It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door, “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
Money, Mississippi, is a forgotten, almost deserted Delta town a few miles north of Greenwood. It is still unincorporated and like most of the Delta, the land hasn’t changed under the endless sky. The muddy Tallahatchie River rises with a flood, the railroad tracks pass the South Money sign, and rocks crunch on gravel roads. The rich, flat fields are still lined in straight rows that touch the horizon, looking like the spinning spokes of a bicycle as you drive by. The rusted cotton gin is boarded up and a tractor with three flat tires is parked under the shed. The population has fallen from 400 to 100, and those people are hard to find.
The road to Money is two-lane County Road 518, better known as Money Road. This is one of the poorest areas in the country and the name Money comes from United States Senator Hernando Money, not prosperity. Money Road cuts through farmland and curves at the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, passing through a deep stretch of American music and history — the grave of blues legend Robert Johnson, Bobbie Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge, and Bryant’s Grocery, where the Civil Rights movement began.
Robert Johnson is one of the first and most influential of the Mississippi Delta blues singers. Legend says he walked to the crossroads at midnight and exchanged his soul for an unearthly ability to play the guitar. The cause of Johnson’s death is a mystery, but he died in 1938 at age 27. He wrote only 29 songs, including “Cross Road Blues,” “I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Terraplane Blues.” He was also the first to record “Sweet Home Chicago.” Johnson influenced Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Jack White, and The Rolling Stones, and has been called the “Grandfather of Rock and Roll.”
Whiskey bottles, beer bottles, and shot glasses are left on Johnson’s grave in the back of the cemetery at Little Zion M.B. Church on the bank of the Tallahatchie River. The tombstone says it was placed under the old pine tree where Johnson’s body was placed before he was buried. The stone says, “Robert L. Johnson May 8,1911 to August 6, 1938. Musician and composer. He influenced millions beyond his time.” On the back of the tombstone are his lyrics: “When I leave this town/I’m ‘on’ bid you fare…farewell/And when I return again/You’ll have a great long story to tell,” from “Four Until Late.”
Up the river from Johnson’s grave is the Tallahatchie bridge from Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billie Joe.” The original wooden bridge collapsed in 1972 and was replaced with a smaller concrete bridge. Gentry grew up in the Delta between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo rivers. There was no Billie Joe McAllister, but why he jumped and what he threw over the bridge is still one of the great mysteries of music. Gentry never explained these because to her the reasons weren’t important. The point of the song is unconscious cruelty and an uncaring response to tragic events as life goes on. The song was Gentry’s first single, sold 3 million copies, won three Grammys, and it was number one for four weeks in 1967. Rolling Stone listed it as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Today you can sit on the bridge, watch the river, and listen to “Ode to Billie Joe” over and over and never see a car pass by. From the bridge you can also see the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery, where on August 24, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, visiting from Chicago, went into the store with his cousin to buy candy and allegedly flirted with the wife of Roy Bryant, owner of the store. Four days later, Till was kidnapped, beaten, and killed. His mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted of the crime by a white jury, but later sold their confession toLook magazine. The story and pictures of Till’s tortured body in an open casket at his funeral in Chicago received international attention and was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement. The Mississippi Freedom Trail Markers called it “the beginning of the end of white supremacy in the South.”
“I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to the back, I just couldn’t move.” Rosa Parks
Driving by, you wouldn’t notice Bryant’s Grocery if you didn’t know it was there. There is no museum, no T-shirts, and the simple historic marker was put up only a few years ago. The roof has collapsed, the windows are broken, and the brick walls are covered in vines. Stories say the owners have put a high price tag on the property, but if nothing is done to save it, one day it will be gone. Today, standing alone in front of the wooden doors with the “Private Property” sign, it is easy to imagine Till walking into the store then walking out with candy, unaware that he only had four days to live or that he would become a part of American history. It is a past that is still painful to those who lived through it, but harder to understand for each new generation. In a place like Money, it is still possible to go back in time and feel the past for yourself.
History. Music. Civil Rights. Rock’n’Roll. The world was changed by the tragic events and lingering mysteries in this obscure Delta town. Few people know the name Money, Mississippi, but the weight of its past lives on and it is still felt in the haunting lyrics of Bobbie Gentry’s song:
“A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge”