Hwy. 51 Revisited: Granada, Mississippi

By Jesse Brooks

As Highway 51 approaches Highway 8, the route faces a crossroads again. Grenada, Mississippi. There’s a town square with local businesses sitting all in a neatly kept row. The further down the highway we go, the scene begins to look familiar. So, why come to Grenada? The answer may be the water.

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VIEWS- The edge of Granada Lake. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Grenada was formed in 1836 after the rival towns of Pittsburg and Tullahoma were joined together in a “marriage ceremony” to combine the population. Prior to the arrival of the railroad in the 1860s, Grenada’s trade operated through transportation on the Yalobusha River.

East of the river sits the present day site of Grenada Lake, a reservoir constructed to help regulate flooding along the Yazoo River Basin. The dam was built in 1954 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a $32 million price tag.
On the south end of the massive lake, Hugh White State Park, named for a Mississippi state governor, is located. The park is home to one of the best campgrounds Mississippi has to offer. This biggest attraction of the state park is fishing in Grenada Lake. Mostly popular among crappie fishermen, the lake is also plentiful with bass, bream, and catfish. Hugh White State Park is a popular destination for overnight campers. Aside from locations for RVs and tents, there are numerous sites that feature cabins with plenty of scenic views of the lake.
Families ready for a nice dinner after experiencing some outdoor life may feel called to visit the 333 Restaurant. With a $11-30 price range, the best “bang-for-your-buck” can be found at this seafood-and-steak restaurant where portions often leave out in “to-go” boxes. Mississippi Delta favorites like bacon-wrapped shrimp can be found here, either as a main course, an appetizer, or side to go with a top-rated steak. With fried catfish, fried chicken, crawfish, ribs, and much more, there are plenty selections in which to choose what your heart may desire.

As travelers get back on the highway leaving Grenada, it’s important to note the landscape is beginning to change a lot since coming up further south. Grenada is right on the edge of the delta, and the lush hill country reflects that. As the water flows, so does the migration of people for generations. As for travelers on this highway, prepare to be further soaked in the weight of the Mississippi Delta.

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EDITORIAL: Saying Goodbye to Anthony Bourdain is Nearly Impossible

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By Jesse Brooks

As I write this, we are at the end of the second day since we learned that we lost Anthony Bourdain, world-renown chef, television host and author. He took his life at the age of 61.

On Thursday night, I was preparing to go to bed and I was bored. My wife, a nurse, was working a night shift at the hospital and I needed to pass the time. I opened my laptop and decided to stream Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. I watched an episode where he visits the wild picturesque southern coastline of Italy’s heel. The lasting image I had of Bourdain before I fell asleep was of someone incredibly alive, engaged and fearless.

Imagine the confusing shock when I woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning to read the terrible news. I checked every avenue to make sure it was not a social media hoax. In the most abrasive way, I was introduced to a new reality about someone I had felt connected to ever since the beginning of my self discovery period as an young adult.

There was a lot to unpack that morning emotionally. I had a day full of duties I had to carry out but I felt I was moving slower and out of step. I have seen celebrities come and go in my lifetime, but this one stuck with me.

I remember when Prince died a couple of years ago I found it sad, and I understood his status as an icon and the influence he left behind. But I felt a kind of grief for Bourdain I had never felt for someone I never actually met. Why?

I enjoy cooking, but I have never been a chef. I grew up rural and have never been a resident of a mega city. I have never had a drug habit that I needed to rehab from, and though I have been known to enjoy a drink or three, my consumption of alcohol has never resulted in an addiction problem. I have been outside of the U.S. on three short, very controlled trips. So how is it that I could ever see a version of myself in him?

I started watching a lot of things on the Food Network and Travel Channel out of boredom when I was high school if nothing was on MTV or Comedy Central. My family planned a lot of summer road trips, and I would be curious about possible new destinations. In the mix of programming, Bourdain was there. It felt like he was always there. In keeping in the spirit of my family’s “do as the locals do” road trip attitude, Bourdain’s narratives always stood out to me as better than ones found on other shows. Not only was he someone we got to know, he was someone we trusted.

So the more familiar with culture programming I became, the more I sought Bourdain out. As I began to develop as person, I was observing his techniques, his takes, his swagger and his narrative. I was a young garage rocker coming up in the post-9/11, post-Katrina South, that began to feel that there were social, economic and political rules that needed to be challenged. I found that freedom in Bourdain and I wanted it for myself.

Bourdain also loved my native state of Louisiana, a place my early 20s self wanted to run away from. His love for New Orleans was immense and it was not a “city after the storm” kind of love. He had visited The Big Easy as far back as his 2002-03 show A Cook’s Tour, in an episode that featured him staying in the rooms above the R Bar on Frenchman Street and ordering take out from the Verti Marte food store. When it came to New Orleans, he just “got it”. Bourdain also visited Louisiana’s Acadiana region on No Reservations, and it reintroduced me to the cultures I have grown up with and taken for granted in my life. Bourdain recently returned to Southwest Louisiana to film a Cajun Mardi Gras episode of Parts Unknown, again, he got it. 

I began to notice Anthony Bourdain, not the celebrity chef, but the populist. Through his populism, it was becoming abundantly clear that untold narratives are everywhere in the world. At the end of the day, no matter if you live on the bluest of coasts or in mid-land red, you will find that most of us represent shades of purple when we sit together and break bread. You will not experience this in a comments section or message board. Understanding requires entry into reality and experiencing the world of fellow human beings.

Many hipsters will compare him to Hunter S. Thompson, and I suppose that’s fair enough, but to me Bourdain and his narrative reminded me of Ernest Hemingway, if he were a less violent and balanced character with the charisma for the television screen. His tales of beating addiction were inspiring and made people feel hopeful about themselves. If he could do that, you can do anything. I watched all the shows and read all his books.

When I began writing professionally, I would relate everything I did back to him. I wanted my voice to have his rhythm because Bourdain sounded like smooth jazz, just enough improvisation to be interesting and enough control to hold attention. When I started writing about culture, I realized that I don’t have an awesome budget, but what is in my backyard can be interesting because it’s foreign and exotic to someone out there. I learned that from him.

In 2016, I started a column as a staff member at the Amite Tangi Digest newspaper called “Hwy. 51: Revisited”. It focused on non-interstate highway travel from where I live in Tangipahoa Parish all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. All of these stops, mere hours away from my home, had surprising moments in the great timeline of American history. It was a journey of the bygone timber industry, development of the railroad, food, civil rights, blues and rock-n-roll. It was the story of us. I received a third place mention for the Sam Hannah Award for this column at the Louisiana Press Association Awards Ceremony the following summer. The project was completely inspired by the Jackson, Mississippi episode of Parts Unknown. 

I am completely aware that Bourdain motivated me to work. As I started to get recognized professionally for the first time in my life, people noticed this, mostly friends and readers, and I wore that badge proudly.

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Now in the wake of his passing, the void feels odd. Everything reminds me of him. In my small town of Hammond, Louisiana, there are now two pho restaurants, an Indian restaurant (in a gas station) and a ramen restaurant currently in construction. I honestly believe this incorporation of culture, once seen as foreign, in Small Town, U.S.A. does not happen without him. He changed the way we eat, and he changed the way we saw each other.

I feel losing him is different because it probably scares the hell out of all of us that saw a version of us in him. We wanted have his life that seemed to be free from darkness. However, as much as we may see our selves in him, or strived to be him, we need not to fear to live life with freedom and the understanding and care for others that he possessed. Bourdain fought a problem privately that is more common than we are willing to admit in America. To honor him, we must have empathy for those dealing with depression and advocate for them as he always did with cultures in need.

His mark on the world will live on. The best gift he gave to the world was confidence in his narrative, the outsider’s inside view, and may it stay alive for those seeking adventure.

“I don’t know any other way and by now I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bourdain said in his last interview with Fast Company. “Life is good. Why settle for anything less?”

Hwy. 51 Revisited: Canton, Mississippi

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Canton City Courthouse. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

Like Amite, McComb, Brookhaven, or any town along Highway 51 and its parallel railroad line, Canton, Mississippi is a town that has some origins as a supplier for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. The town experienced a boom of growth as the railroad expanded business in the nation’s transition into the early 1900s.

Canton is the seat of Madison County and the courthouse, a Greek Revival-style building that was built in the direct center of town in 1855 and is still serving its original purpose today. The building is a symbol of Canton’s greatest period of development in a town where the visual atmosphere feels like the past is the living present.

When walking around in Canton amongst perfectly preserved buildings of the post-Civil War era and clean city streets, it is easy to get the impression of a movie set. Canton actually is home to several filming locations and a movie studio called Mississippi Film Studios. Notable movies filmed in Canton are: “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?,” “A Time to Kill,” and “My Dog Skip.”

One of Canton’s biggest draws for outside visitors is its vintage and antique markets. Since 1910, the Buttross Department Store has been family owned and operated inside of the Courthouse Square. Ever since the beginning, the store has fulfilled clothing needs for local families. The Emporium in the Square is a store where you can find a little of everything: from clothing to antiques and jewelry to home décor for those who like a classic American look.

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Downtown Canton, Mississippi. Photo by Jesse Brooks

On the second Thursday in May and October, the nationally-famous Canton Flea Market is held. Since 1965, the market has served as a giant public event that features locally-made products by area artisans and craftsmen. Similar to Vintage Market Days in Amite, the event puts local and regional vendors in the spotlight and serves as a family-friendly event centered around food, music, antiques, and clothing.

Road travelers in Canton may find the charm of local franchise Bumpers Drive is the perfect answer to hunger, thirst, or a sweet tooth. Bumpers, with a location off the highway at 2761 Liberty St., offers up all the drive-in classics: burgers, chicken strips, slushes, and ice cream. Bumpers is an excellent throwback to the days of highway travel when drivers could find the right treat and enjoy service that comes to the car.

Canton is different than most Highway 51 towns in that there are no ghosts to chase because the past is living in plain sight. Visiting Canton is like visiting a theme park that doesn’t require an admission fee. The next time anyone is searching for the “good old days,” they should try Canton, where the good old days are today.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: Jackson, Mississippi (pt. 2)

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Pig & Pint, a bbq resturant in Jackson’s Fondren district. Photo By Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

To experience the full range of Jackson, Mississippi’s food & drink culture, the best plan of action is to stay overnight so there’s amble time for the full experience. The Old Capitol Inn is a full service boutique hotel in the heart of downtown. The rooms are especially elegant and come at pretty affordable rates. Standard accommodation rooms cost about $99 per night, where suites and jacuzzi suites fall in the range of $145-175. The hotel also offers specials that include discounts for multiple nights or gift certificates for local restaurants. Wednesday through Saturday, the Rooftop Bar features local music and drinks. The restaurant also features a diverse menu for daily lunches.

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THEY’RE RED HOT- Hot tamales from Big Apple Inn on Farish Street. Photo by Jesse Brooks

For something authentically Jackson, there’s Big Apple Inn on Farish Street, owned and operated by Geno Lee, the great-grandson of a Mexican immigrant and son of an African-American freedom rider. The exchange of Mexican and African-American cultures around the Depression-era has resulted in tamales being as Mississippi as they are Mexican today. Since 1939, the restaurant has served tamales and the unique pig-ear sandwich. Pig-ear sandwiches are pig-ears boiled for hours dressed in slaw, spicy mustard, and served mini-burger style.

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IRISH PUB- Bangers and mash from Fenian’s Pub. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

With more than three major sites for higher education, Jackson is a college town. For some reason, Irish pubs spring out of college towns. In Jackson, one particular establishment, Fenian’s Pub, stands out. Yes, there are burgers and fries here, but also delicious, traditional pub fare such as fish-and-chips and bangers-and-mash are found here. Pub fare must be paired with good beer and Fenian’s serves the local stuff like Lazy Magnolia and Yalobusha Brewing Company’s Larry Brown Ale.

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PASSWORD- A rum old fashioned from The Apothecary at Brent’s Drugs, a speakeasy. Photo by Jesse Brooks.  

For breakfast, there’s Brent’s Drugs in the hip Fondren District. The restaurant is a renovated 1950s drug store that features traditional diner breakfast with a new twist. The old milkshake bar is fully functional. At night, a secret speakeasy bar called The Apothecary operates in the back behind a curtain where the evening’s bartenders serve up original craft cocktails.
Also found in Fondren is the Pig & Pint, a barbecue restaurant featuring all of the great tastes in pork and the best craft beers from Mississippi to Memphis. The BBQ here is smoked and slow cooked to perfection and their award-winning Pepsi-cola glazed ribs are the centerpiece of their menu. The restaurant even flashes a little of a Southwest flare with their assortment of BBQ nachos and tacos. You can dine in or dine outside on the patio with a scenic view of the Fondren district.

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GLAZED PERFECTION- You don’t want to miss the best in Jackson BBQ from Pig & Pint. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

 

Most of Jackson’s food taverns double over as fantastic bars with excellent live music that is mostly based in blues or rock-&-roll. When hopping from one place to the next, it’s best to make sure that Martin’s Restaurant & Bar, Hal & Mal’s, and the Ole Tavern on George Street are on your list. These places serve as great burger-and-beer type restaurants in the earlier hours before they prepare for late night entertainment. Most nightly shows are rarely over $5 on average.

For late night blues, visit Frank Jones’ Corner, the last club of Farish Street. Shows have been known to last until 4 a.m.!

The best that Jackson has to offer can never be accomplished in a day. Highly underrated, the city is on its way to being a culinary and nightlife destination.

The best steak you’ve never had is in Pine, Louisiana

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By Jesse Brooks

If you have ever been to Pine, Louisiana you would know how the area came up with its name. It’s 10 miles out from Franklinton if you’re traveling East either way on Hwy. 10 or Hwy. 436, and the journey feels like getting lost in a deep forest, aside from the occasional farm fields that pop up seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

If you aren’t a native of Washington Parish, you may not have much reason to travel to Pine, a mostly residential community that remains unincorporated. There’s a public junior/senior high school in the area and just a few general stores beyond that. However, in the thick of the forestry lies Bourne’s Restaurant, one of Louisiana’s best kept secrets in the way of food.

Bourne’s, technically three miles south of Pine on Hwy. 62, has a traditional playbook. As far as the structure of a Louisiana restaurant goes, it checks a lot of boxes: seafood, burgers, sandwiches, chicken and Southern style desserts. In true country style, Bourne’s features a massive buffet that always features crabs, crawfish and shrimp as long as it’s in season. It also features assortments fried and baked chicken, bbq ribs, pot roast, country vegetables with dessert included. The dinner buffet runs around $17.95 per person, and is reduced to $13.95 for lunch.

As great a deal as the buffet is, many see the ribeye steak as the restaurant’s centerpiece. When you find the item on the menu, the ribeye is the only steak listed with no ounce measurement. No weight measurement is needed. All anyone needs to understand about the ribeye is that it is huge and it is not to be underestimated.

In a world that seems to be increasingly terrified to undercook food due to the bland tasting consumer that may lodge their whiny complains on Yelp later, Bourne’s is not afraid to correctly cook your beef at the temperature that is ordered. Their steaks must be marginated for a significant period of time because they are always as tender as cutting into butter.

The way they prepare the ribeye also creats a natural au jus, and every dish is served with a cup of the light gravy on the side. As far as seasoning goes, Bourne’s method doesn’t seem complicated at all. There seems to salt, pepper and maybe some garlic and onion powder in the rub. Beyond that, the approach mostly depends on a good quality cut slow-cooked in its own juice.

Mass production in the modern restaurant has resulted in a lower quality product, but the ribeye at Bourne’s conjures up memories of the great small town Louisiana steakhouses of the past. A quality piece of meat such as this one seems to be worthy of a Florida Parishes replacement of the great Bear Creek Steakhouse in Montpelier that was a powerhouse through the 1970s-90s. The preparation they use is similar to that of Doe’s Eat Place of Mississippi Delta fame.

The ribeye comes with an additional baked potato accompanied with all the fixings, including a side cup of melted butter. Dessert is also included with the purchase of the meal. The best part of it all is that the total cost of the ribeye dinner runs around $24.95, which is about $3 less than the national average, and Bourne’s is simply better than most places North of Lake Pontchartrain.

The next time you feel like taking a drive “through the woods” make a stop at Bourne’s, just East of Franklinton.

Connect with Bourne’s here on Facebook. 

Hwy. 51 Revisited: Jackson, Mississippi (pt. 1)

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Home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Photo By Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

There seems to be a reoccurring theme of crossroads on this journey. The crossroads are a change in direction, a change of scenery, or a complete change of philosophy. Not many cities in America understand that, or embody that, as well as Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson’s roots can be traced to a French-Canadian trader named Louis LeFleur that set up shop in a village along the banks of the Pearl River in an area known as LeFleur’s Bluff. Years later, as the Mississippi territory was being prepared for statehood leaders suggested a somewhat central location for the capitol. The location we know today was chosen in 1821 and named for General Andrew Jackson for his impressive victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The new capitol was open for easy trade routes, and the new hub city would offer road that could lead in directions to other major cities.

After the Confederacy lost the Civil War in the 1860s, Jackson faced many challenges during the reconstruction period. Ultimately the expansion of the railroad was good for business, as interstate trade and commerce took hold.

Much of this type of transition into the modern era is documented at Mississippi’s Old State Capitol, which now serves as an official state museum. Built in 1839, the building wasn’t used for the state legislature for most of the state’s history as it was abandoned in years following the Civil War, but today the state’s earliest history is preserved for visitors through multi-media exhibits on self-guided tours. The museum is open daily, and admission is free.

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The old Standard Life building in Downtown Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

Mississippi has been based on agriculture for all of its existence so naturally the Mississippi Agricultural & Forestry Museum in Jackson is dedicated to that early history. In an interactive visit, tourists can come face-to-face with some of the earliest farm equipment in American history. There are exhibits devoted to trains, livestock farming, and the history of the logging industry. For anyone interested in getting a view of life from a previous century, this museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The Hotel King Edward is a throwback to Old Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Jackson is a blues city, historically and presently. The capitol city became a facilitator for the music, as the country shifted into the 1920s. The city had several labels at the time, and most of them could be found on Farish Street, an area of town for African-American commerce. Hosting everyone from Robert Johnson to Cab Calloway got their first mass audiences on Farish Street, and the area was important for businessmen and artists alike. Today, most of Farish is abandoned, and the public efforts to revitalize the section have not worked out. However, a few business owners still hang on out of pride because of the import role the street has played in history. A blues club, F. Jones Corner, on Farish aims to keep the music of Jackson blues alive. On any given night at the club locals like Jesse Robinson and Vasti Jackson can be heard.

The Civil Rights era of the 1960s brought a lot of unrest to the city of Jackson, and the city has a unique place in the fight for equality. Many of the organized efforts to defeat segregation took place in the sit-ins of the city. One of the darkest days of the struggle occurred in Jackson on June 12, 1963, with NAACP state field director was assassinated outside of his family home by KKK member Byron De La Beckwith. Evers was a WWII veteran that had played an essential role in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and schools in Jackson. His home is open as a public historical site today at the address of 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive. Inside the home there is a clear image of the kind of life the Evers family lived and everything they had gone through. The most haunting sight of the visit is that Evers’ blood still stains the carport to this day. Tours are free to the public daily though times may vary.

Jackson is a city soaked in the heavyweight of the past, but it must make a choice on what direction it wants to take for the future. Fondren, Jackson’s newly self-declared “hip” neighborhood has some suggestions. The area is revitalized with a new, yet vintage, charm. It’s where Jackson’s art and music elite of a new generation met to keep the city fresh. At any of its local businesses, you can find pop-up restaurants, local beer, and indie rockers like the Stonewalls doing their take on Jackson music.

Jackson has faced some economically challenging times in recent years just as any other American city, but right now is no different than other times Jackson has faced as a crossroad. One can only hope that a city chooses a path that honors its tradition, while still being inviting enough to grow a new generation. That may be what is happening in Jackson, and it seems that we are seeing the very beginning of that growth. With a culture that blends the old with the new, great food, be it hometown favorites or new ideas, is being mixed into that blend.

Hwy. 51 Revisited: Hazlehurst & Crystal Springs, Mississippi

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.

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.