HIGHWAY 51 REVISITED: HAZLEHURST AND CRYSTAL SPRINGS

By Jesse Brooks

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THE START- The City of Hazlehurst has a memorial in honor of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was born in the town about half an hour south of Jackson, MS. Photo by Jesse Brooks

The stretch of highway spanning between Brookhaven and Jackson might be the most unassuming looking duration of Mississippi countryside before reaching the network of roadways the state’s capital city has to offer. There are trees and country roads for miles. The approaching neighborhoods are taking life one day at a time while it seems not much ever changes. Ask anyone on the street, and they might not know that the events that occurred in Hazlehurst and Crystal Springs, Mississippi, around the turn of the 20th century would change America forever.

Hazlehurst earned its name from railroad engineer Col. George C. Hazlehurst, who has another railroad town named for him in Georgia. Post-Civil War commerce along the train route served as the biggest period of growth for the city. By 1872, Hazlehurst’s growth eventually led to the city becoming the county seat of Copiah County, as it remains today.

Just as blues musicians like Bo Diddley in McComb and Little Brother Montgomery in Kentwood and later Brookhaven were mobilized by the railroad, the same effect was happening to the blues musicians of Hazlehurst and nearby Crystal Springs a little further north.

Though the blues routes in these towns were becoming common, there is one trait that separates them from the others: claims of the devil.

In African-American folklore around the turn of the 20th century there were claims in some rural areas that someone could meet the devil at a crossroads to gain anything they desired for a price: their soul.

Around the start of his career in 1914, an early blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson from Crystal Springs saw a marketing opportunity and started boasting that he had sold his soul to become a musical master. He often became “possessed” and put on a sinister persona, something very taboo amongst black and white audiences of the day. Johnson pushed the limits like an early version of a shock-rocker.

Years later a young African-American man born in Hazlehurst in 1911 named Robert Johnson would have the satanic myth attached to his name as well. However, unlike Tommy, the rumor was something Robert never asked for.

The details of Robert Johnson’s life are scarce, but he ended up becoming one of the most influential musicians of all time. Though largely unknown for decades, interest in his life and music rose after British rockers The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton all cited him as an important influence as a songwriter and guitarist.

Johnson was born poor in Hazlehurst and the search for work had the family on the move. As a young boy he was sent to Memphis where he received some primary schooling in his youth. It is said that Johnson loved music at a young age but didn’t have much access to formal instruments. As a young man, Johnson eventually did enough farm work to buy himself a guitar. Some rural African-Americans in the late 1920s believed it was a sin to play secular music, and when his first wife Virginia Travis died in childbirth when he was 18, some said it was a divine punishment. Travis’ family blamed Johnson for her death.

A conflicted Johnson, at a “crossroads” of life, made a choice to leave town. He wanted to become a musician. He loved music and hated low-paying, back-breaking farm work. He began making the rounds in the delta trying to impress established artists like Son House, who said Johnson’s playing sounded like “chicken scratch.”

Dejected, but determined, Johnson returned to his birth town of Hazlehurst to look for his birth father, Noah, whom he had never known. While Johnson was in Hazlehurst, he met a man named Ike Zimmerman at a general store. Zimmerman offered Johnson guitar lessons and a roof over his head in exchange for hired help. For months the two practiced at night in the Beauregard Cemetery just south of Hazlehurst near Highway 51. Today the cemetery is still there and sits in an undisturbed neighborhood with no tourist markings. The location was confirmed in 2008 when Bruce Conford discovered a daughter of Zimmerman’s and documented their story in Living Blues Magazine.

Johnson’s nights in the graveyard made him a unique talent. He returned to the delta a more sophisticated songwriter and guitarist than most of his peers. His playing was cleaner than most in the delta, and his songwriting was full of thought-provoking metaphors as he reflected on his conflicting inner struggle of good-vs-evil. Perhaps bitter, Son House, to the day he died, could only claim that Johnson was as good as he was due to a deal with the devil.

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PRACTICE SPACE- The Beauregard Memorial Cemetery located north of Wesson is where Ike Zimmerman gave guitar lessons to Robert Johnson. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Johnson became a mythical legend. He had the type of fame that would have eventually pulled him out of rural poverty, but shortly before he was set to make his New York City debut at Carnegie Hall in 1938, he mysteriously died in Greenwood at age 27. Some accounts say it was a possible poisoning, and others claimed it was the final divine punishment for selling his soul.

Johnson’s legend inspired generations of music and he is credited as the “Godfather of Rock-&-Roll” for his complex music and mythical presence in history. The legend lives on through the Mississippi Music Museum, organized by the state’s leading music historian Dr. Jim Brewer, at Hazlehurst’s Amtrak station and the Robert Johnson Museum in Crystal Springs, run by his remaining heirs. The admission for both museums is free to the general public, and they start with Johnson as an inspiration. What’s left of Johnson’s birth home can be found behind the Copiah County Economic Development Center. There have been plans to renovate the home, but the city currently does not have the funds for the project.

ONE FOR THE ROAD- The Skeetburger Snack Shop just outside of Wesson is a little place with a big menu. Specials change daily and constant favorites are their big sized burgers and all meat potatoes. Photos by Jesse Brooks

Hungry travelers on the way in can enjoy food near Johnson’s old haunts at a neighborhood joint called Skeetburger Snackshop. In a tiny wood building in between Wesson and Beauregard sits a beautiful place that offers up chicken, ribs, chili-cheese fries, but most importantly the skeetburger. The recommended double skeetburger with cheese features two types of cheeses between two juicy all-beef patties made on an old-school flat-top grill. Skeetburger is an amazing roadside stand like the kinds that used to cover miles of highway.

Close to home along the same highway sits the location of a magical place that launched so much of America’s music. It is important that we don’t let that connection go and make this highway our own as Johnson did.

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Hwy. 51 Revisited: Brookhaven, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

When traveling through Brookhaven, Mississippi, it is easy to see why the town claims its official slogan as “A home seeker’s paradise.” When approaching the city limits on Highway 51, the first view in is that of stunning and beautiful old homes filling up block after block of neighborhoods just before reaching the downtown area. It is simple, quiet, and clean. Driving through Brookhaven, there’s a gained sense of elegance, not to be confused with a more arrogant term like “luxurious.” Many of the homes look like they have been perfectly preserved since the day they were built.

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Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum

Brookhaven was first established as a trading post in Choctaw Indian territory the year after Mississippi received statehood, which was in 1818 by businessman Samuel Jayne, who named the settlement after his hometown of Brookhaven, Long Island, New York. The railroad arrived by the 1850s and launched a new economy based on lumber like many communities now residing on the circuit that connected New Orleans with cities of the North.

As the lumber industry prospered through railroad expansion, so did Brookhaven. The town’s population around the beginning of the Civil War in 1860 was around 996 and experienced a 62 percent increase ten years later in 1870 for a total of 1,614 after the railroad reopened after wartime. The Nalty family rose during this time as John B. Nalty ran two Brookhaven sawmills: Pear River Lumber Co. and East Union Lumber and Manufacturing Co. Nalty invested many other sawmills along the route, including the Hammond Lumber Company of Hammond, Louisiana. As the businesses were passed on through the family, the Nalty’s invested and settled in the communities where they were located. If Brookhaven appears similar in city planning or home architecture to Hammond, the fact that the Nalty family built the original homes in both towns would be one of those reasons.

The lumber industry is also what would eventually give Brookhaven its place in American music history. Lumber towns were a place that African-American musicians of early jazz and blues could tour and find an audience, as well as work at sawmills themselves.

Kentwood born jazz and blues pioneer Little Brother Montgomery (born in 1906 as “Eurreal Wilford Montgomery”) found a home in Brookhaven for a period as he passed through sawmill towns. Montgomery was self-taught in New Orleans style jazz and blues and created his own “lumber circuit” in the cities of Vicksburg, Canton, Gulfport, New Orleans, Jackson, and McComb before he decided to make Chicago a permanent home.
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A Mississippi State Blues Trail Marker in honor of Little Brother Montgomery is placed outside of the sawmill where he worked. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

In the 1930s Montgomery wrote an instrumental called “Crescent City Blues”, and twenty years later the melody was borrowed for a song of the same name written by Gordon Jenkins and Beverly Mahr. In 1955, Johnny Cash reworked the song in a country and rock-&-roll manor as a new artist at Sun Studios in Memphis as “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Montgomery’s role in the evolution of American music is undeniable, and should not be ignored. A Mississippi Blues Trail Marker is placed at the Godbold Transportation Center (Amtrak station) honoring Montgomery’s life. Behind the station is the lumber yard where he used to work.

Anyone wanting to come face-to-face with Brookhaven’s rich history can visit the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society Museum. It is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and admission is free to the general public. The museum’s home is the former site of the B’nai Sholom Jewish Temple, founded in 1896. The museum documents the history of the town and the history of Jewish settlers in Brookhaven.

In a nod to two of Mississippi’s biggest staples, blues and barbecue, Magnolia Blues and BBQ in Brookhaven offers up everything that is Mississippi barbecue. Pulled pork, chicken, baby back ribs, burgers, everything you can name and more is found here. Many crowd in on weekends for the live music and bar food to get their fill on grooves, locally brewed beer, and loaded BBQ nachos. The bar even hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays for anyone brave enough to bare their soul.

Brookhaven’s two biggest periods of growth were immediately after the Civil War and at the peak of the lumber age in the early 1900s. Remarkably the small city has mostly held a steady period of growth since that time. Brookhaven is as steady as the trains that still make their daily trips through town. It is self-reliant. More importantly, for dwellers of the past and present, it is home.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: McComb, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

McComb, Mississippi is the kind of town that seems to get by on day-to-day business. It doesn’t beat its chest to declare that it is better than somewhere else or decorate itself as something flashy. However, the best way to describe McComb is welcoming. You can walk into a public place or a locally owned business, and people smile and greet you. They ask you how you’re feeling and talk directly to you like they’ve known you for years.

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Though McComb may sound like a typical sleepy Southern town, history suggests that it wasn’t always that way. Like so many towns that reside on Highway 51, it exists because of the expansion of the Great Northern Railroad, known today as the Illinois Central Railroad. The city was founded in 1872 after Henry Simpson McComb decided to move the railroad’s maintenance shops to the area. Railroad employment caused a city to form and blossom.

Over the turn of the century, McComb at times went through periods of unrest. The Illinois Central Shopman’s Strike of 1911 brought violence to the city over a period that lasted nearly a year, and the strikes were eventually disbanded due to a lack of success. McComb suffered extreme violence against African-Americans throughout the 1960s, including 11 bombings after the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the following summer and African-Americans in the South finally received protection at the polls.

However, in eras of great struggle often something beautiful is born. The railroad became a facilitator for the exchange of great ideas, and musicians and artists from McComb began to make their mark on the world.

A Mississippi blues trail on Highway 51 begins in McComb, and it starts in a big way with “The Originator” himself, Bo Diddley. Born in McComb in 1928 and named Ellas Bates, Diddley’s songwriting is considered a key element in the popular transition from blues to rock-&-roll. Diddley introduced a five-accent Afro-Cuban rhythm to blues and country music known today as the “Diddley Beat.” The beat is a cornerstone in modern rock, pop and hip-hop music. A blues trail marker in his honor is located at the city railroad station.

McComb is also the birthplace of New Orleans gut bucket bluesman Lil Freddie King. The guitarist, who still performs regularly in the Big Easy at age 77, is mentioned on an official state blues trail marker near the railroad station.

McComb’s railroad station also serves as its official railroad museum. Inside is a full explanation on the town’s founding and development, as well as documentation of railroad life. The museum is open on Monday through Saturday at 12-4 p.m., and admission is free.

For weary travelers looking for a feeling equal to coming to a grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon, The Dinner Bell is perhaps McComb’s biggest attraction. Since moving to its present location in 1959, the restaurant has held an esteemed reputation in producing all of the essentials in Southern cuisine. Remarkably, though the business has changed owners over the decades, everything seems virtually unchanged. Dining is set up family dinner style, and several dinner parties share a place at a revolving Lazy Susan table that features mainstays like fried chicken, green and lima beans, yams and banana pudding. The table’s choice of food already seems endless enough, but weekends offer even more options. The Dinner Bell is a lunch only institution that opens on 11 a.m. on Tuesday-Sunday and closes at 2 p.m. It’s best to arrive early and not procrastinate on the opportunity.

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HOME COOKIN’- The Dinner Bell in McComb, MS is more than a restaurant. It’s an institution. Photo by Jesse Brooks.  

 

McComb has other dining options available in downtown such as Topisaw General Store for lunch and The Caboose, a more upscale restaurant and steak house.

New businesses are coming to McComb’s downtown, and the streets can be pretty busy mid-day. Economists say that America is going through an “urban renaissance,” and McComb seems to be set on being a part of the movement as former city buildings like the Palace Theater are being renovated for the purpose of regular multi-use. For the first time, the Palace Theater was used as the venue of the McComb Blues Music and Arts Festival in 2016.

McComb doesn’t demand your attention but it appreciates it. It may not be loud, but it fights and it has fought forward through times of unrest and economic ups and downs. What McComb can teach the rest of small town America is how to hold on to your local identity. In McComb, there are some things that will never change, and that is what makes it strong.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: A roadtrip experice

By Jesse Brooks

Welcome to Highway 51 Revisited. From now through the course of the next couple of weeks I will take you on a journey on Highway 51 that starts in Tangipahoa Parish and ends in Memphis. This is a chronicle of summer trip I took in 2016. This highway tells a story, and each week I will tell you the story of various stops along the way.

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I have a confession to make: I have only been to Walt Disney World once in my life, and that is something I am more than okay with. Growing up, all of my family’s vacations were taken in the summer since both of my school-teaching parents would be home with us for the next three months. We didn’t grow up with a ton of money, and Disney World became one of those ultimate vacations goals that maybe we would reach “one day.” Don’t worry. One day, when I was a teenager, we made it to Disney World. It was okay.

While we put long lines and mouse souvenirs on hold, my parents became masters in the art of the short-run road trip many summers before.

Whether we were exploring or going through routine, Highway 51 was always essential in our lives growing up. I remember trips to come face-to-face with living history at Confederate Camp Moore in the Village of Tangipahoa and special dinners at Middendorf’s on the highway far South in Manchac. I also remember going to Sullivan’s Drive-In in Amite for malts for a moment’s escape from the abuse of the Louisiana summer heat. When the wanderlust hit us hard enough we went into Mississippi to drive through towns we had never heard of before when we were kids. There was a feeling of discovery we gained watching the landscape and local cultures change right before our eyes. We would stop at every roadside attraction and read every historical marker. Little by little, we were picking up pieces of the story of America.

Even on longer trips where we travelled by interstate, we would be sure to take detours toward the highways so we would not miss the main-streets of the towns we passed. If we purchased anything, particularly food, it had to be local. I remember my father telling me that it was the local diners, butchers, department stores, and groceries that were the original personality of America. If any of it still remains in this age of corporate interstate commerce then we should never ignore it. These institutions are the pride of their communities.

I’ve always applied that philosophy to my own communities. I’ve felt connected to everything along Highway 51 as if it were more than road and the histories of each town were pieces of a puzzle. The road has been like a vein carrying the life blood of my existence.

I named this series similar to Bob Dylan’s famed album Highway 61 Revisited because he must have shared a similar emotional attachment to the highway that connected his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, to New Orleans. Like Dylan chronicling the mystic of blues legends, writers, and historical events of his highway through his music on the album, I will attempt to do the same on my highway that shares a similar, yet mildly advertised, history through this series.

I will bring you to towns that gave America the expansion of the railroad through blood, sweat, and tears. I will bring you to drive-ins that refuse to fold up shop. We’ll see the birthplace and the grave of a man said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical abilities. We’ll also visit the home of a literary genius that changed American literature as we know it. I will tell you about a place that expanded three American-made genres of music and set the soundtrack of the world.

These stories are the story of America, thriving on the life-vein we call home. Most of all, these stories make up the story of us.

Our first chapter starts in McComb, MS. Click here to travel further down the road with us. 

RAPPER LOOKS BACK ON GREENSBURG ROOTS

By Jesse Brooks

When most hip-hop artists look back on their humble beginnings, the story usually begins in a city neighborhood from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or New Orleans. However, for Jarius Burton, who goes by the stage name J. Quick, the origin begins in Greensburg.

“My family lived on Under the Hill Road near the truck stop,” Burton said. “I was into music a lot. My mom was in a band and my auntie sang a lot. Music was always in me.”

IMG_5124Burton’s mother Stacy played flute in the St. Helena High School marching Band, and placed an emphasis on music in the household. Burton also cites the gospel music his family was involved with at church as an early introduction to music.
Today in modern hip-hop, many rappers try to infuse various influences from outside of the genre. That has inspired many artists like Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino to search the sounds of their past, and often gospel and soul music comes up as the common links.

“I’ve got an old soul,” Burton said. “When I was around my mother and my aunties we’d have Marvin Gaye and Al Green playing. I was exposed to all kinds of music at a young age.”

While in grade school, Burton and family moved to Hammond. His mother’s partner at the time, Cedric Flowers, a father figure, introduced hip-hop to Burton for the first time.

“I feel like being from Greensburg, and now living in Hammond, has helped me in some ways,” Burton explained. “Sometimes rappers from the city never leave where they are from. Someone from New Orleans might always just sound like New Orleans. I listened to music from all over and that’s what I want to sound like.”

With the expansion of the digital age, social media has leveled the playing field for emerging musicians. Burton is a student of the industry, and has put these new tools into use to launch his career. Every studio producer or live show Burton books for projects has been found through use of social media. He has travelled as far as Atlanta to showcase his music and link up with his online business relationships.

Burton currently works at Blue Beacon Car Wash in Hammond, supporting himself as he tries to make professional rapping a reality. He currently allows social media users to acquire his music free while focusing on monetizing his music through live shows and merchandise sales.

“I see myself as [a] concept artist because I feel like I’m a storyteller,” Burton said. “I like the songs to focus around one concept of each album.”

Burton is currently working in the studio to record an album with the working title “It’s Never Too Late.” Previously, Burton released “The S.H.E. Project,” a work all about relationships and heartbreak.

Burton’s music is available for free playback at https://soundcloud.com/realquickmusic online.

OFA senior Trevor Robinson signs with Nunez CC baseball

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MOVING ON- Oak Forest Academy senior utility player Trevor Robinson, pictured with Coach Tony Salim and family, signs with Nunez Community College baseball. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

On Wednesday, March 28, Oak Forest Academy senior utility player Trevor Robinson signed an offer to suit up for Nunez Community College in Chalmette next season. Robinson played varsity ball for the Yellow Jackets all four years.

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MAKING A DEAL- Surrounded by family, OFA senior Trevor Robinson signs with Nunez CC. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

“When I visited Nunez, I understood that they were a new program and Coach Glenn Powell is very calm and understanding,” Robinson said after his signing ceremony. “He expects me to come in and be a utility player in the outfield, infield and to pitch. He said that he can find me a spot in the lineup and I can have playing time right away.”

 

Currently, Robinson is producing well in his final season at OFA. He is the team’s second leading batter with an average of .446, second team leader in home runs and he leads the team in ERA. Robinson credits his success to his coaching staff, and it all starts with Head Coach Tony Salim. Prior to high school, Salim coached Robinson for three years on the Hammond Yankees travel ball team.

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YOUNGER DAYS- Coach Tony Salim has coached Trevor Robinson for a total of seven years. Photo submitted. 

“He’s really grown into a leader on our ball club,” Salim said. “The rest of the guys look up to him because of how hard he plays. He’s just one of those kids that’s going to do every thing you ask him to do.”

Robinson said the early lessons from Salim helped him get used to playing the sport the “right away” and they were vital in terms of being able to reach the next step.

When it comes to his opportunity, Robinson is humble and grateful. When asked about life beyond two years of community college baseball, his first two responses were about “hard work” and being ready for a new opportunity if “God were to open that door.” If the hard work pays off, Robinson believes he’s capable of playing on the Division I level.

“I definitely have to work on my infield, catching out in front and making good throws,” Robinson said. “I was an outfielder before an infielder, but with playing third base this year it’s all coming back to me. I just need to work on moving my feet more, getting around the ball and making a good strong throw across the infield.”

Robinson is also confident he can finish near the top in most stat categories this season, and believes his team is of championship caliber. Finishing strong this season will already add to a resume where he was First Team All-MAIS AAAA Div. I for the previous two seasons.

Currently, the Jackets are two games inside of district and have their sights set on gearing up for a post-season run.