A father and daughter consider the past—and the future—on a road trip through the Mississippi Delta – Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta, Georgia 2022-05-23 08:58:53 –

Illustration by Tom Howgomat

Drive north on Money Road from Greenwood, Mississippi, and the town rushes to give way to cotton and corn. A few miles further, the Little Zion MB Church appears, with white clapboards and tombstones scattered under the trees. Many of the old stones have worn letters. This is the last resting place for legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, scattered with mini-bottles of bourbon left as a tribute. Not far away is a rural store accused of whistling a white woman by 14-year-old Emmett Till in the summer of 1955. A few days later he was kidnapped, beaten and shot. His mother insisted on an open casket to show the world how he suffered by the hands of southern racists.

At the end of my first year of college, I invited my eldest daughter to a road trip to the Mississippi Delta, promising 24-hour blues music and unlimited shopping at some of the best independent bookstores. To loosen her contract, I threw her chosen facial at Greenwood’s Albian Hotel accommodation and hotel spa. This trip wasn’t too secret about me, only a few days with my oldest when we were starting to lose her in her own life. It also introduces her to a part of the world that holds a meaningful place in my imagination, not only for music, but for the horrifying history that music draws power and gives a kind of gravity to the landscape. I’ve never felt anywhere else that was also to do.

The trip was not all tombstones and historic signs. We booked time at the spa and loaded the novel at Greenwood’s Turnrow Books. At the legendary Ruscoz, I ate a steak buried in shrimp and crabs baked in butter and hot sauce. We follow Highway 49 to Clarksdale, where we meet Highway 61, a crossroads where Robert Johnson seems to have sold his soul to the devil for a guitar skill that the world has never seen. Hit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. There, her daughter bought more books and letterpress. I listened to Lightnin Malcolm and Howl and Mad Perry live at the Ground Zero Blues Club.

Imagine Bruce providing a soundtrack for conversations about Southern history, its musical and literary heritage, slavery and Jim Crow’s heritage, and how many hours I spent curating road playlists. It’s embarrassing to admit, it’s a sound that will forever change the music about how Mississippi’s share cropper created a spare yet magical sound rooted in spiritual and outdoor songs. Such a trip is like pushing your favorite novel to someone you care about. Others may not feel your feelings.

To tell the truth, the actual crossroads were marked by a disappointing, bright flowerbed and cartoon-style guitar, decorated to remind us of Disney rather than the devil. I had to dart four lanes to take a selfie at the sign. Was this the place where Robert Johnson knelt in the middle of the night with a dream and a cheesy guitar, and Beelzebub himself swirled out of the fog? Her look on her selfie shows that my daughter wasn’t impressed.

However, on her way back to Greenwood, she found a red clay truck meandering in the distance. We pulled a U-turn and hit it until the truck bisected another truck in the same way. I couldn’t see it in any direction except the field, the sky, the light and the shadow. To her surprise, she buried a bunch of her hair and left a part of herself in its place. At that time, I took another picture. Her daughter was at a crossroads. Neither of us had any idea where those tracks would connect.

Michael Knight is the author of three novels, three collections of short stories, and a novella. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.

This article appeared in the Spring / Summer 2022 issue. Southbound..

Back to top button