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 in generations. The muddy Tallahatchie River rises with a flood. Rocks crunch on gravel roads. Rich, flat fields are lined in straight rows that touch the endless horizon, looking like the spinning spokes of a bicycle as cars pass by. A rusted cotton gin is boarded up and a tractor with three flat tires sits useless in a shed. People are hard to find.
Two-lane County Road 518, better known as Money Road, cuts through one of the poorest areas in the country. The name comes from U.S. 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 country’s civil rights movement began.
Robert Johnson is one of the first and most influential of the Mississippi Delta blues men. Legend says he walked to the crossroads at midnight to meet the devil and exchanged his soul for an otherworldly ability to play guitar. The cause of Johnson’s death is a mystery, but he died in 1938, age 27. He wrote only 29 songs, including “Cross Road Blues,” “I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Terraplane Blues,” and was the first to record “Sweet Home Chicago.” Called “The Grandfather of Rock and Roll,” Johnson influenced Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Jack White and The Rolling Stones.
Whiskey bottles and shot glasses are stacked on Johnson’s grave in Little Zion’s cemetery and the tombstone reads “Robert L. Johnson May 8,1911 to August 6, 1938. Musician and composer. He influenced millions beyond his time.” On the back of the stone are his lyrics from “Four Until Late,” “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.“
Up the river from Johnson’s grave is the Tallahatchie bridge from Gentry’s song “Ode to Billie Joe.” She grew up in Choctaw County between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo rivers. There was no Billie Joe McAllister, what he threw over the bridge and why he jumped are twp of the mysteries of music. Gentry never explained, but the song about unconscious cruelty and an uncaring response to tragic events was her first single, selling 3 million copies. It won three Grammys, and was No. 1 for four weeks in 1967. Rolling Stone listed it as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The original wooden bridge collapsed in 1972, but today you can sit alone on the concrete bridge, watch the river and listen to Gentry’s ballad over and over, without a car ever passing 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, walked into the store with his cousin to buy candy and allegedly flirted with the wife of Roy Bryant, owner of the store. Unaware that four days later, he would be kidnapped, beaten, and killed and become a part of American history. 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 to Look 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
Standing in front of the boarded-up doors marked Private Property, it is easy to imagine Till walking into the store with change and walking out with candy, unaware that in four days he would be murdered and his name would become a part of American history.
There is no museum, no postcards, keychains or T-shirts of Bryant’s Grocery. The 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 muscadine vines. Stories say there is a high price on the property to discourage buyers, but if nothing is done to save it, this reminder of a painful past will soon be gone.
History. Music. Civil Rights. Rock’n’Roll. In a place like Money, it is still possible to go back in time. The world was changed by the tragic events and lingering mysteries in this tiny Delta town.
“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”