April 1891 / April 28, 1934
Holly Ridge, Mississippi
The X marks the location of Charley Patton's grave.
You'll find the road to Holly Ridge intersecting Highway 82 about half way between Leland and Indianola, Mississippi. It's easy to miss the little road, so watch for the sign marking the Washington County/Sunflower County line. You're either getting close or missed the road, according to your direction of travel. By the Bluesmobile's odometer, it is exactly 1 mile from Highway 82 to the "T" intersection in beautiful downtown Holly Ridge. About 100 yards before you reach the intersection you'll cross railroad tracks not shown in this map. |
Stop at the "T" intersection, then turn left, west, and go about 1/4 mile. On your left you'll see a huge, tan-colored cotton gin. The cemetery lies beside and just past the cotton gin. Walk to the rear of the cemetery, toward the railroad tracks, and you'll find Charley Patton's grave.
Here's the grave, the camera pointed west, the railroad tracks on the left, the road on the right, and the cotton gin behind the camera. In the full size picture you can see a small white object on the top left of the tombstone. It's a rock holding a tiny, tattered American flag.
Past and over the tombstone you can see a bunch of cotton wagons, which are no longer used. Nowadays portable cotton presses hauled to the edges of the fields squeeze several tons of raw cotton into huge bundles called "modules." There's 1000s of those discarded wagons all over the Delta. If someone could think of a use for them, they could get rich.
I went to Holly Ridge not in search of Charley Patton but in search of Mary's Grocery where, rumor had it, an old bluesman named A.Z. Something-or-other played on Sunday afternoons.
Here we see the "T" intersection, the camera pointed north and Charley Patton's grave 1/4 mile down the road to the left. The building in the center of the photo is abandoned. On the left is the Holly Ridge Grocery, once a plantation commissary. On the right beside the Bluesmobile and almost hidden by trees is Mary's Grocery, actually the M & G Grocery and named for its owners, Mary and George Arendale.
In this photo of the "T" intersection the camera points directly west toward the cemetery containing Charley Patton's grave. On the hot afternoon of my visit to Holly Ridge on Friday, June 16, 2000, that shade you see beneath the M & G Grocery's front porch was an oasis of coolness.
We're looking down what once was the main road between Greenville and Indianola. Imagine what that intersection looked like on a hot Friday afternoon in 1934, the year Charley Patton died. That narrow road would have been gravel and dirt, and a cloud of dust would have risen from the hooves of horses and mules and the wheels of wagons and Model T Fords and iron-wheeled tractors. People would be milling everywhere. Look at that picture and let your mind wander. Listen! Can you hear music coming from one of the juke joints which once stood beside that road? Can you see the shotgun houses which once lined both sides of that road?
The hot sun brought my wandering mind back to reality and to the thought of the beverage cooler inside the M & G Grocery. I went inside, walked past the pool table, up to the upright cooler, and pulled out a 20 oz strawberry soda. I stood beside the counter and waited while Mary, an elderly white woman with a ready smile, settled weekly accounts with several black field hands. It seemed that Friday was payday at the planting company office across and down the street. While I waited I wondered if planting company was the modern, Politically Correct way of saying plantation.
Two black men walked up to the counter, one tall and skinny and one medium and muscular. Both wore work clothes, blue cotton shirts, jeans, boots. Both blue shirts were once long sleeved. Skinny's was cut off above his elbows, and Muscular's was cut off at his shoulders, ragged threads dangling. A thin layer of tan Delta dust covered both men from their heads to their toes. It looked like sprayed-on tan paint. Both men had obviously just stepped off tractors. Mary told Muscular, "Forty-nine fifty, George."
George, who now had a name, handed Mary three twenties. When she brought his change, he said, "Gimme two long neck Buds an' a packa smokes."
On George's other side from me, the skinny man said, "You gonna be broke ‘fore dark."
George handed the skinny man one of the long neck Buds Mary handed him and said, "Slim, you don't know shit."
"My name ain't Slim."
"Tell 'im, Mary," George said. "Tell ‘im I'll have plenty of money tomorrow."
Mary looked at Slim and said, "He might have a dollar this time tomorrow afternoon."
The two men walked away laughing. I stepped to the counter and paid for my strawberry soda. From Mary, I learned that the A. Z. Something-or-other who played in there on Sunday afternoons was none other than Fat Possum recording star Asie Payton. Alas, Asie died in 1997. She pointed to the corner behind me and informed me that both Asie Payton and Willie Foster had often played in that corner. "We used to get some big crowds in here in those days," she said.
As I turned, chugging down my ice cold drink, I saw that George had sat on a bench along the wall on the other side of the pool table and that Slim was leaning on the pool table. I walked over to the bench and sat a couple of feet from George. I made small talk, trying to gain their confidence, and sipped strawberry soda and eyed the room while they sipped Budweiser and smoked cigarettes and eyed me suspiciously.
The front door was to my right, the juke box beyond it, then a video machine, then a booth in the corner where Asie and Willie once played. Other booths lined the opposite wall. The pool table filled most of the large room's center.
In the floor out in front of the juke box and seemingly out of place stood an ancient and very dented gas heater. It struck me as curious that the heater wasn't against a wall. Then it struck me that in the summertime the heater made a handy stool on which to sit. I could picture the wintertime and a crew of field hands circled around the heater, black hands outstretched over rising heat. The floor was bare wooden boards worn smooth by decades of work boots stomping across the room and by thousands of spit-shined shoes gliding to the music of Asie and Willie and probably even Charley. Oh, that heater and that floor could tell some tales!
Beside me and in front of me George and Slim had grown somewhat accustomed to my company. They had returned to their good-natured bantering. However, I wasn't making much headway in the gaining confidence department. I finally asked Slim,"Hey, can I take your picture? You're photogenic." He was in his sixties or early seventies, had gray hair, and I'll bet all the old women thought he was handsome. He wore a thick, goldish/greenish chain around his neck, and from it dangled a large, gold star-burst medallion with a ruby red center the size of a golf ball. It looked like a broach I remember my long-dead grandmother wearing. Besides, there was all that dust.
At my side and before Slim had a chance to answer, George said, "Photo what?"
"Photogenic. He's a cool-lookin' dude."
"My damn name ain't Slim."
"This white man's gonna put you in the movies," George said to Slim. "You pho toe genic!" he added, laughing and slapping his knee like at an uproariously funny joke.
"No, he ain't," Slim solemnly stated.
"Nah, man," I said to Slim, "I ain't got nothin' to do with the movies, but if you'll let me take your picture it'll be on the Internet."
George still laughed and slapped his knee, and he was now stomping his foot on the wooden floor. This was large entertainment for him. Slim, frowning and leaned on the pool table, said, "No."
"Ah, come on, man."
"Ah, come on, Slim," George pleaded. "Let the white man take yore picture. You pho toe genic!" George was now slapping both knees and stomping both feet on the floor.
Slim, grim faced, could obviously see nothing funny, much less hilarious. "My damn name ain't Slim. An' that white man ain't takin' my picture."
Normally I would have accepted Slim's first "No" and left it at that. But George was having such fun, and Slim looked more embarrassed than angry. . . . Besides, there was that huge gold and red medallion and all that dust. . . . So I said, "Why?"
And Slim said, solemnly: "Because I'm a wanted man."
George said, "Huh?"
I said, "By who?"
George said, "What? Ain't no po-lice wantin' you."
I said, "What po-lice?"
And Slim said, solemnly: "All of ‘em."
George said, "Shiiiiiiiit."
I said, "All of ‘em? The FBI? The CIA? NBC?"
"All of ‘em."
"Shiiiiiiiit. Ain't no po-lice after you. An' if they are, what's that got to do with this white man takin' yore picture?"
"A white man takes yore picture an' you a wanted man, the po-lice'll find you no matter where you hide. You seen them helicopters an' airplanes flyin' over? Well, they got somebody's picture an' they huntin' ‘im. Ain't no place you can hide if the po-lice's got your picture."
If I had been watching George's face instead of Slim's, I'll bet that George's mouth was open in shock, just like mine. He said, "Slim, you don't know shit. Ain't no way the po-lice in an airplane can find you with just yore picture."
"Can, too! An' my name ain't Slim!"
George stood. "You ‘member that guy in Indianola that almost got caught by the po-lice? He put on a dress an' women's shoes and walked right by them po-lice." George suddenly strutted across the floor and turned and strutted by Slim. The effect was like watching Mike Tyson as a blue-cotton- and tan-dust-decorated drag queen strutting across the floor. I choked and spit out strawberry soda and almost peed on myself. "You see?" George told Slim. "Them po-lice had his picture and he got slap away."
"I see," Slim said, "that you better not ever put on a dress an' try to get away from the po-lice!"
The three of us laughed uproariously. I don't know when I've laughed so much. They soon purchased more long neck Buds and went out the door, laughing and talking. I stayed on the bench, sipping the last of my strawberry soda. While the Slim & George vaudeville act had been playing several workers had entered and exited the grocery. I had paid no attention. As the screen door closed behind the two dusty comedians, the juke box started playing. I listened for a moment or so without really listening when suddenly the realization came that I couldn't understand the song. It was in Spanish, every word.
Then I heard a familiar noise in the direction of the nearby pool table–the rumble of pool balls rolling down the wooden chute beneath a pool table. I turned my head, and there stood a young Mexican man racking the balls. At the other end of the table stood a young Mexican man spinning a cue stick in a tiny box of chalk he held in a hand. As the Spanish song played and the two Mexicans started their game, I walked to the counter and Mary. She informed me that they worked at the cotton gin down the street. "They're good boys," she said. "I put some Spanish songs on the juke box for them."
Now, my mind works in strange directions. There I stood inside a Delta grocery store/juke joint and just down the street outside rested the mortal remains of the immortal Charley Patton, the man who more than any other man, with the possible exception of Blind Lemon Jefferson, influenced the music that every American listens to today. And pouring through the screen door and windows of that grocery store/juke joint and filling the street outside and reaching the long-dead and turned-to-dust ears of Charley Patton was what kind of music?–Spanish music!
If time suddenly reversed itself, I pondered, and all of a sudden it became 1934 and Charley Patton was sitting in that corner playing his guitar, his blues songs would have a Spanish element, and when it became the year 2000 so would every song on every juke box in America. Charley Patton and Blind lemon Jefferson came along at an evolutionary turning point for American music. If two Mexicans had moved to Holly Ridge, Mississippi at the exact time of that evolutionary turning point instead of today, well . . . all I can say is, Think about it.
Here's a look at the juke box, from which poured Spanish music as I took the photo. Sorry about the glare of the sun. You can see the front door on the right and the heater in the foreground. Just out of sight on the right sits the pool table, then the bench. The fellow sitting at the video machine is none other than Harold Payton, son of Asie Payton. Alas, Harold isn't a musician.
Like all good things, my visit to the M & G Grocery had to end. I told Mary goodbye and stepped outside. George was gone, but Slim, sipping a long neck Bud, sat in the shade on a wooden bench built on the island that many years ago had contained the M & G's gas pumps. On a wooden bench to the left of the door sat two Mexicans. One of them said, "Take our picture."
So here they are. From left to right, you see Juan Villela, 25, and Marcos Zamarron, 43, both of San Luis Mexico. They wanted me to tell their folks back in Mexico that they like it ok in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. If someone from San Luis Mexico reads this, pass on the message. They've got cold beer, Mexican music on the juke box, and they look healthy to me. Don't know what else they could need except maybe some Mexican ladies.
But Juan and Marcos spoke poor English and I spoke no Spanish, so I soon turned around and started talking to Slim again. "See," I said, "those two Mexican guys wanted me to take their picture. You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
"No." Then he pointed over his shoulder toward a falling-down building across the street and said, "Take a picture of the jail."
"Don't look like much of a jail," I observed.
"It ain't," Slim agreed. "But if you did any dirt around here that's where they used to lock you up. They'd call the po-lice in Indianola, and they'd come get you."
"You ever been in there?"
Slim grinned. "No. They only time they picked me up they took me straight to Indianola!"
We both laughed, then I said goodbye. I stepped over to the Bluesmobile, but before I opened the door I turned and watched as Slim took a long gulp from his raised high long neck Bud. When the bottle left his lips, I said, "Say, what's your real name?"
"Well," he said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, "it damn sure ain't Slim!"