We knew we were going to encounter history today, but we didn’t think we’d be totally ambushed by it in a “take no prisoners” fire-fight.
Our “official” itinerary involved going to Graceland (Elvis’s impact on Bobby Zimmerman was huge: “When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail”), followed by a visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was shot, and which has since been transformed into the “National Civil Rights Museum.” (Dylan’s musical connection to the CRM and the “freedom spirit” of that time made the museum a must-see for us.) Finally, we were going to go down to the true birthplace of the blues, the Mississippi Delta, and, specifically, the Delta Blues Museum. We’ll get to weirdness that followed shortly.
Graceland was…well Graceland, a pop music Mecca to Elvis fans, old and young. Between the gift shot, the airplane tour, the auto museum, and the mansion, there is a veritable industry down there on Elvis Presley Boulevard. You can’t buy this kind of Americana, though they did their very best to sell it to us.
Up we went on a bus to the “King’s” house, This poor kid from Tupelo made it big, but he really did quite know how super-wealthy people lived: the house is surprisingly modest. (Bill notes that most new mini-mansions in Sudbury where he taught are far larger). There is something beguiling about Elvis. In the video clips we watched, he comes off as a really nice guy who was influenced, like Mr. Dylan, by African-American root music, albeit in diluted form. There were enough gold records on display in the “trophy room” to pay off the total U.S. debt several times over. Outside lay the graves of Presley and his parents, and visitors lingered to read the text on the gravestones, and seemed genuinely moved. This was an obligatory visit to the home of someone whose impact on rock music and other artists was incalculable. We could cross one mandatory item off our trip bucket list.
About the Lorraine Motel/ Civil Rights Museum, let us say only that it provides a very powerful experience. Larry described the impact as “somber.” Bill would add, “moving.” The displays that mark and explicate the main events in the CRM were attractive, substantive, and sometimes startling (Try going into the Montgomery Bus exhibit and find yourself insulted by the driver). And then to see Dr. King’s motel room–#306–as it looked on that fateful day in 1968, was just about all one can stand. We were reminded just how high the price of freedom is! We spent an hour and a half at the museum, but we could have easily stayed three hours more.
As it was, we found ourselves in the familiar position of being pressed for time. We needed to get down to Clarkesville tout suite so we could see the Delta Blues Museum first thing in the morning, before heading north to Oxford, Miss., en route to Nashville (Nashville Skyline!), to keep our appointment with a gentleman who is a well-known photographer of musical legends and a multi-faceted maven of music. But as we pointed our car away from Tennessee and toward Mississippi, we debated whether we shouldn’t really go a little further south into the Delta to check out Greenwood, Miss. Why? Well, Dylan had sung “Only A Pawn In Their Game” in a farmer’s field there on July 2, 1963, as part of civil rights rally. We have the photo to prove it. We even found the name of the farmer. But as we debated whether to go down to Greenwood, which might well mean blowing our tight timetable to kingdom come. Naturally, we tried to be mature and deliberative before acting impulsively. Could we really hope to find a particular farmer’s field a half-century after Dylan had strummed his guitar in it? There are a zillion fields down here! And who knows whether the farmer, Silas McGee, was still alive or whether the farm was still a farm? To be brutally honest, we didn’t know the address. And finally this question: was it really worth all the trouble just so we could stand in a hay field? Would this, could this costly detour advance our search for the truth about Bob?
After carefully considering these troubling questions, we decided we had no choice but to head for Greenwood. Strange happenings would ensue from this fateful decision.
The drive to the Delta started well enough, with Bob and The Band launching into a blues tune from the album Basement Tapes via the Dylan-mobile sound machine. Unplanned but perfect! Fueled by this music, we arrived in Greenwood two hours later…and surprise, surprise!.. wehad no idea where to go on this quiet Sunday afternoon, with nary a person on the street. After riding on a barren. bombed out road into town and wandering around for a while–Bill thought that perhaps the whole town must have been abandoned, killed off by a Walmart, we turned onto the main commercial street, which was fairly attractive but also lacked any presence of human beings. Where to start?
We noted a hotel that was open and walked in to find a truly luxurious and stylish lobby that stood in stunning contrast to the truly dreadful poverty we had seen on our way into Greenwood. (Had we been snared by the gravitation pull of another planet?) Let us make a full confession: the sophisticated Intrepid Travelers entered the hotel fully intending to use our advanced wheedling techniques to acquire the info we needed. This proved totally unnecessary, as the young desk was very friendly and happy to help. Did she know of a farmer named McGee? No, but she spent quite a bit of time searching the Internet and the phone book, alas to no avail. We thanked her. She said ruefully, “If Miss Nadine were here to today she could tell you. She’s knows everything, she’s kind of the town historian, but this is her day off.” Damn! Now, where does one go to find a Missing Person like Silas McGee? We looked at each other and realized we had no choice. We had to play our last card. We went to the Greenwood Police Dept. across the street, possibly the only other place open on this Sabbath Day of Total Rest.
Just outside the station house, we encountered Officer Hill preparing to enter his patrol car. He was a little surprised to see two strangers approaching him. We explained our bizarre mission, and he seemed to relax. He thought for quite a while about Silas McGee, initially came up with nothing, but then starting flipping through the cop rolodex of his mind. Suddenly, but haltingly, he said, “McGee, McGee, yeah, he lived up in the ‘Browny’ area. It’s about five miles away.” We felt we had cracked this case wide open! We were about to ask directions when he added, “He’s deceased now and there is no way for you to find the farm without an escort. There’s just a tangle of roads up there.” We thanked him and were about the leave, when Officer Hill had another idea: “Mr. Jordan would probably know, but he’s about to host his radio who in 15 minutes. Maybe you could catch him before he goes on the air.” But where was the station? He gave us directions, but saw our confusion and took pity. “Are you ready to leave right now?” Yes! “Ok, I’ll escort you. Follow me.” And so we were now trailing a police car to WGNL. When we got there, Officer Hill, after looking around and not seeing Mr. Jordan’s car, suggested we go inside and speak to another gentleman. We knocked on the door. No answer. Finally, we just went in and the gentleman finally heard the footsteps of intruders and came out to see what was what, probably not expecting to see at that very moment some white guy wearing a Wisconsin t-shirt. But he also hadn’t heard of McGee, but suggested we email Mr. Jordan, who was out-of-town today (Double damn!) We thanked him, and noticed a beautiful historical sign by the roadside paying tribute to Black blues DJs in the Delta.
While leaving Greenwood, Bill heard a “gashrei” (Yiddish for scream) from Larry. He screeched to a halt as we both contemplated to our left the now abandoned synagogue of Greenwood. Orthodox no less! We had just been joking about how we were the only two Jews riding around in Mississippi (hence our occasional anxious glimpses into the rear view mirror a some Klan car). But there were Jews around! Or were there? The synagogue seemed abandoned. Literally by the time Larry drove to the end of the block, Bill was reading to him from the Internet about the history of this congregation. And so we left Greenwood, done in by Sunday and by the nerve of come people to take a day off or go out of town. But, starting from zero, we had at least cracked the crust of the McGee search.
Let’s back up a bit. After an hour or so of driving into Mississippi on I-55, Bill had commented on the musical sound of the state’s place names, mostly Indian in origin. At one point there was a sign for the Talahatchie River. Bill said something like, “Hmm, I’ve heard of that that before. I think Emmett Till was thrown into that river.” (For those unfamiliar with the case, it involved the horrific murder in 1955 of a 14-year old black kid visiting from Chicago]. Larry checked it out on the computer…and sure enough. Faithful Readers, you may recall that on day three, Larry had played rare song about the Till murder that Dylan had recorded at the beginning of his career. That song made a powerful impression on us. Now as we left Greenwood and turned onto Rt. 49 to Clarksdale the weird stuff began. A second scream issued from Larry. To our right, in big letters, the highway sign read: “Emmett Till Memorial Highway.” Yikes. Did it happen right around here? We had been pursuing history, now it seemed to have turned the tables and was following us.
Some miles up the highway another sign appeared: “Emmett Till Museum”…the next turn off. This time no big debate. Suddenly we were on a very narrow country road that wound us across RR tracks, just past a large wooden sign informing us that this was Glendora, the home town of “Sonny Boy” Williamson—King Of The Harmonica.” After the tracks, we took a sharp right onto a dirt road that was lined with some of the most hovel-like shacks we have seen in this country. Immense poverty. Shocking even for the 19th Century. But was this a road to a museum? Suddenly, a historical sign appeared before us, and we found ourselves looking the very spot of ground where stood the home of one of Till’s killers. (“From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks, And the hoofbeats pound in his brain, And he’s taught how to walk in a pack…”) Twenty yards further down the road was the museum, locked up tight on this late Sunday afternoon. Bill got out to take some pictures of a sign that said the cotton gin fan that had been tied to young Till’s neck came from the old gin that been turned into the museum building. Just as that photo were being taken, a freight train came by. We felt thrown back into Till’s time. It was eerie and creepy. Larry said we needed to get out of there, away from this place, where the oppressive heat, the abject poverty, the freight train’s mournful whistle combined to produce a palpable sense of threat and danger. We left. The people in the shacks barely looked up to check out the only traffic moving on their dirt lane. Has hope abandoned Glendora?
We felt like we were truly in another America, going back in time to the KKK era of lynchings. It was stunning to be there and to hear Dylan’s words playing in our heads. We drove off pondering the strange beauty of the Mississippi countryside juxtaposed against the history of insane cruelty and brutality to blacks.
We arrived in Clarksdale at about 8 pm. Beneath the giant Comfort Inn sign, a smaller sign celebrated a family reunion recently hosted at the motel. It was a reunion for the McGee family.