“Are you going to the end of the world?” the lady behind the counter at the Arkansas welcome center asked.
I played a few shows in Clarksdale, MS recently. On the way back to Memphis I decided to go through the town of Elaine, AR. I had used the town as a back drop for my song, “Sharon”, that took place during the Mississippi river flood of 1927. I have to admit that I didn’t really research Elaine to deeply. I got the idea for the song reading about Jeff Buckley, the singer, who drowned in the Mississippi river one night in Memphis. I was moved by the imagery of being swept away by the powerful waters. I went down a wikipedia “rabbit hole” and ended up reading about the flood in ’27. One of the earliest levee breeches happened near Elaine, and it was the name of a dear high school friend, so I had my town and my story unfolded. The dates in the song line up with the actual events, but the town was just a town.
After the song had been written and recorded, I began looking for imagery to use in a video. This is when I learned more about the town of Elaine, and its dark past. The town of Elaine is a .5 mile square of land located between the Mississippi and White rivers in Phillips County Arkansas. Its a bit south of Helena on Highway 44 (near “the end of the world” but more on that later). It is the birth place of Levon Helm, who was a member of The Band as well as a solo artist and actor. The town suffered floods in 1912, 1913, 1916, 1922, 1927, 1929 and 1937. Elaine’s darkest hour was a racial unrest that left over 230 of its black citizens dead, as well as 5 white men. On September, 29 1919 black sharecroppers were meeting in a church to organize for better compensation and working conditions. They posted armed guards outside. Two armed white men, one a deputy came and shots were fired. One of the white men was killed as well as an undetermined number of sharecroppers in the building. In the next 3 days white men from the surrounding counties came to Elaine and hunted blacks like game animals. Five white men and an estimated 240 blacks were killed before the Governor came with troops to restore order. It remains the worst incidence of racial violence in American history. In the aftermath 260 blacks were arrested, 122 brought to trial, 73 charged with murder and 12 sentenced to hang. Seeing other defendants condemned to die caused many of the defendants to plead to lesser charges with lengthy jail sentences. There has been much written about these events, although little firsthand information has survived.
Today the town of Elaine is barely hanging on. The sign says population 636, though I saw none of them on my visit except for a red Corvette that sped down an empty Main street and a farm truck speeding down Highway 44. So what about the end of the world? The lady at the welcome center showed me on the map where Highway 44 just ends at Moon Lake about 30 miles south of Elaine, leading to the nickname “the end of the world”. With all the stores closed the few residents left must drive 30 minutes into Helena for necessities. The school was closed and shuttered years ago.
I was a little shaken by my visit to Elaine. There was an eerie quality to the empty storefronts. I looked in windows of stores, cans still on the shelves, where the roof had caved in. It looked as if the people just gave up and walked away. It was Sunday and there was a police car in front of the tiny storefront city hall. I have a feeling that speeding tickets are the last profitable enterprise in Elaine. Someone has put dozens of brightly painted birdhouses in the trees and empty buildings of Main street, a strange contrast to the overall atmosphere of decay.
What killed Elaine? I’m sure the fact that its the last outpost on a highway that ends in a cotton field is the major factor. But what about the shadow of the events of 1919? Sometimes I wonder if the shadow of what happened here on April 4, 1968 is the albatross around the neck of my beloved Memphis that keeps us constantly falling victim to our own hubris and shortsightedness.
My Song "Sharon"