Friar's Point, Mississippi
From Memphis, we headed south down Highway 61. Doug was driving; Alex was riding shotgun; Ken was working hard in the back. As you leave the built-up area around Memphis, you enter farmland, the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta. The landscape is flat, with occasional copses of trees sticking up, water pooling in low places. It was overcast.
We had a great guide to the Delta, Jim O'Neal's Delta Blues Map Kit (see Bibliography). Jim used to live in Clarksdale, hub of the Delta blues; he's moved to Kansas City, but his book is still chock-full of the bits of information he gathered over the years. It's a comprehensive guide to blues sites all up and down the Delta.
As we headed south, Alex tracked our location on the Blues Map. We whipped through Lula, entering Coahoma County, too fast to stop at the intriguing-looking raised cemetery just outside of town, on the east side of the highway. We were listening to John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." Not long after that, Alex said to Doug, "Let's turn here," and we headed west, toward the river, toward a place called Friar's Point.
We were on good blacktop, a two-lane road that shot straight over to the river, between fields. We were the only ones on the road.
The Blues Map said in Friar's Point we'd find a store--Hirsberg's Drugstore--in front of which Robert Johnson and other blues musicians had played, back in the '20s and '30s. Robert Johnson fans will know the line from "Traveling Riverside Blues": "I got womens in Vicksburg, clean on into Tennessee/ But my Friar's Point rider, now, hops all over me."
We were blasting Led Zeppelin as we shot across the Delta, cranking "When the Levee Breaks" in the closed car.
Eventually we came to Friar's Point (and turned the music down somewhat). It's a small town, mostly ramshackle old houses, with kids sitting on porches staring wide-eyed at us as we nosed up the town's streets. Apparently there used to be a handpainted sign that said "Friar's Point, home of Conway Twitty" (born Harold Jenkins), but it's been, uh, misplaced.
Friar's Point, incidentally, gets mentioned in lots of older blues tunes. It seems to have been a regular stop on the circuit Delta bluesmen would take from town to town, along with Rosedale, Jackson, Clarksdale, Greenville and some others.
We quickly realized we had no idea at all where we were going. The Blues Map Kit said Hirsberg's was the name of the drugstore, and it was in this town, but it gave no further directions. We tried to look as if we knew what we were doing. We of course looked very out of place. After driving all the way through town (maybe six or eight blocks), we came out of the residential section and got to some public-looking buildings.
We parked in front of what turned out to be the Friar's Point post office. Next to the post office is a museum (the North Delta Museum, a small, folksy-looking place that was closed when we were there); this tank is sitting on the lawn between the two buildings. (That's the post office in the background; our white car is next to the blue car, but you can't see it.)
Cotton in front of the Friar's Point museum. At Schwab's Drugstore in Memphis, they had sold individual cotton bolls as souvenirs for maybe $1 apiece. Here it was free, at least for looking.
Across the street from the museum was a pink brick building. This, it turned out, was Hirsberg's.
Which, by the way, is pronounced Hirshberg.
The guy running the store is the son of the guy who originally opened it. He was very friendly (almost everyone we found down there was), and he chatted at some length about the history of the store.
Almost as soon as his father opened the store, he said, there had been a near flood on the river. His father, who didn't have much money, had stocked the store on consignment--he hadn't bought any of the stock; he would pay for it as he sold it. His father called all the distributors for everything in the store and asked whether he'd have to pay for lost stock if the levee gave way. (This store is about the first thing the water would have hit after it washed over the museum and the post office; the levee is a stone's throw away.) All the distributors except one said yup, you're responsible for it all. His father boxed everything up and sent it back to the warehouses until the water subsided.
Hirsberg confirmed that Robert Johnson and others indeed used to play in front of the store. He was familiar with our quest; other people have come along and asked the same questions. He said his family was never fond of having these guys play out on the sidewalk. Why? Because they'd draw a crowd, and then nobody could get into the store. (As Robert Johnson sang, "Just come on back to Friar's Point, mama, and barrelhouse all night long.")
We drove on from here to go get a closer look at the river, but in the meantime (before going in to Hirsberg's) we had discovered what that hill behind the post office was. That rise back there was the Mississippi Levee. We ran on up it and had a look around.