Mississippi Delta and Beyond

Last week, I had the extreme pleasure of traveling to Mississippi for a photo-walk (SEWLK 1.0) I co-hosted with the über-talented Ashleigh Coleman. After NEWLK 5.0 on Nantucket Island last spring, Ashleigh and I talked about bringing a version of the walk to the south. An October photo-walk in the picturesque Mississippi Delta was decided upon and we set things into motion over the summer. Ashleigh really did an amazing job picking out this location and route for the participants, so a big thank you to her for taking us through Greenwood and Baptist Town, MS for her inaugural photo walk. I have to say, this walk was spectacular, not only due to an outstanding location, but to the folks that joined in with us, as well as the over-flowing supply of friendly and hospitable residents of Mississippi. The tenderhearted demeanor of the people down there easily made this the most memorable photo-walk of my life.

Weekend Stops

Fair warning, this will be a lengthy recap of the four days in Mississippi as well as the one-day walk on the Delta, so expect about 15 minutes reading time to get through this story. If you want to skip to various sections, I've included a quick index to the right which you can click through. The majority of the images shot here are Fuji Pro 400 H 120 on the Pentax 67, aside from the Kodak Portra 400 NC 220 shot at the abandoned church in Rodney. No meter was used.

I mentioned spectacular people. Well, after many years via only phone conversations, I finally got to meet face-to-face with the super-wonderful Albany Katz (of Richard Photo Lab and guest photographer on Physical Grain) and her fantastic mom, Elin. Spoiler: they are two of the most awesome souls on the planet. Getting together with them was like re-connecting with a life-long friend. We all had the privilege and honor of staying with Ashleigh in her gorgeous home, along with her beautiful family, our longtime mutual friend Lauren Keim (also on Physical Grain), and Ashleigh's friend Bill Yates.  I bonded so quickly with everyone there, staying up late each night chatting, sharing, and telling stories like we'd been friends... no, family, forever.

This is the foremost reason in my book to attend photo-walks if you've never been. The bonds that form are incredibly strong, especially when you can spend some quality extended time with a few folks. Since we gathered last weekend, not a day has gone by that we (Albany, Ashleigh, Lauren, and I) haven't chatted.

So, after the five of us settled into Ashleigh's home on Friday afternoon, she loaded us into her vehicle and rocketed us to a really wild Cypress Swamp along the Natchez Trace Parkway, just outside of Jackson. The swamp has a 1/2 mile boardwalk that crosses over the belly of the swamp as well as surrounding the entire perimeter. Alligators are known to be here, but sadly, we didn't get to see any that night. Only the mosquitoes came out to greet us is sheer abundance. We explored the swamp while the light remained, as well as up the road along the Pearl River until the sky opened up in a drenching downpour.

That about wrapped up the first day of shooting.

The evening was capped off with some wonderfully aromatic home southern cooking, cocktails, and great stories into the wee hours of the morning. This is really how every day should be lived.

BETONIA

On the way out to the Mississippi Delta on Saturday morning, we (Ashleigh, Albany, Elin, Lauren, and I) stopped off in Betonia to see the historic old juke joint called the Blue Front Café. The town was rustic and had the look of being once prosperous, but now on the road to being a forgotten landmark. We pulled along side the Blue Front which was nestled between an old automotive shop and a small "quick stop" where a family was chilling out back, enjoying the warm sun in the chilly morning air.

Blue Front Cafe, Beltonia, MS

Here, we ran into Larry Allen, grandson to the 1948 founders of the cafe, Carey and Mary Holmes. He shared his stories of the bands that played here to entertain the field hands from the surrounding cotton plantations and some local history of what it was like growing up in the sleepy town of Betonia. The Blue Front continues to attract locals and tourists and Larry encouraged us to swing back through when they were open to check it out (the owner was on a cruise, so he wasn't sure if it was opening up that day). Some of the notable blues players that drifted in and out in its heyday were Skip James, Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, Sonny Boy Williamson, and James “Son” Thomas. He told me this was the place to experience the soul of the south. Unfortunately, we didn't make it back to Betonia that night.

We all grabbed portraits of Larry in front of the Blue Front, got his shipping address, and we're all going to send him prints.

Yazoo City

Next on the list of quick stops was a quirky town named Yazoo City. Man, I love that name. The town had a really engaging vibe with a combination of abandoned buildings and shops mixed with a color pallet you'd expect on a Caribbean island. The bright colors were in stark contrast to the sight of boarded up store-fronts and vacant lots. It was a fairly quiescent town, aside from an omnipresent speaker system belching out the blues, a handful of local shoppers, and a couple stray dogs roaming the alleyways. At times, the surreal town felt like the backdrop to a Stephen King novel. The operating businesses seemed to be restricted to the upper-section of town, where we lost Ashleigh to the Black and White Department Store for a little boot shopping.

In the mid-section of the town was a great amphitheater, carved out of an abandoned building. No idea if it's something still used or forgotten, but it really made quite the excellent photo opportunity. Flanked by two additional abandoned buildings, the theater was without a roof and only had the upper half of the facade and most of the rear wall in tact. The walls were splattered with some great street/art work and gave off such a pleasing vibe.

One super-odd spot Albany and I happened upon looked like a florist shop gone mad. The front window (behind all the steam and moisture) had about 8 feet - yes, feet - of piled up dead leaves, yet the top of the plant was still alive and kicking. It looked well abandoned, yet the heat inside was cranked up and the trim looked freshly painted on the outside. It still baffles us.

We felt we could have spent the week just exploring this little town, though it was really time to continue on our journey west to the Delta. We departed Yazoo City with little time to spare, though we managed to swing through Midnight, MS because, why wouldn't you? Midnight is another almost forgotten town that folklore says was won on a midnight poker hand. Here, we stopped at an abandoned house to explore for a bit. The home was stunningly beautiful, and so hard to believe it was just left there. But so goes the story for so many homes across this region.

Mississippi Delta: Greenwood | #SEWLK

OK, so onto the proper walk. Assembling at the Turnrow Book Co, the 25 or so photographers gathered in a loose mass, introducing ourselves to each other. Most seemed to be from the Jackson and surrounding areas with one (I believe just one) from the Delta. Almost all were from the state - and all displayed that warm loving vibe like I've felt nowhere else. We talked on gear, film stocks, styles, and what have you. One thing I noticed that there was quite the showing of Hasselblads on this photo-walk. It was nice to see so many and am really curious to see the images they captured. Ashleigh promptly introduced the walk and course then sent us on our way.

As we headed down Johnson Street, we came upon some locals in their Sunday best standing in front of a restaurant and pool hall called, Memphis Style Best Wings. Several from our group began talking with them and, come to find out, they were all gathered for a funeral to remember a loved one that just passed. We were about to let them be, but they wanted us to share in the story and invited the group into the shop to talk with the family and friends celebrate life. Again, I was struck with the prodigious hospitality.

A ways down the road, I got to meet this fine gentleman sweeping in front of Lusco's. He was so happy to tell me all about Lusco's history. He said the founders were from Italy, but had a heavy influence from the time they spent in Louisiana, giving them some signature seafood dishes blended with Italian cooking flavors. Though they were closed, he invited a few of us inside to see how the restaurant was laid out. 

The front of the Lusco's was a little grocery shop with a ton of taxidermy.  It was awesome. I think I was so taken off guard by it that I forgot to get a photo of it all. He took us around the side to the dining area where each and every table was separately partitioned off with walls and doors for privacy. He said it was a real draw for people here since they were founded. The restaurant and shop changed very little since it was put in the current location in 1933 (he said the previous location burned down in the 1920's).

He was most proud of a wall of photos hidden in the service hallway in the back of the restaurant. He opened it up for me to show the photos of all the famous people that had dined there, many of them blues musicians, athletes, and actors. Though we didn't get to eat there, the walk-thru was really great and I felt honored to be given the tour.

Baptist Town

We all regrouped after this (as many went on their own paths on this stretch of road) and headed into the historic Baptist Town, which, like the Blue Front Cafe in Betonia, is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. Baptist Town was my most striking and memorable part of my visit to Mississippi and I cover the two of my highlights below (Robert Johnson and the Back in the Day Museum). The vast majority of the group missed this little talk so I want to share it in detail.

Baptist Town, one of the oldest African American communities in the area, dates back to the 1800's and was said to be a safe haven for musicians wanting to escape work on the cotton fields. The town was home to Robert Johnson (the king of Delta Blues with famous songs like “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” and “Hellhound On My Trail” ), Tommy McClennan, and Honeyboy Edwards to name a few. This is the heart and soul of where the blues originally came from.

Robert Johnson

While looking at a sign on an empty plot of land that read, "The Legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson played music and died on this corner," a gentleman came walking down the street to meet Albany, Elin, Ellen Rodgers, and I and took us on an adventure we'll never forget. His name was Sylvester Hoover, owner of Hoover Grocery as well as the Back in the Day Museum. He asked us where we were from and what brought us to Baptist Town. After some back and forth chit-chat, we asked about the sign, the history of Robert Johnson, and why he died so young.

He gave us a beautifully told account of how Johnson enjoyed playing his music while growing up here and wanted to become famous, more than anything. So, he was told to take his guitar to the crossroads to meet the devil near Dockery Plantation at midnight. He met a large black man, bigger than life, who asked that he hand over his guitar.  The devil picked it up, tuned it, played him some songs, and then handed it back to Johnson. The morning he returned to Baptist Town, Johnson had completely mastered the guitar and played like no one had heard before; and the blues were born, right then and there.

Sylvester continued the story that Johnson played all along the local jukes and wherever the tracks would take him. He loved the women and the whiskey and had a woman in every town waiting for him when he came to play. The legend goes that a jealous husband found out about Johnson flirting with his wife at a dance, so he gave him a bottle of poisoned whiskey for revenge. He was with Sonny Boy Williamson at the time, who was pretty sure the bottle was poisoned and knocked it from his hand. Williams said to him, "Never drink from a bottle you didn't buy yourself," to which Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." He was offered another bottle by the envious husband, which was once again poisoned, and this time drank from it. He went ill that night, was brought to a bed, and suffered the most painful death you can imagine over the next three days, according to Sylvester.

Back in the Day Museum

Ol Sylvester wasn't done with us just yet though. His story on Johnson ended as we approached his shop and his Back in the Day museum. He offered to give us a private tour and grabbed his keys from next door to unlock the old home. You see, this museum wasn't just any building, but was an old home decorated to replicate the typical home and life of an African American family from well before civil rights. The home someone working the plantation might have lived in at the time.

The home, no larger than a tractor trailer bed had just one door and a couple of small windows letting in some broken light across the floor.  Stepping inside, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark and desolate atmosphere. No lights or electricity. No plumbing. No running water. The few prized possessions were proudly displayed. Items like a small record player, a few wooden chairs, and some photos up on the walls. At the far end was a small bedroom and one central wood burning stove. A stove that they had to keep running, day and night, to keep warm in the winter and took keep their beans and other foods heated year-round. Think about a home of this size, on a hot Mississippi summer, with a stove blasting heat. Sylvester says this is why everyone always hung out on the front porch - to get out of the heat.

He also showed us a canvas cotton-picking sack that was used back in the day, about 8 feet long with a strap that went across the shoulders to drag it through the field. He said it was a craft to be able to pick, as you had to be gentle to not get cut up by the burrs. It took about 3 hours to fill the bag and would weigh up to 220 pounds when full. Once dumped, the bag would have to be dragged to the edge of the field, emptied, and then you start all over. 

Sylvester explained how the two sets of tracks divided the town, and pretty much still do to this day. The African American community was settled between these tracks. He said it's hard for folks to leave here, and really wished that Morgan Freeman, whose childhood home was right next to where we stood now, would come back to talk to the children. Sadly, Sylvester says, he will not.

Tin Types

Well, after this 40 minute detour, the four of us were well separated from the pack. We caught up with them back across the tracks in downtown Greenwood for some tin type photography with Michael Foster. He was shooting onto 6.5x8.5 glass with his gorgeous wooden large format setup. It was pretty awesome to see the process in action. He'd frame the shot, walk to a trailer to prep the glass and after about 5 minutes, take a 3-4 second exposure, then run back to develop it. He'd to the "reveal" in front of us in a black tub so we'd be able to see the white glass positive. Time was dwindling in the setting sun, but he did manage to shoot 6 frames. I hope to get some scans of those to share with you here.

We all went out to a little restaurant called The Crystal Grill for some fine southern cooking and a recap of our day together. It was really nice walking, talking, and shooting with everyone on the walk and I think we all made some new life-long connections because of it.

Of course, after this, we headed back to Ashleigh's for another night of drinks and talk around her living room.

Sharing Images from Others

I mentioned on the walk that I want to share images that others took on the walk. So, once I get a bunch in, I will update this post with their view of Greenwood and Baptist Town. If you were on the walk and want to share a few images, please drop me a line and I will get them up here ASAP.

Lowry Wilson

These images above were taken by Lowry Wilson (oldsouthimages.com). 

Billy Blaylock

Images above by Billy Blaylock (billyblaylock.com).

Justin Sharp

Image above by Justin Sharp (@Justin_Sharp_).

Betty Press

Images above by Betty Press (bettypress.com). The young boy in the photo is Marquavius Buchanan. Bettey says, "He was so curious about my camera and patiently watched as I had to reload my film and change my lens before I could take his portrait.  And he wanted to be photographed by himself in this place, not with the other kids.  I told him he should think about being a photographer when he grows up."

Rory Doyle

Images above by Rory Doyle (rorydoylephoto.com).

David McCarty

Images above by David McCarty (mccartypolaroids.com).

Rodney

Sunday morning, Ashleigh, Albany, and I headed out to see the abandoned (ghost) town of Rodney. Anyone that follows Ashleigh's work or has scrolled through Physical Grain knows of the hauntingly beautiful flooded church she shot. I've been so in awe of this place since she started posting photos of it that I felt like I was going to her Graceland. The town did not let us down.

We arrived at the Mt. Zion No. 1 Baptist Church (the one I mentioned above) and took some photos inside and out. We were greeted by a super friendly dog that we named Benji. (He followed us throughout the town.) The structure was completely amazing, tilting heavily after years of neglect and floods. The light inside was incredible and I quickly blew through a roll of Portra 400 NC 220 (very unlike me to shoot 20 images in one spot). Ashleigh even pulled out the large format Ebony and took several frames out here.

For some background, Rodney was founded in 1828 and was a thriving town until the Mississippi river shifted away from it, driving the population down to nearly zero. It was the site of a famous Civil War battle that Ashleigh told Albany and I about and ended with a canon ball lodged in the bricks of the First Presbyterian Church (which is still there). The story says that the Union had a gunboat stationed just off the shore to keep the town secured. They were given strict orders not to leave the boat, but they snuck off on a Sunday morning to attend church. During a hymn, a Confederate lieutenant walked to the front, told the men they were surrounded, and ordered them to surrender. A small fight broke out, in which the gunboat fired canon balls into the town, lodging one into the church. The small Confederate cavalry went out and seized the gunboat, humiliating the Union Navy.

From here, we went up onto the hill behind the church to walk through an 19th century cemetery, where we were followed by "Benji" the dog. It was a very cool, very spooky place. Deep in the woods, surrounded with Spanish Moss, ferns, spiders, and old plots with ancient fencing, we all agreed that it was a wonderful spot for some portrait work.

As the sun set, another day of awesome shooting was done, so it was time to head back to the house for another round of food, drink, and chat.

Around Jackson and some final Thoughts

And this leads me to the last (sad) day in Mississippi. Ashley gave Albany, Elin, and I a grand tour of the city of Jackson before heading to the airport, stopping in several spots for the photos here. The town is large and widespread, but the population is fleeting. There are so many distinct sections of town with a ton of culture and beauty. A good number of homes and businesses have been abandoned and left for nature to reclaim, but I really hope something picks up there to bring them all back. We came across a great abandoned Ferrari dealership in Jackson too.

The trip to Mississippi was an amazing time for me. I will never forget the experiences I felt here and am so happy to have the many new friendships. Staying at Ashleigh's, it was so excellent to continue the friendships I already had, as well as bond so close with my new friends that also stayed there. The residents are the most kind and giving people I have come across in all my travels and made my experience truly remarkable. Let's hope my next walk can be half as good as this one. 

 

 

All images shot with the Pentax 67 - scanned and developed by Richard Photo Lab.