It’s Leflore County Road 518, a 20-mile stretch of two-lane asphalt that runs from Greenwood to Mississippi Highway 8, and just one of a million little local roads all across America, just a way to get from here to there and back again.
If only. This road is seared into the nation’s consciousness as Money Road, and the chords of devilish blues and the depths of murderous anger infuse it like a curse, winding along with it as it hugs the banks of the Tallahatchie River. Passing farms with names like Sweet Home and Wildwood, taking the curve past a storied churchyard and forever vibrating with that fateful night when all hell broke loose at a simple country store, this pavement carries America’s memories on its back.
In 1938, a time when Money Road was dirt and dust, just a few folks witnessed a strange, lonely procession from Star of the West Plantation to Little Zion Baptist Church. Robert Johnson, a cryptic character infused with talent so deep that many credited it to Satan himself, had caroused one time too many with the wrong man’s wife. Just 27 years old, with only a handful of largely ignored recordings under his belt, he died a miserable death in a shotgun shack looking out over the Tallahatchie, succumbing to juke joint poison on a sweltering August night. His body was loaded into a pine box and hauled to the graveyard a few miles north, where a handful of witnesses and no one who could truly be called a mourner watched as Johnson disappeared from this life. It would be half-a-century before one of those eyewitnesses studied the layout of the cemetery and made it possible for his grave to be marked. As his musical fame reemerged and spread throughout the world, Robert Johnson’s final resting place would come to be a mecca for those who still heard him across time and space.
Five miles or so further up Money Road, the crumbling walls of Bryant’s Grocery are all that remain to mark one of the darkest chapters in American history. When Emmett Till stepped across the threshold of that store on an August afternoon, he set in motion an explosion of terror and retribution that would rock the nation. Angry men with deep pride and short tempers used the Tallahatchie as the dumping place for a teenager who had threatened all that they held sacred, and their acts would rivet the eyes of the entire world on Leflore and Tallahatchie counties in that sad summer of 1955. The Civil Rights movement, a landmark 20th century social upheaval, traces its birth to that sagging store halfway up Money Road.
Greenwood’s own Bobbie Gentry captured the mystery and mood of Money Road in her 1967 song, “Ode to Billy Joe.” The achingly slow rhythm and disturbing narrative has left generations wondering just what it was that sailed off that Tallahatchie bridge and into musical immortality. And perhaps it was that Money Road tradition of conflict and torment that led director Tate Taylor to utilize the Whittington House, hard by the Tallahatchie’s north bank, as Skeeter’s home in the 2010 movie “The Help.” What better location than the south end of Money Road to immortalize this story of racial division and the power of forgiveness?
Robert Johnson Image © Delta Haze Corp.