Ghost on the Highway
In the Mississippi Delta, the past isn’t the past. It’s a scary story waiting to be shared.
By Alison Fensterstock
Reading time 23 Minutes
Driving through the Mississippi Delta, it's hard not to feel a little unstuck in time.
Driving through the Mississippi Delta, it's hard not to feel a little unstuck in time. If you’re not on the interstate you can go for miles without seeing any human-made structure break the horizon – flat rows of cotton bolls or wide wet rice fields just stretch out forever until they meet the sky. In the rich alluvial plain, nature holds primacy. If it’s not tamed farmland, then it’s wild kudzu, coating everything in layers of leafy vine so verdant and lush they almost seem to be rolling in motion, like a sea, over the landscape.
When a building appears, like as not it doesn’t feel a product of modern times. Off the side of Highway 49 the Parchman Farm penitentiary looms like little rows of squat ghosts, white camp buildings where male prisoners, mostly African American, sleep before they work in the fields. The Dockery Farms plantation, a seminal spot for the blues – Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf all worked or lived near there in the early part of the twentieth century – stands empty and weathered, its land thickly green and buzzing with the sound of insects and ending at a steep drop-off into still water.
These are marked locations on Mississippi’s state-supported Blues Trail, an excellent preservation effort and tourism-driver that notes significant music sites throughout the state. Of course, Mississippi also has universities and malls and fancy restaurants and gas stations and movie theaters and convenience stores, like any twenty-first century place. But it’s startling how easy it is to drive a mile or so and then feel swallowed up by history, by this strange and overpowering sense of timelessness stretching for miles. Most of the Blues Trail and other state historical sites are graves, and travelers there tend to leave trinkets as tribute that only add to the weird feeling of hoodoo in the air. In Yazoo City’s Glenwood Cemetery, there’s the putative resting place of an old woman who was caught murdering men at the end of the 19th century and died on the run from the law; legend, as author Willie Morris’ memoir Good Old Boy has it, says that she vowed to return in twenty years and burn the town down. Twenty years later, in spring 1904, Yazoo City indeed burned. Her flat-lying gravestone (helpfully marked with signs that announce “Witch’s Grave”) is bound by heavy, broken chains – legend also holds that she busted out before that 1904 fire, which burned town records that might have identified her or added more to the story. Visitors have left candy, pens, and small change. At one of three likely graves for Robert Johnson, in a tiny churchyard a few miles from Greenwood in an unincorporated community called Money, Mississippi – where Emmett Till was mutilated and murdered in 1955 – a tombstone is nearly buried under offerings of liquor bottles, notes, flowers, and one silver-plated watch.
Writer and critic Colin Dickey’s 2016 book Ghostland suggests that American hauntings are very often tied to the sites of America’s worst cruelty, embarrassment, atrocity, to the land stolen from Natives or farmed by people kidnapped from Africa. Living witnesses record the moment, by writing or telling the tales. And in choosing which ones to keep alive, we’re saying something about what kind of stories scare us the most.
The Delta is so redolent with violent history – at Parchman, on the plantation sites – that it feels strange there aren’t more specific, spooky ghost stories a visitor can grab hold of. There’s the Yazoo witch, true. And the septuagenarian blues guitarist Little Freddie King, born in McComb, Mississippi, who’ll tell folks about the headless haint who pursued him as a child through the fields when he dared to walk past what he called the town’s “hanging tree.” But in the rural sprawl of the Delta, those places where nature threatens to overtake or already has, history does, too. It swallows the land up and leaves mood, not evidence. It’s too alive, somehow, to be a mere ghost.
Euphus Ruth, a large, solid-looking man in his early sixties with a curly gray beard and thick black-rimmed glasses, grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta. A photographer who works the cumbersome, old-fashioned medium of wet collodion photography, with glass plates and antique cameras requiring long exposures and careful, time-consuming hands-on work, he makes images that seem deeply haunted: empty churches, farmhouses, cemeteries and fields shimmer blackly as if they are pulsing with ghosts. He drives up and down the two-lane blacktop state highways shooting ghost towns like Concordia, where more than half the residents perished of yellow fever in 1879, or Hushpuckena, off Highway 61, largely abandoned since the 1980s. His images always seem desperately empty and kinetic, as if something is hiding behind a bare tree or a tombstone, waiting to step out of the wavering shadows.
Euphus, who people call Butch, knows some ghost stories. One he recorded on tape in the ‘90s, when he was helping to care for the Delta bluesman Eugene Powell at the end of the artist’s life. Powell was a prewar guitarist who recorded as Sonny Boy Nelson, not as well known as some, but held in high regard by those who did know.
“He had challenged Charley Patton to a guitar contest in Hollandale one day and Charley Patton just left town, so there you go,” Butch said.
Butch took a recording of the story before Powell died in 1998, and then later recorded his son, Little Man, telling it, too.
“He was coming home, walking along the railroad track to his house in Greenville, and I forget which house it was,” Butch explained. “He was walking home and he could hear this kind of clip-clop trotting behind him, real slow. He turned around and it was like this…this ghost on a horse. I don't remember if he'd said it was a white horse or if the horse just looked ghostly, too. At first he thought he was imagining things, and then he kept looking and seeing it and he kept saying, you know, ‘get away from me, don't follow me,’ and all that, and it kept following him. He sped up, it sped up.”
Later, Little Man told Butch that their house – the same house he’d been followed to – was haunted, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.
“There was a haint in the house, and they always had trouble sleeping and all,” said Butch. “His daddy Eugene would always refer to it as being that ghost that followed him on the ghostly horse.”
Butch himself ran into ghosts, out shooting in lonely churchyards and abandoned buildings. Out on the old Concordia cemetery one day, he had his tripod set up:
“It was a large format 8x10 camera on a wooden surveyor's tripod,” he said. “It was kind of windy that day, so the tripod, you know they have those stakes on the bottom – you can just push them in the ground about three inches, really stake it down good. So I had set up, composed my photographs of this gray stone near a tree, then I walked, walked over there around the tree, just looking at it before I made the photograph, and I found a piece of the old wrought iron fence that used to be around the cemetery.” He decided to keep it, a souvenir of a photo trip.
“So I'm walking to put that in the back of my truck, and right as I got there I heard my camera hit the ground. I turned around and it was laying – tripod, camera, and all – was laying flat on the ground. It was broken in three or four pieces, and you know, it was staked in the ground with that surveyor’s tripod. The wind couldn't have blown it over. So, holy shit, you know?”
He went home and the next day bought a bottle of wine and drove the thirty miles straight back. He sat and drank and poured out wine, trying to make his peace with the spirits. He never did get his photo, but he felt like he’d done as much as he could to get right.
Butch grew up playing in a graveyard, he said, and his first photograph was made in a Delta cemetery. “It was just natural for me to drift back to that,” he told me. “I don’t know how to explain it now. It’s just so much history here. This place was like a jungle at one time, until it was settled and turned into farmland. It’s just a feeling that it’s like you’re at a sacred place or hallowed ground… I think that’s why I keep returning to some of the same places over the years to photograph, just to go back there and see how it feels again, if it feels different or if it changes with the light.”
Butch has been to abandoned churches, to buildings that shudder and shake, where old portraits fall of the walls when he pokes his lens in. He’s thought about how, even before enslaved people farmed the land or their descendants made the blues, the area around his hometown was an active site for Native American spiritual practices. Indeed, one of the other big tourist attractions in the Delta is Native burial mounds: “You know, these mounds are older than the Aztecs, the Mayans,” he says. “These mounds are some of the oldest known.” The spirits, or at least the strange vibrations, draw him to the spot. “With the wet collodion process, I could make the glass plate or tintype look like the image I saw in my mind’s eye when I was there,” he told me. “Not realistically what I saw, but what I felt and saw mentally. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
There are tourist attractions in America where people go hoping to be haunted
There are tourist attractions in America where people go hoping to be haunted: Salem, Massachusetts; the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California; New Orleans, where I live. The Mississippi Delta isn’t really one of them. Instead, most visitors travel there consciously expecting a glimpse of a living culture of the blues. And that’s still there, being performed in the land where it was born, though it’s not as simple as that. The sound is such a repository of history, of coded stories and vaguely magical and supernatural references, of raucous juke joint pleasure but also of tremendous pain, that even live music arrives with its own ghosts.
The Clarksdale, Mississippi library is open a half-day on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, when I visit, and a large part of its first floor is dedicated to 1950s-style displays of Indian arrowheads and artifacts, set in dioramas reducing the depth and breadth of the local history to a schoolchild’s level. Clarksdale is way up in the state’s northeastern corner, about a half hour from Greenville, near both the Arkansas border to the west and Tennessee to the north. The seat of Coahoma County, it’s the central destination for Delta blues tourism in part because state highways 49 and 61 meet right in the center of town. These days that corner is marked with a tall post, flanked by topiary and displaying two oversized blue electric guitars mounted above a sign that reads “The CROSSROADS.” Blues-related attractions slowly grew around that. The Delta Blues Museum, now housed in an old railroad depot just a few blocks from the former segregated hospital where Bessie Smith died of injuries from a car accident in 1937, was founded in 1979 in an elementary school classroom. When it moved to the depot in 1999, the address was redesignated One Blues Alley, and when Morgan Freeman – born in Memphis the year Bessie Smith died, raised in the Delta – opened the Ground Zero Blues Club across the way in 2001, he changed it to Zero Blues Alley.
The junction of 49 and 61 is not, of course, the specific crossroads of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” It’s a tune that, no matter how often blues and folklore scholars debunk it, blues fans seem to adore as representative of the myth that the doomed guitarist had sold his soul to the devil at just such a lonely intersection in exchange for his preternatural talent. That tale itself is based in African mythology ascribing magical significance to places where roads cross, brought to America by enslaved people nearly four hundred years ago. But the intersection isn’t lonely anymore, a good forty years into the town’s active pursuit of tourist dollars; it’s surrounded by bars and restaurants, souvenir shops, folk-art galleries and places to stay for visitors who come to one of several annual blues festivals.
A steady stream of visitors come to the Delta, but also performers on their own blues pilgrimage. The Ground Zero, which hosts live music every night, is as likely (maybe more likely) to be presenting a blues acolyte from Europe or Australia than from Coahoma or Carroll County. Sometimes, this results in tourists traveling thousands of miles to watch other tourists perform. Getting coffee in the hotel lobby Easter Sunday morning, a guest told me she’d seen me the night before at Ground Zero watching the night’s headliner, a Belgian singer who’d enthusiastically covered tunes like New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas’ “You Can Have My Husband (But Please Don’t Mess With My Man).” Had she liked the show, I asked?
“No,” she replied in a clipped, unsentimental German accent. “It was not authentic.”
During the holy weekend, we see her group of travelers and others wandering downtown Clarksdale in the bright spring heat. From under their sun hats and over the pages of their guidebooks, I can hear British and French and Scandinavian accents as they navigate between folksy blues bookstores and blues art galleries, plant themselves in cafes and shops in recently refurbished buildings owned by a real estate developer from Los Angeles who likes the blues. In the past few years he has purchased a good-sized chunk of downtown Clarksdale.
Not all of the storefronts downtown are full of espresso, blues CDs, and bottle-cap folk art. Some businesses still serve an actual resident population, like a seamstress and dry cleaner’s with formal gowns in the window, and a men’s store called the Soul Shop, with a display of reptile-skin Stacy Adams shoes, candy-colored shiny suits, vests, and matching pocket squares. These stores are closed for Easter, though I see what I imagine are the people who patronize them walking around town, too. There’s a gaggle of teens in youth group T-shirts, laughing together as they sweep the street. There’s a group of women in church hats and fancy dresses and suits strolling near the stately public library, which is open a half-day for the holiday, and a scrawny older man toting a bottle, stumbling past a window plastered with ads for condos and office space. Those folks are all black; the people with the blues maps and guidebooks are white. They pass on opposite sides of the street like they can’t see one another, two timelines accidentally merged through a weird blip in the continuum. I think about the church the black folks are coming from, wearing the pretty hats from the closed stores, the blues sites the European visitors have crossed an ocean to worship at, the Native artifacts in the library that has closed for the holiday by now. Who are the ghosts? Who’s haunting whom?
Most of the Blues Trail markers are along 61 and 49, which diverge from the Clarksdale junction like two twiggy branches of a wishbone. We take 61 south toward New Orleans and home late Easter Sunday morning, and detour off to drive through the delightfully named Alligator, Mississippi. Alligator is quiet, whether that’s due to the religious holiday or just the fact that, as per the last census, only 208 people call the one-square-mile town home. A few children tool around on bikes in the ruins of an old downtown main drag, stirring up eddies of pale dust among the row of empty storefronts and crumbling brick; it looks like one of Butch’s ghost town photos, with just a few living souls added.
The only other activity is at Mary Ann’s Variety Store, a much newer piece of construction with a low ceiling, beige siding and a sign out front reading “Alligator Mississippi T-Shirts Sold Here” – all 208 Alligator residents extremely aware that they live on an active blues traveler’s corridor. A dozen or so older men and women hang around out front, sipping from tallboys of beer and plastic soda bottles and sitting in the sun. It’s after church time; they wear shorts and T-shirts in the late-spring Delta heat. Their eyes follow our slow-moving, unfamiliar car. I wonder out loud to my husband, who’s driving, whether one of the chief entertainments for people in Alligator is looking at the tourists who decide they want to take a look at a place called Alligator. And he tells me a story about the time a couple of years ago, when he helped a Canadian crew filming a blues documentary in the Delta, running sound and making introductions. The half-empty, poverty-plagued Delta towns weren’t so innocuous, he said. Multiple times they’d set up to catch a sunset shot on the side of a deserted highway and he’d notice the same car cruising past once, twice, three times, slowly, eyeing the expensive camera equipment and sound gear. He’d hustle the confused Canadians to pack it up and get moving before the car came back. I indulge in a short fantasy about a horror movie in which the residents of a town like Alligator survive by capturing and, perhaps, eating foreign filmmakers who are far from home, busily documenting the ghosts of the blues.
In Ghostland, Colin Dickey wrote that lots of our American ghosts moonlight as symbols, “metaphor(s) for a whole host of problems not connected to the supernatural.” The haunted tales we hang onto and pass down can work as code for things too troubling to face head-on; a ghost provides a misty buffer through which to look slantwise at history. Or, perhaps, a way to record things that the official record might wish to soften, or erase entirely. When Little Freddie King saw the headless ghost by the hanging tree in McComb, as a child in the late ‘40s or early ‘50s, Jim Crow law was still in effect; the hanging tree probably wasn’t a relic of the past.
It makes me think about Robert Johnson, and his song “Hellhound on My Trail,” widely understood as a tale about deal-making with demonic forces. Which it is, but it is also another case of concealing terrifying truths behind a ghost facade. [or a ghostly veil] “You sprinkled hot foot powder mmmm all around my door,” Johnson sings, “it keeps me with ramblin’ mind rider, every old place I go.”
The hotfoot powder in the lyrics, as experts and historians have argued, isn’t necessarily gris gris dust meant to throw off a supernatural predator. There’s evidence in the historical record that a person on the run from a lynch mob might scatter pepper in his tracks to throw off earthly hounds bearing down with their own kind of hell. The ghosts stay alive in the music. Some things in Mississippi are scarier than the devil.
Alison Fensterstock is a former reporter and critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. She's a regular contributor to NPR Music, with work also appearing in Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She also writes a column on eccentric regional history, art, music and the occult for 64 Parishes, the journal of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.