 called Chuck's Dairy Bar & Motel. It sold good food, I knew from experience. After a leisurely lunch I planned to march right into the Rolling Fork City Hall, ask to see His Honor the Esteemed Mayor of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I intended to ask, by God, why Rolling Fork wasn't proud of its most famous son–McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters.
People from all over the world have questioned me via email as to why there's no signs at the entrances to Rolling Fork proclaiming it as the birthplace of Muddy Waters. Well, I've wondered that myself ever since I first rolled through there back in 1995. And, as soon as I finished lunch, I planned to get the answer to that question from the head honcho himself or herself. And if I didn't like the answer, I planned to tell said honcho exactly what I thought. Hell, a night in the Rolling Fork jail would look good on the résumé of the Gin-u-wine Delta Bum.
Chuck's Dairy Bar was unbelievably crowded at lunch time. That's either a sign of good lunches or of no other place to eat. In Chuck's case, it was both. I managed to find a seat in the back room, finished my delicious lunch, then sat there and sipped tea and waited. I had about an hour to kill. I figured His Honor came back from lunch around 1:30. I started watching the people sitting around and milling back and forth.
Make an observational visit to the most popular restaurant in a small Delta town during rush hour, and you can get a good idea of race relations in that town. In Chuck's Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, the racial makeup of the customers and employees closely reflected the racial makeup of Rolling Fork, about 50/50. Black customers and white customers spoke to each other and some sat at the same tables. It was obvious that they knew each other and that some of them worked with each other. There was no air of tension or any hushed conversations. Just jabber jabber jabber. Buzz buzz buzz. How ya doin'? How's yore momma? Y'all alright? Baby doin' ok? Hotter'n hell, ain't it? All the racial congeniality around me made me more curious than ever about the lack of Muddy Waters pride and signs.
When 1:30 came, I left. As I reached the Bluesmobile I noticed a lanky black man approach a City of Rolling Fork pickup parked nearby. The man carried an armload of white Styrofoam to-go boxes, and he wore a tan and brown City of Rolling Fork uniform. I said, "Hey, buddy, can you tell me where the mayor's office is?"
"Sure," he answered and started giving me some convoluted directions. I guess he noticed the lost look on my face because he then said, "You lookin' for the mayor?"
"He's in there," he said, nodding backwards over his shoulder. "He owns the restaurant."
When he described the mayor, a chunky white guy in his forties, realization struck me that the friendly fellow who brought the ketchup to my table was His Honor the Esteemed Major of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. The lanky man put the to-go boxes in the truck. I said, "Can you tell me why there ain't any signs on the highway telling folks that Rolling Fork is the hometown of Muddy Waters?"
"We've had several over the years. Somebody always stole ‘em. Got two new ones down at the shop. Big‘uns that'd be hard to steal."
"Muddy Waters signs?"
"Hometown of Muddy Waters himself."
"Why ain't they up?"
"Don't know. Ask the mayor." Off he drove.
Well, my bubble was burst. Not only did the City of Rolling Fork have Hometown of Muddy Waters signs, His Honor the Esteemed Mayor seemed like a nice guy. No night in the Rolling Fork jail for this Delta bum. Back inside the restaurant I went.
I ordered another glass of tea and gave the waitress my card and told her to give it to the mayor and tell him that I wanted to interview him. I returned to my original seat and waited. After a while here comes the chunky white guy in his forties–His Honor the Esteemed Mayor of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
He takes a seat at my table, and we start talking. He's Gary Henderson, age 42. I soon discover that my first impression was right as usual–he's a nice guy. I ask my question about the signs. He answers, "We can't get a permit from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Been trying for months. It's caught up in the state bureaucracy."
"Sooner or later. You wouldn't believe how many people ask me why we don't have signs posted about Muddy Waters."
"Yes, I would. You wouldn't believe how many people ask me why y'all don't have signs posted about Muddy Waters. Say, I couldn't go down to the shop and take a picture of those signs, could I? You know, prove to folks that y'all are gonna put 'em up."
"Sure. I'll go with you. Ready?"
So off we went in the Bluesmobile, headed for the city maintenance shop where I took the photos on the right. The tan and brown clad fellow I met back at Chuck's turned out to be Pete Williams. The mayor also turned out to be a hell of a nice guy. The more time I spent with him, the more I liked him.
We soon returned to Chuck's Dairy Bar and my original table. I sipped tea and listened while the mayor alternated between handling restaurant business and talking about his favorite subjectRolling Fork, Mississippi.
"Twenty years ago we had 120 people in our church. Yesterday, we had 31. The people have moved, mostly to Vicksburg and Greenville. This town is a good place to live. We don't have a lot of the crime and . . . you know . . . social problems like they face in the big cities. People want to live here! But they can't feed their families here and stay just because we have a good neighborhood.
"We have the labor here in Rolling Fork. They want to live here and work here. Just one factory that most cities would take for granted. . . . Oh, it wouldn't solve every problem, but it would solve a bunch of them. Just one factory. . . .
"You tell people out there to email me if they have a question about Rolling Fork. This is a good place to live."
Well, y'all have been told. The mayor's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org If you're looking for a good place to live, well, I agree with the mayor. Besides, if Rolling Fork is good enough for Muddy Waters and Roosevelt Bailey, it's good enough for you. And think about this: when you're visiting your Yankee kinfolk and you get homesick you can sing like Muddy didGonna catch the next thing smoking . . . Back down to Rolling Fork . . . Back down to Rolling Fork. . . .
Roosevelt Bailey is a semi-famous man. The frontispiece of Birney Imes's wonderful book of color photographs, JUKE JOINT, is a 1988 picture of Bailey's Late Night Spot in Rolling Fork, a juke joint owned by Roosevelt Bailey. It's a great photo—a blue and white juke joint with Roosevelt's blue and white Ford pickup parked in front, a huge cotton field behind and Roosevelt peeking through the juke joint's front door.
But Roosevelt and especially his wife, Louise, harbor more than a little resentment over that photo. Birney Imes either didn't fully explain his motives or Roosevelt and Louise didn't fully understand him. I'll let Louise express her point of view in words I remember from 1995: "That white man probably made a million dollars off that book. And what did Roosevelt get? Nothing. That's what Roosevelt got—nothing!"
I tried to explain that Birney Imes probably lost money on JUKE JOINT. I tried to explain that the book showed the beauty of black culture. All my excuses fell on deaf ears. Louise not only mistrusted Birney Imes, she mistrusted me. "How do I know," she had told me after I asked her to play her guitar, "that you don't have a tape recorder taped to your leg?"
I had then pulled up my pants legs and showed her my pale white legs. I then pulled up my shirt tail and showed her my chest and round white belly. "See?" I said. "No tape recorder and no wires."
All that was part of a wonderful afternoon in June, 1995—an afternoon lost to posterity because I couldn't take notes and although I took a few photographs I couldn't use them. Thank you, Birney Imes.
Let us return to June, 2000: Around midmorning the day after my interview with the mayor, Roosevelt met me in his driveway. "Come look at my garden," he said as I closed the Bluesmobile's door.
We walked around his large brick house to the back yard. His garden covered at least 1/4 acre. I said, "Damn, Roosevelt, I'd hate to know I had to take care of a garden that size, and you're way older'n me."
"I just do a little every mornin'."
I looked down a long row of thigh-high and deep-green okra plants. "Damn, Roosevelt, what you gonna do with all that okra?"
"We'll eat some of it, can some of it, an' give the rest of it away."
He then proceeded to give me a long lesson on how to save okra seed in the freezer and how to raise sweet potatoes. I remember almost nothing of my farming lesson because I kept eying the shade under the breeze way between the house and Roosevelt's workshop. We finally left the garden, and he showed me the old blue and white Ford from the 1988 photo. Its paint very faded, it rested in peace under a shed and had two flat tires and a blown motor. "I thought about selling it," Roosevelt said, "but I think I'm gonna keep it."
"I'm glad," I told him. "That's the only famous truck in Mississippi."
Louise came outside and we joined her on the breeze way. Roosevelt had mentioned that she had health problems, but the feisty woman I knew from five years ago was gone. I don't know if she suffered from early Alzheimer's, the effects of a stroke, or if the years had just finally caught up with her. I didn't ask. But I did feel shame for not taking the time to stop on one of the many times I had passed through Rolling Fork over the last five years.
The only evidence of the old Louise came when Roosevelt mentioned lunch. "What we havin'?" he asked.
"I did the beans, you doin' the chicken."
The photo shows Louise's snap beans simmering on her stove. (I don't think she would mind me posting a photo of her beans.) I asked her how she cooked them. "I just cook ‘em," she answered.
"No, ma'am, I mean how'd you cook ‘em. You know, the recipe."
"I just put ‘em in a pot and cover ‘em with water an' boil ‘em a while. Put a piece of salt meat in there."
"Nothing else? No pepper?"
"Put pepper in there if you want."
After a while Roosevelt asked me, "You want to ride out to my old place an' look at it?"
"You mean your old juke joint? Heck, yeah, let's go."
Roosevelt and I loaded up in the Bluesmobile, and off we went, him giving me directions. We crossed Highway 61 and went east on Highway 16 for exactly 1.6 miles. There on the left, north, sat the ruins of Bailey's Late Night Spot.
In the photo, you see the blue concrete block main building in the middle and a large room on the right called the "juking place" by Roosevelt. "That's Louise's kitchen on the left," he said.
"What'd she cook?" I asked.
"Chicken, fish, hamburgers, chittlins, stuff like that."
"Somebody might have stole it," I answered. "That seems to be a problem with signs around here."
I wanted to go inside the building for photos, but it was far too dangerous. The roof hung in tatters, and the remains of the floor looked like it wouldn't hold the weight of a cat. So we soon left. About 1/4 mile down the road I said, "Damn shame that old building's fallin' down. Looks like it's been there a long time."
"It was built in ‘51 or ‘52," Roosevelt told me. "When I got it, it wasn't nothin' but the brick part. I built the jukin' place on the side an' the kitchen. Had a deep freeze in there an' that's where we kept the meat an' the whiskey."
I drove in silence for another 1/4 mile or so before my brain realized my ears had heard something strange. I said, "Whiskey? In the deep freeze?"
"Yeah," Roosevelt answered. "The law."
I drove in silence for another 1/4 mile or so. I seemed to be missing something in the conversation. "The law?"
"Bootleggin'!" Roosevelt said.
"One time a guy came in on a Saturday night an' bought a ½ pint of whiskey. I got it out of the deep freeze. Two or three days later he came back with the law. Went straight to that deep freeze. When I went up ‘fore the judge I said, ‘Judge, the next time you catch me with whiskey it's gonna be in my belly. You can charge me with drunk walking and attempt to fall.'"
Kenny Rogers: 20 Greatest Hits (EMI)
Muddy Waters: His Best 1947-55
Back to the juke joint.