That's Tchula at the upper left corner of the map where Highway 12 intersects Highway 49E. You pronounce it "Chew-lah."
Notice the other Holmes County Mississippi points of interest and watch as their names become hyperlinked:
|Hooker's Restaurant; New Port Church (Elmore James's grave); Big Papa's; Studio 51 (Elmore James played in it).|
I visited the sleepy little town of Tchula because Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor played there often back in the late 40s and early 50s. Needless to say, Tchula wasn't so sleepy in those days, the days before the Great Migration. This same view greeted Elmore James many times years ago as he drove from his home near the New Port Church to a gig in Tchula.
The camera on the edge of Highway 12 and facing almost exactly west, the picture shows the beginning of the Mississippi Delta from the Delta's eastern edge. Highway 12 drops more than 100 feet at this point. In the far background you see Tchula, about 4 miles away. The next hill is about 150 miles straight ahead near Crossett, Arkansas. During flood stage before the days of the levees, it was a very long swim from here to the other side of the Mississippi River.
Here's the historical marker. Across Highway 12, in the left background, you can see the road that crosses the railroad tracks and puts you in downtown Tchula. (In the full size picture you can see a train crossing the road.) Behind the camera sits a little hamburger stand with a couple of shaded outside tables. I bought a glass of tea there and took a break from the afternoon heat.
At the other table sat a couple of white guys. I chatted with them for a few minutes while I enjoyed the shade and the tea. Up drove a 70s model Chevy so clean and shiny a U.S. Marine Drill Instructor would have been proud to own it in spite of its age. Out stepped a neatly dressed black guy. He started past me in order to enter the hamburger stand but stopped and started talking to the 2 white guys. I said to him, "Hey, man, you live around here?"
I explained who I was and what I did. Then I asked, "Any juke joints around here?"
"Yeah. We got one. Good place. Called the ‘Hole In The Wall.' It's in the back of the liquor store."
"Reckon you could show me?" I asked. "Maybe give me a quick tour of Tchula?"
He turned toward his shiny Chevy. "Yeah. No problem. Let's go. Get in."
I turned toward the Bluesmobile. "Let's go in the Bluesmobile."
He stopped in his tracks. "That? I ain't ridin' in that car!"
I was at the driver's door. "Come on," I said, "you'll be ridin' in the genuine Bluesmobile."
He reluctantly got in on the passenger side. I introduced myself again and shook his hand. He introduced himself as John Winston. Then he looked around the interior of the Bluesmobile and said, "This thang is ragged."
"Hell," I replied, "you'd be ragged too if you had 340,000 miles on you and a jealous husband worked you over with a baseball bat and a pocket knife." Off I drove.
You're looking at downtown Tchula, the camera pointed west. Behind and in front of the camera there was a wide, graveled area used as a combined parking lot and city square. The railroad tracks ran maybe 20 yards behind the camera. To the right sat a couple of late model cars around which stood and leaned several elderly black men. To the left sat a ragged pickup with an even more ragged homemade camper shell mounted on the bed. I snapped this picture, then walked toward the Bluesmobile and the old guy who had picked up something from the ground.
As I reached him he reached the Bluesmobile's driver side door and leaned over and looked through the window at my new friend John, much to the obvious chagrin of John who was still trying to make himself invisible and was mumbling something about ". . . white man's car. . . ."
I walked up to the old guy and said, "Howdy. John wants to trade cars with me. I'm ridin' him around so's he can check mine out."
Before the old guy had a chance to reply, I heard John's voice loudly say, "Damn! Let's go!" He was grinning at the joke when I got inside. "You're something else," he said to me.
Just up the street from the fire department, John directed me to this building. We got out of the Bluesmobile. While a bunch of folks on the front porch of an adjacent house laughed and whistled at John, he took me around to the back of this building and showed me the screen door. "That's the hole," he said. "The back door."
We walked around to the front. I snapped the picture. Over on the porch, someone yelled in a singsong voice, "Pretty boy! Pretty boy! Take the pretty boy's picture!" Someone else yelled in a singsong voice, "John the movie star! John the movie star! Gonna be in tha movies!"
My new friend continued grinning, but I could tell that he was embarrassed because of his friends. So I walked about halfway to the porch and the friends and stopped. After a pregnant pause during which I got their attention, I said, "Y'all might think this is funny now, but people all over the world are gonna see John's picture. When he starts gettin' letters from French girls, y'all ain't gonna think it's so damned funny!"
John was a good-natured guy. If you people out there know a French girl or happen to be a French girl, drop John a note and let him get the last laugh. If you ain't a French girl and would like a guided tour of Tchula, Mississippi for just $20, drop him a note. French girls could get a guided tour for free, I'm sure. He guided me for free, but I'm special–I drive the Bluesmobile.
John had never heard of Elmore James or Hound Dog Taylor, so of course he knew nothing of any juke joints where they played. I took him back to the hamburger stand and his shiny car. But I knew who had heard of those old bluesmen–the old black guys hanging out in that gravel town square beside the railroad tracks.
I soon parked the Bluesmobile near its original position in the gravel near the tracks. The old men standing around and leaning on the parked cars remembered the old bluesmen well. They all mentioned a place named the "Midnight Grill." None of them could give me directions that I could understand except that it was "out on 49." Many elderly black men in the Delta have a problem with white people asking questions. It makes the old black men nervous. They remember the old days and tend to give the white person the answer they think the white person wants to hear. That gets rid of possible trouble as soon as possible. After a couple of questions I noticed that I was receiving an affirmative answer to every question I asked. Turn left? Yes. Turn right? Yes. Close? Yes. Far? Yes.
A few feet away, I saw the old guy who had picked up something from the ground and who had talked to John Winston at the Bluesmobile's driver side door. He was talking to a younger, middle-aged man. I walked to them.
"Midnight Grill? Shore I know where that's at," the old guy said. "That's where Elmore James ‘n' Howlin' Wolf ‘n' Hound Dog Taylor ‘n' ‘em used to play. Burned down years ago. Ain't nothin' much left but the concrete foundations."
To my relief, he gave me clear and specific directions. "Go about 2 or 3 miles up 49. You'll see a big chemical plant on your left, named "Terra" or somethin' like that. Just before the chemical plant, you'll see 2 trailer houses on your right. There's some concrete ruins just this side of the first trailer–that ain't the Midnight Grill. That's Mr. T's Place. It burned down, too. Midnight Grill's between the trailers. Nothin' there but chunks of concrete."
"Yep, that's it," the middle-aged man said to the old guy. "Had a spring behind it, remember? I used to drink out of it."
Just beyond us sat the ragged pickup with the ragged homemade camper shell mounted on the bed. A man holding what looked like a plate of food walked away from the rear of the truck. I asked the 2 men with me, "Hey, y'all, is somebody selling food out of the back of that pickup?"
"Catfish," one of the men said.
I thanked them for their help and walked to the pickup.
possibility of a very cool ad campaign.)
He reached up and turned on the yellow trouble light nailed to the roof. "Said I had to have light. There's my light. Hooked to my truck batt'ry. I'm legal. See?" he said and turned off the light.
"Yes sir, I see," I said. I also saw that Mr. Sam Sims was an ingenious man. "How long have you had this restaurant open, Mr. Sims?"
"I been cookin' catfish right here for 25 years."
"I raised my family cookin' catfish right here. You got a family?"
"Yes sir. I have a daughter."
"I got 7 kids gone and 3 at the house."
"You know what else I got?"
"Best thing I got is up in here with me."
"I got God up in here with me."
"Right up in here with me."
"When I recognized God that's when I come out. Have you recognized God?"
"Ah . . . , well. . . ." I didn't want to hurt Mr. Sam Sims's feelings, and I didn't want a sermon. "I, ah, well, I, ah. . . ."
"You got to recognize God."
"You got to thank Him when you down."
"You got to thank Him when you up."
"Sure you don't want any catfish?"
"Yes sir, ah. . . , no sir."
"You got to thank God every day."
"Ah. . . ."
"I get on my knees. Oh, thank You, God! Oh, thank You, God!"
"Ah, well, ah, glad I met you Mr. Sims. I gotta go." And I went.
The Bluesmobile was parked in the sun, and it was as hot as hades inside it. Off we soon sped, windows down and a cool breeze blowing through. I easily found the spot on Highway 49E. There on the left, west, sat a big building with "Terra" written across the front. On the right, east, sat the gray concrete ruins of Mister T's, then a house trailer, then perhaps 75 yards of woods, then another house trailer with a mailbox which read: "13115 Hwy 49E." I parked the Bluesmobile on the side of the highway, then got out and walked toward the woods.
At first, I thought that nothing remained of the Midnight Grill. I saw only thick woods. But as I walked closer I saw a dim, dark bulk in the woods. I wore only sandals, so I walked slowly and carefully through weeds and briars. Noticing that because of a foot-tall leafy plant covering the ground I couldn't see the ground and, therefore, couldn't see a snake on the ground, I almost called off the expedition. Indiana Jones, I ain't.
I raised my eyes, and the dim, dark bulk in the woods had become gray concrete walls almost hidden by jungle-like vines and foliage. It looked indistinguishable from Incan or Mayan ruins. I said damn the snakes and damn Indiana Jones and damn these sandals and gingerly stepped forward.
At some point in the remote past, probably during a widening of Highway 49E, bulldozers had pushed chunks of concrete against the front wall of the ruins of the Midnight Grill. The thought struck me that in the heat of the day, snakes, especially rattlesnakes, enjoy resting in the coolness beneath rocks. Oh, the trials we anthropologists endure in order to further human knowledge!
It was time to get off that chunk of concrete, out of that jungle, and back to the safety of the Bluesmobile. I stepped down, my right foot disappearing beneath the leafy ground cover, then my left foot. I hesitated, expecting the agony of piercing fangs or stingers to envelope my naked toes. Nothing. I took one slow step after another and finally reached the welcome weeds and briars at the edge of the highway right-of-way. Thorns hath no fear in the heart of Indiana Junior!
Finally, I reached the grassy right-of-way and started walking fast toward the waiting and welcome sight of the Bluesmobile. Jungle-covered ruins, I decided with a backward glance, are better left to celluloid anthropologists wearing boots. But wait, I told myself. What tha hell was that in the edge of the woods?
I stopped. I turned. My eyes slowly made out the form of a. . . . Nah, can't be. By God, it is! It's a cross! How in tha hell. . . ? Why in tha hell?
I walked closer and stopped. Then I saw 2 more crosses almost hidden by the jungle-like growth. Recognition came–the crosses of Calvary. Someone, obviously several years earlier, had erected the crosses as an act of faith or as part of an Easter sunrise service.
I thought of Sam Sims preaching to me from his pickup pulpit. I remembered the many times during my blues travels when the religion/devil music controversy/dichotomy confronted me, once even with a long, Sam Sims-like recitation of Bible verses, all selected to redeem me from my evil, blues-loving ways and to save my soul from the burning pits of hell. Now, before me lay the physical evidence, the artifacts, of that cultural dichotomy–the Christian crosses, religion, erected almost within the walls of the Midnight Grill, devil music.
As I drove down Highway 49 and as a cool breeze whistled through the Bluesmobile's open windows, I thought–deep thoughts. Religion, religion/magic, we anthropologists call it, is one of the anthropological cultural universals, i.e., traits all cultures share and will always share. They are:
For several years I have observed the similarities between the emotions caused by religion and the emotions caused by music, blues music in particular. Therefore, I decided, religion and blues are the same thing. And if our culture will always have religion, then it will always have blues. That was a happy thought.
And so I drove down Highway 49, the ruins of the Midnight Grill far behind me and my voice singing my favorite Elmore James song: