Article

History, Mystery, and Music in Money, Mississippi

Tallahatchie River

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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”

   

Enjoyable read...thanks for the landmark photographs as well...it has been a long time since I travelled through that area...for a moment I was back there again.

One of those travel moments that changes your life. I grew up less than two hours from Money and didn't know about it.

It does cast a spell...Emmett Till, Robert Johnson, and the song...I never cared much for the song when it was popular though I was drawn to the way it told the story, and the way it described the region, you could picture it and sort of feel it...people talked about that song, the events, what happened, it really resonated with people...I didn't care for the minimalist arrangement at the time, but it was the only way to present that story in retrospect (my taste in music is much more tolerant these days). 

and then I went throught that area...you captured exactly what I felt...civil rights, lynching, the river and the bridge and the story that left us with more questions than answers, and the ghost of Robert Johnson...nicely done.

“I was dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge/A thousand miles from where we live/ … A voice we'll never understand ... A lonesome boy in a foreign land/… lies on the river bar/ …You can cross the bridge and carve your name/But the river stays the same/We left but never went away/Out on Money Road.”

                                         -- Rosanne Cash, “Money Road” (2014)

. . .

Two years ago, Terry Roland reviewed  Rosanne Cash’s  Grammy-winning album, The River and the Thread album (“Rosanne Cash Follows the Call of the River and the Thread”, ”No Depression, Jan. 3, 2014).  http://nodepression.com/article/rosanne-cash-follows-call-river-and-thread

Last year, Jim Morrison interviewed  Rosanne Cash (“Rosanne Cash Sews Her Masterpiece,” No Depression, March 12, 2015). http://nodepression.com/interview/rosanne-cash-sews-her-masterpiece   He noted that the last song on her album, "Money Road," was inspired by her own December 2012 trip to Money, MS:

 “[John]Leventhal [her husband who wrote the music] and Cash were surprised how close Robert Johnson's grave is to the Tallahatchie Bridge and to Money.  Cash put them both in the song -- a slow piano blues. Johnson is the "voice we'll never understand" and Till is "a lonesome boy in a foreign land." "Neither one got very far, out on Money Road," Cash sings.

The picture John took of Rosanne on the Money bridge ended up as the cover to her CD album (same view as the picture at the front of this story)   

Backstage, after her October 23, 2014 concert, I handed Rosanne a binder entitled “Out on Money Road” (about the intersection between Rosanne, Bobbie Gentry, my Dad’s cousin Billy, and the lynching of Emmett Till).  Here’s an excerpt from interviews with Rosanne & John about her song “Money Road”:

[John Leventhal:]  “One of the most extraordinary days of my life took us out on Money Road … and beyond.”  This is what happened.”

“We went to Greenwood, then we went to Robert Johnson's grave, on Money Road … Then we drove further down Money Road to Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered.  And the grocery store, Bryant's Grocery store, was still standing there – about falling down to the ground. … It was key to where the Civil Rights Movement began, right at that spot. It chills you to your core.   And then we drove right around the corner to the Tallahatchie Bridge. So close you could walk. It was unbelievable. In my mind the Tallahatchie Bridge was enormous, but it's just a little modest bridge over this little Tallahatchie River.  Nobody there. We sat on the bridge for a half an hour and one car went by.” … “We asked each other, ‘What are we going to throw off the bridge?’ So we threw off a guitar pick.”

… that reflective moment on the Tallahatchie Bridge, close to the Emmett Till lynching and forever tied in pop culture to Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 Southern Gothic classic of a hit, “Ode to Billie Joe.” (Avowed fan Cash has worked the song into recent concerts and narrated the 2012 BBC Radio documentary13  , “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?”)14

“John took my picture with his phone, standing on the bridge. … I wasn’t thinking in metaphors when we chose that photo for the cover. I was standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge, looking out over the Tallahatchie River, and I thought it was so cool that the bridge, which loomed so large in our minds because of “Ode To Billie Joe,” was where I was actually standing.  We mention the bridge in our song “Money Road” and that song came from the day we visited the bridge.”

… “we were in a vortex of music, tragedy and revolution.  That kind of thing stays with you forever.  You can leave, but you can’t go away. … we were driving away, and John said, ‘We gotta write a song about Money Road.’  And that ended the record.”

No wonder Cash finds fitting closure on the album with her own ode to “Money Road.” Reflecting on the idea that “what you seek is seeking you,” she sings, channeling at once the ghosts of the Delta and her own past: “You can cross the bridge and carve your name, but the river stays the same. We left but never went away.”15

13:  Rosanne Cash, “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?” , BBC UK May 12, 2012 http://bobbiegentry.podomatic.com/entry/2012-05-18T07_09_47-07_00

14:  William Ellis, “The Long Way Home: Rosanne Cash” (Delta Magazine July 18, 2014)http://deltamagazine.com/features/the-long-way-home-rosanne-cash/

15:  William Ellis, “The Long Way Home: Rosanne Cash” (Delta Magazine July 18, 2014)http://deltamagazine.com/features/the-long-way-home-rosanne-cash/

Last year, Tara Murtha published her 33 1/3 book, Ode to Billy Joe, about Bobbie Gentry and her 1967 hit song "Ode to Billie Joe" (http://www.odetobilliejoe333.com/).  On the title page of my “Out on Money Road”  document, I included a picture of Bobbie Gentry crossing the Money bridge back in 1967 (search Bobbie Gentry, Money) and the following quotes:

 

Nearly every Mississipii story sooner or later touches this one [the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till] … including mine.  Mine is about … family legacies … ends up – in some spiritual homing way – right here, in … Money … before this tottering and yet somehow beautiful and abandoned building … a monument in ruin, forgotten, recalcitrant, collapsing in on itself, set against memory and the wind and these five decades of change…”   

                             -- Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi (2003)

“I was dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge/A thousand miles from where we live/ … A lonesome boy [Emmett Till] in a foreign land/… lies on the river bar/ …You can cross the bridge and carve your name/But the river stays the same/We left but never went away/Out on Money Road.”

                                                 -- Rosanne Cash, “Money Road” (2014)

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, delta day/… Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge … [Brother Taylor] saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge/And she and Billie Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

                                         -- Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967)

“March 1968 ... "Life" Magazine showed a full-page photo of long-haired Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge, which figured in her song, "Ode to Billie Joe." And some of us did a double take.  The location is Money, Mississippi –where Emmett Till's body was found!  … there was a joke among black Americans. They knew what was thrown off that bridge.”

                                       -- Pete Seeger, The Incompleat Folksinger (1972)

“Services for … (Billy) ... were held … he was swimming with some friends last summer [my Dad told me the story his cousin jumped off a Tallahatchie bridge] … and broke his neck, which left him paralyzed … he was [16 years old] in the eighth grade.  .... [he is survived by his parents, two brothers, and three sisters]”

                                    -- Greenwood Commonwealth (November 1, 1951)

“I was dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge/A thousand miles from where we live/ … A lonesome boy [Emmett Till] in a foreign land/… lies on the river bar/ …You can cross the bridge and carve your name/But the river stays the same/We left but never went away/Out on Money Road” [“… a vortex of music, tragedy and revolution”] 

-- Rosanne Cash, “Money Road” (2014)

. . .

Currently, I’m in the middle of updating my 2014 document “Out on Money Road” (about the intersection between my MS roadtrips, Rosanne, Bobbie Gentry, my Dad’s cousin Billy, and the lynching of Emmett Till).    I'm hoping to make another road trip back to MS with my Dad later this winter to finish up some research and visit some of his relatives (before they die off!).

Good luck with that research Guy...a compelling story...Seeger's comment above lends a perspective that I'd never have even thought of at the time the song was popular...

I had forgotten about the Roseanne Cash song. I am glad you posted all of this. I am looking forward to it being my bedtime reading tonight with Roseanne's music.