Natchez the forgotten blues town
written by Luc Borms for 'Back To The Roots' blues magazine, Belgium, Europe
For many years blues fans have been making pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta, an old territory along the mighty Mississippi. Highway 61, also called 'the blues highway', cuts right through the heart of the Delta. Along this trail, many blues musicians walked to a richer future in the North. They wanted to escape the poor living conditions in the South, and set off looking for a better life in St Louis, Detroit or Chicago. It is along Highway 61 that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and Bessie Smith crashed.
A trip through the Delta can be a breathtaking experience, filled with unexpected discoveries, colorful figures, and southern hospitality, and of course with a musical style that is at the origin of almost every facet of contemporary music: the blues.
My brother Marc and I went to the Delta in 2011 as 'Catfish and Cotton' to write a book about its culture. We sat in dusty bars, beautiful antebellum houses, music studios and verandas, to talk to people: the owners of juke joints, musicians, chefs of the southern 'cuisine', curators of museums and many others. We eventually wrote three books and recorded a few CDs in the Delta.
When we first traveled from Memphis to New Orleans, the visit to Natchez was short. Our search on 'Google' did not produce any blues-related results. Natchez has a rich history, beautiful antebellum houses and is the starting point of the Natchez Trace. It was nothing more than a beautiful city for us, an ideal stop before leaving Mississippi and driving into Louisiana on the way to New Orleans. Our focus was, as with almost every blues fan, on places like Memphis, Clarksdale and Leland.
It wasn't until 2016 before we realized the importance that Natchez has with the blues, and the result is impressive. It lies on the border between Mississippi and Louisiana and was the first trading post on the Mississippi. Natchez, with its rich history and multitude of cultures has an exceptional heritage and was the melting pot which eventually led to the creation of a unique new style: the blues.
Since 2016 I have traveled back to Mississippi a total of six times and stayed longer on each occasion. My base was always Natchez. I got to know the local blues scene at firsthand. Natchez has produced a huge number of musicians who, not only in the past, but also to the present day, have shaped the blues tradition. I discovered the big names like 'Hound Dog' Taylor, Alexander 'Papa George' Lightfoot, Jimmy 'Soul Man Lee' Anderson, Elmore Williams and James Rowan. I talked with living legends such as Hezekiah Early, YZ Ealey, Robert Lee 'Lil Poochie' Watson. More than that, I discovered that the blues scene is still very active with great musicians namely Matt Willis, Brint Anderson, Bishop Gunn and many others. Live music can be heard almost every day in the numerous thriving blues clubs and juke joints.
How it all started
In order to understand the history of the blues, and the specific fusion of cultures in Natchez, we have to go back a few centuries. Natchez was continuously dominated by foreign powers and they all had an influence on the music of the region.
In the last part of the seventeenth century the original inhabitants of Natchez were from an Indian tribe called 'The Natchez' and this is where the city got its name. At that time, Natchez was the political and religious capital of Indian civilization. The government of the tribe was administered from 'The Grand Village of Natchez Indians' and to this day, three enormous burial mounds bear witness to their rich culture.
When the French colonists settled in Natchez in the eighteenth century, they found an Indian empire with 'Big Sun' as chief. He lived in the 'Grand Village' at the top of the still existing burial mounds. The French confiscated their land and property, which inflamed the relationship with the Indians. Eventually the Natchez Indians attacked the nearby Fort Rosalie (a French settlement) in 1729 and killed most of the soldiers there. This led to revenge attacks on the Natchez Indians by the French armies and their allies, the Chacotow Indians. In 1730 a siege of the 'Grand Village' started. Three hundred of the tribe were captured by the French, sold as slaves and shipped to the West Indies. The others fled and found refuge with the Chickasaw and later with the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee tribes in Oklahoma, and even now there are descendants of the Natchez Indians. The influence of Indian culture is still very much in existence with an annual Pow Wow organized on the burial mounds, which includes music and dance from the Natchez Indians. The French presence, however short, had a substantial effect on the unique cultural heritage.
Following this, Natchez then came under Spanish rule. The Spaniards were allies of the English who were still in power in the American colonies.
The American War of Independence (1775-1783) between Great Britain and the colonies was part of the American Revolution and resulted in the independence of the United States.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Mississippi Delta was still largely unexplored. In contrast to nowadays, the territory was densely covered with forest and was very much impassible. The only inhabitants were Indian tribes.
The cultural mix in Natchez wouldn't find its way to the North until the nineteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century Natchez was the starting point of the 'Natchez Trace'. This was an Indian path which still exists, starting in Natchez and continuing to Nashville, through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. In the early days, the 'Natchez Trace' was used intensively and was the only way to get products and goods to the North while the main way to get merchandise from the North to the South was downstream on the Mississippi. It wasn't until early in the nineteenth century before fully loaded steamers had enough power to sail upstream on the Mississippi. Natchez, with its strategic location on the high cliffs on the east bank of the Mississippi developed into a bustling port and was the center of Mississippi's economic activity. Cotton was loaded onto the steamers in the hamlet 'Under the Hill'. Loads were transported downstream to New Orleans and upstream to St. Louis and Cincinnati. The cotton was sold and shipped to New England, New York and across the Atlantic to the European spinning mills and textile factories. However, this growth had negative aspects too: From 1833 to 1863, 'Forks of the Roads' was the second largest slave market in the South. Slaves were considered merchandise and their price varied depending on supply and demand. The sale of slaves did not take place through a public auction, but through advertisements in the local newspapers, this in contrast to other slave markets.
During the civil war Natchez remained largely undamaged. The city surrendered after the fall of New Orleans in May 1862. The Northern troops under Ulysses Grant occupied Natchez in 1863 and it was here that Grant set up his temporary headquarters.
Natchez made a quick economic recovery in the post-war years and had a very bustling night life. Commercial shipping resumed, cotton was still the most traded product while slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping, a system in which liberated slaves rented part of the land and paid for it with a large share of the proceeds to the landowner.
Music in Natchez before the birth of the blues
There was music in Natchez long before the birth of the blues. Elizabeth Greenfield was a singer and performer who was born in Natchez sometime between the years 1817 and 1826 and died in Philadelphia in 1876. Her mother Anna was of Indian origin and her father was African. She was born into slavery and, as often happened; she got the name of the owner of the plantation, Elizabeth H. Greenfield. When the owner moved to Philadelphia, she freed her slaves and Elizabeth was sent back to Liberia in 1831. As a child Elizabeth was taught music, which was very unusual for slaves. By 1851 she was singing at private parties and in 1853 was the first black performer to sing in the Metropolitan Hall in New York and even traveled to London to perform for the Queen at Buckingham Palace. She sang classical music but included a few sentimental American songs in her repertoire. Although Elizabeth performed long before the blues existed, her African and Indian DNA and the unique mix of cultures in the area in which she grew up, show the huge and significant role that this region played in the musical heritage of the metropolis Natchez.
The origin of the blues
Little is known about the exact origin of the blues, there was not much interest in the music of the black musicians in the white cultural circles, no sound recordings were made and musicians traveled. Around 1870 it was mainly social and economic reasons that laid the foundation for the creation of the blues. Some researchers say that blues music originated from a more individualized lifestyle. In 1901 a musicologist in Mississippi mentioned the music of black workers; he described themes and technical elements that have a lot in common with blues music.
We do know that the musical styles which form the basis of the birth of the blues can be traced back to the African continent. For example, the use of melisma (the singing of one syllable while the pitch varies over different notes) and a nasal intonation suggests a connection with the music of West and Central Africa. The 'Akonting', a folkloric lute from the Jola tribe from Senegal and Gambia is a clear precursor to the American banjo. The construction of the instrument, the playing style and the social role of the instrument are almost identical to the banjo.
The birth of the blues is associated with the newly acquired freedom of the slaves. It is hardly surprising that the new freedom is reflected in secular and religious music. Blues evolved from unaccompanied vocal music of poor black workers into a wide range of styles and subgenres, with many regional variations and would later take on elements of the harmonic and instrumental accompaniment of the minstrel shows and spirituals and was also closely related to ragtime.
The earliest blues-like music was functional. The 'call and response' style indicated the rhythm on which work was being done. This music gradually grew into simple A Capella songs, often with emotional lyrics.
The field holler became the first true Afro-American music style. Field hollers were first sung by African Muslim slaves who were influenced by the Islamic musical tradition. They were sung by the slaves and sharecroppers working in cotton fields, by prisoners and railroad workers. Spirituals were created at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their lyrics like the blues, describe a feeling of displacement and misery, but also of hope and yet there are differences. Spirituals are more about general themes, while blues really focuses on a personal story. The spirituals are inspired by biblical stories, but often contain secret messages and clues that showed slaves the way to the free North.
In the 1830s a strange, fascinating but also racist genre, the minstrel shows, which probably have roots in the carnival emerged. White workers dressed as plantation slaves, imitated black music and dances as a parody of black Americans. Before the civil war, black men could not perform in minstrel shows. Even so there are several examples of black singers who put on minstrel make-up and acted as white men imitating black men. After the civil war, the minstrel show became world famous and respectable.
Afro-American composer WC Handy wrote in his autobiography about his first awareness in 1903 of the blues. On a particular journey his train stopped in Tutwiler, Mississippi and his attention was drawn to the music of a black guitarist who was poor, dressed in rags, and there were holes in his shoes. While playing his guitar, he would press a knife on the strings and slide it up and down. The effect was unforgettable. He also repeated the same lyric three times: 'I'm going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog'. It was the most peculiar music Handy had ever heard and found it primitive and monotonous, however in 1914 he used the theme of the 'Southern crosses The Yellow Dog' in his 'Yellow Dog Rag'.
In the twenties the blues became an important element of Afro-American and American popular music. Several record companies started to record Afro-American music. As the music industry grew, country blues artists such as Bo Carter, Jimmie Rodgers (country singer), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red and Blind Blake became popular in the Afro-American community. Country blues musicians often improvised without accompaniment or with just a banjo or guitar. Regional styles of country blues varied greatly in the early twentieth century. Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Son House play traditional Delta blues. Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller played in the Piedmont blues tradition, which used a ragtime based fingerpicking technique.
The Chitlin 'Circuit was a chain of bars, halls, restaurants, juke joints and theaters in the eastern and southern parts of the United States and was the way through which the blues spread. Because of the segregation laws it mainly focused on the Afro-American public as it was impossible for black performers to play in 'white' halls or bars. The Chitlin' Circuit was the only option for itinerant black entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Ike and Tina Turner, BB King, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Roosevelt 'Gray Ghost' Williams, Eubie Blake, Robert Shaw, Big Joe Williams.
Blues in Natchez
In the early 1900s Blues in Natchez was inextricably linked to St. Catherine Street which was the home of many Afro-American musicians, doctors, lawyers, educators and businessmen. Natchez was one of the few southern cities where black residents were given opportunities with more freedom and entrepreneurship than anywhere else in the South. It was the African American cultural center of Mississippi and St. Catherine Street was at its heart.
St. Catherine Street is infamous for one of the biggest tragedies in Mississippi. On 23 April 1940 the 'Rhythm Club' (or the 'Natchez Dance Hall') burned down. That night Walter Barnes and his band The Royal Creolians, an orchestra from Chicago, were on stage when at half past eleven a fire broke out in the main entrance. There was panic. More than three hundred people (some sources estimated up to seven hundred) struggled to get out of the building. Two hundred and nine people were killed from smoke inhalation or crushed by the crowd and many others were seriously injured. Band leader Walter Barnes and nine members of his band were among the victims. The building burned down within an hour. The fire spread quickly, fueled by Spanish moss sprayed with FLIT, a petroleum-based insecticide to ensure that no insects were in the decorative moss which was draped over the interior beams. All the windows and emergency exits were boarded up to prevent non-paying outsiders from hearing the music. Only a handful of people were able to escape from the building. Eventually, the nightlife resumed in the clubs and cafes in Franklin, Pine and St. Catherine.
The number of musicians joining bands around the early 1900s was increasing which eventually resulted in the emergence of the big bands. They evolved from a ragtime string band to Jazz and then to Swing with a horn section as well as using other instrumentation. Their repertoire contained blues, ballads, cakewalks and even the latest Broadway hits.
Clarence 'Bud' Scott, Sr. although, born in New Orleans on October 25, 1876, lived most of his life in Natchez. From 1900 he was leader for a couple of decades of one of the most famous bands in the Mississippi-Louisiana region. His music was known to both a white and black audience. The Federal Writers Project called him Mississippi's own pioneer in jazz. He achieved this status purely through his legendary live performances. Scott made the headlines in the newspapers in 1919 with his rendition of 'Eliza Jane'. A reporter later recalled: "Dancing to a Bud Scott song is something everyone should do at least once in his lifetime." While Scott never made any recordings he performed consistently: in mansions, hotels, clubs, and halls, on the Mississippi riverboats as well as parading through the black neighborhoods and played for three US presidents. He was known as 'The Professor', a title awarded to respected orchestral leaders. Scott was a composer, vocalist, played mandolin and a few other instruments. His orchestra, which often consisted of twelve to fifteen musicians, was best known as 'The Syncopators'. Several band members lived in or next to Scott's house in Union Street in Natchez. He died in poor health on November 23, 1938. His son, Bud Scott, Jr. and the band continued to perform. Scott, Jr. died on April 23, 1940 at the infamous Rhythm Club fire.
Other such orchestras performing in Natchez in the 1930s were Monk Hoggatt and his 'Revelers' and the 'Otis Smith Orchestra'.
Not only Natchez, but nearby towns such as Ferriday played an important role in blues history. Ferriday is situated just a few miles across the Mississippi, in Louisiana. 'Haney's Big House' in Ferriday was the most important club. It was founded in the 1940s and continued until 1966. Haney was born in 1895 the son of Jim and Emmaline Haney. He served as a first sergeant in the army during the First World War. After returning to Ferriday, he sold insurances, had various rental properties and also managed a launderette and a motel. But his nightclub was the center of his business activities with live music on weekend nights entertaining hundreds of customers. Haney died in 1972 at the age of 76.
Apart from the big orchestras there were many individual blues musicians in Natchez who traveled around performing at house parties and in local juke joints. That tradition started at the beginning of the twentieth century and continues to the present day. You can still listen to the best blues musicians of the region in a number of Juke joints, listening rooms and bars in Natchez.
Below is an overview of some of the most important musicians from Natchez.
Musicians from Natchez
Hound Dog Taylor (April 12, 1915 - December 17, 1975)
Taylor initially played piano and started playing guitar when he was twenty. In 1942 he moved to Chicago. He was best known to other guitarists because he had six fingers on both hands, a congenital abnormality. The extra fingers were stumps that could not move. One evening, while drunk, he cut off the extra finger of his right hand with a razor. Around 1957, Hound Dog Taylor became a full-time musician. He traveled in 1967 with Little Walter and Koko Taylor through Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. He recorded his first album in just two nights for the Alligator Records label. It was the first release for Alligator, which later became an important blues label.
Alexander 'Papa George' Lightfoot (March 2, 1924 - November 28, 1971)
Alexander 'Papa George' Lightfoot was one of Natchez's most talented blues harmonica players in the period after the Second World War. 'Papa George' gained recognition after he was heard on national radio broadcasts and recorded for several prominent record labels. The style of Papa George is still an inspiration for many harmonica players today. Despite his success, he was unable to live off his music and many inhabitants of Natchez remember him as the musical ice cream seller.
Jimmy 'Soul Man Lee' Anderson (November 21, 1934 - October 5, 2013)
Jimmy 'Soul Man Lee' Anderson was a blues singer, drummer, guitar and harmonica player. At the age of 16 he moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he mainly performed, recorded and played blues music in the 1960s. He was actively involved in the civil rights movement and a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He toured the UK with his band (Jimmy Anderson and Joy Jumpers). Anderson moved back to Natchez in 1969. He worked as a radio DJ, under the name 'Soul Man Lee.' From 1989 to 1995 he formed the Juke Blues Band with Philip Tosclair, Jimmy, George Bell, and David Mitchell.
Elmore Williams (February 6, 1933 - February 16, 2016)
Elmore Williams worked and lived in Natchez. Although he played music for nearly sixty years, Williams only worked as a full-time musician for two years. He became known in 1998 after the release of the CD 'Takes One To Know One' for the 'Fat Possum' label which he recorded with Hezekiah Early. The duo toured the United States, Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Japan. 'Papa George' Lightfoot was one of his great influences as well as the local Afro-American fife and drum groups. Following his military service he sang with a big band led by John Fitzgerald. They often performed at Haney's Big House, the Horseshoe Club, Dan's Hot Spot, Will Smith's and Robert's Casino. Williams also played for a white audience and recalled that the white public enjoyed blues and paid better salaries and tips. In November he traveled to the Netherlands to perform at the Blues Estafette festival in Utrecht.
James Rowan (1926-2010)
James Rowan became interested in playing music at primary school. He tried five instruments before he settled for the trumpet. Rowan studied at Alcorn State University and alternated an educational career with work as a jazz musician. He played in various orchestras and had a regular performance in the 'Under the Hill Saloon' in Natchez. Rowan played the role of Joe King Oliver in more than a hundred performances of the musical 'Satchmo: America's Musical Legend'.
YZ Ealey (8 March 1937)
YZ Ealey was born in Sibley, about fourteen miles south of Natchez. His parents were farmers and he grew up as the middle child of eleven. He learned to play the guitar from his older brother 'Bubba'. His mother, Lucinda Barnes Ealey, only wanted to hear gospel music. He went to school in Natchez and remembers hearing the local street musicians, including Alexander 'Papa George' Lightfoot and William 'Cat Iron' Caradine. In 1955, Ealey joined the Navy and settled in Oakland where he performed with artists such as Big Mama Thornton. It was when he returned to Natchez in 1959 that he first became known as YZ 'Good Rockin' Ealey. A little later he founded 'YZ Ealey and the Merry Makers' with his brother Melwin and quickly expanded the band to include a horn section. The Merry Makers became the house orchestra at Haney's Big House in Ferriday, Louisiana. In 1963 Ealey moved to New Orleans and stopped performing but in 1970 he started playing again at private parties in and around Natchez. He still lives in Natchez and performs almost weekly with his regular companion Casey Gilbert.
Hezekiah Early (7 October 1934)
Drummer, harmonica player and singer Hezekiah Early was born on a farm in Anna's Bottom, a hamlet 10 miles north of Natchez, bordering the Mississippi. Like many of his contemporaries, the first music that Early heard as a young man was that of local fife and drum groups. He began playing harmonica at thirteen and met Alexander 'Papa George' Lightfoot. At the age of 15 Early initially played harmonica and then drums with local blues guitarist John Fitzgerald. In 1959 he began playing with the local guitarist Jesse Ware and in 1963 with trombonist Leon 'Pee Wee' Whittaker and they formed the core of the band 'Hezekiah and the Houserockers'. He worked as a musician on the film 'Freedom Road', starring Muhammad Ali. In 1983 Early released a first album: 'Since Ol' Gabriel's Time', followed by several other albums with Fat Possum label.
He also performed with singer Robert 'Little Poochie' Jackson and both recorded in 2016 their CD 'Natchez Burnin' with the label 'Broke & Hungry Records'. Early still performs in Natchez and surroundings.
Robert Lee 'Lil Poochie' Watson (29 March 1951)
Singer and guitarist Robert Lee 'Lil Poochie' Watson was born in Natchez, but spent his first fourteen years at Church Hill in Jefferson County, north of Natchez. When he was twelve, he built his first guitar using a wooden board with fishing wire for strings and nails as tuners. His mother bought him his first real guitar on which he played gospel songs and later blues. Watson's style of music was formed by listening to the old masters: Muddy Waters, Lightnin 'Slim, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins. At seventeen he played with 'The Roadrunners' and in the early 1980s he changed the name of the group to 'Red Hot and Ready'. In the mid-eighties, Watson played with 'Hezekiah and the Houserockers' at the Chicago Blues Festival and in Toronto. Shortly after, he stopped performing and in the late eighties he began working as a gardener in the historic Rosalie plantation house in Natchez. In 2016 he recorded the CD Natchez Burnin' with the label 'Broke & Hungry Records' together with Hezekiah Early. Watson still plays occasionally in Natchez.
Alexander O'Neal (November 15, 1953)
Alexander O'Neal was born in Natchez. After secondary school he continued his studies at Alcorn State University. When he was twenty years old O'Neal moved to Minneapolis where he performed with various bands, including 'Flyte Tyme', 'Monte Moir' and 'Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis'. His debut album was released in 1985 followed eight studio albums, six compilation albums, and a live album.
Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29, 1935)
Jerry Lee is not from Natchez but grew up in Ferriday, about seven miles from Natchez on the other side of the Mississippi. His parents, Elmo and Mamie Lewis, bought him an old piano. Jerry Lee was a natural, he taught himself to play the piano. He along with his two cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart started playing together. They were influenced by the black music that could be heard everywhere in Ferriday. Lewis developed his own style by mixing rhythm & blues, boogie woogie, gospel and country and quickly became a professional pianist.
When he was thirteen, he had a gig at a local Ford dealer. As Jerry Lee got older, he frothed off the Mississippi Delta to perform in pubs and rugged honky tonk bars. Because the music studios in Nashville did not see anything in him, he moved to Memphis at the age of 21. In 1954 he released his first record. Two years later he was discovered by record producer Jack Clement. During that period he also participated in a jam session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins. That jam session was recorded and would later become world famous under the name 'The Million Dollar Quartet'. In 1957 he became famous with the general public with 'Whole lotta shakin' goin' on'.
Lewis was not only renowned for his virtuosity, but mainly because of his behavior on stage. He kicked his piano stool out of the way and then continued to play standing and jumping around on the stage. His behavior gave him the nickname 'rock-'n-roll-wild-man'. His style and technique were copied by many rock pianists, including Elton John who is a great admirer of Lewis.
Brint Anderson (April 12, 1954)
Brint Anderson is one of the leading and most versatile musicians of Natchez. His first band, 'The Shades', with Gary Caldwell and Jerry Williams played in local teen centers and at parties. He discovered the blues via 'Papa George' Lightfoot but also found inspiration with Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, BB King and Albert King. In the seventies, Brint joined the band Blue John and played six nights a week at the Morgan's Lounge in Natchez. He learned to play slide-guitar and mastered the fingerpicking styles of Mississippi John Hurt and Taj Mahal. In 1981 he moved to Austin, Texas and founded his own band 'Coupe de Ville', a six-piece formation with percussion and horns. They played the funky, syncopated New Orleans styles and shared the stage with musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Delbert McClinton and the Neville Brothers. Coupe de Ville was Dr John's band when he played in Texas or Louisiana. Later Brint moved to New Orleans and accompanied musicians such as Stanley Clark, John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop, Albert Collins and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. From 1992 to 2016, Brint played with George Porter. During this time he accompanied stars such as Art Neville, The Radiators, Johnny Adams, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, Eddie Bo and Henry Butler, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint and many more New Orleans stars. With 'The Brint Anderson Band' he received a prize in 1997 for the best New Orleans R & B band and they were also the regular accompaniment band for Levon Helm and house orchestra at Levon's club on Decatur Street, New Orleans. Brint recorded a total of five CDs: 'Homage To Elmore', 'I Knew This Would Happen', 'Notes From Clarksdale', a self-titled solo acoustic CD and 'Covered In Earl'. To this day you can see Brint at work in Natchez and New Orleans.
Bishop Gunn is a young band from Natchez; a rising star that is successful all over the USA. Their music is deeply rooted in the history of the Delta, and is a mix of rock and roll, soul and blues. The group consists of vocalist Travis McCready, Drew Smithers on guitar, Ben Lewis on bass and Burne Sharp on drums.
In 2017 Bishop Gunn played on the eighth 'Chillin' the Most' Cruise and was named the best band. The group went on to make a film for 'Southern Comfort' in Clarksdale and toured Mississippi and Tennessee. They shared the stage with artists like Justin Timberlake, Eddie Vedder, Mavis Staples and Gary Clark Jr., Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, Jimmie Vaughan, The Gregg Allman Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In 2018 Bishop Gunn released their debut album 'Natchez'. The CD was recorded in the legendary 'Muscle Shoals Sound' and 'Fame' Studios and in 'The Purple House' with (Grammy Award-winning) Casey Wasner and Mark Neill producers. It reached number four on the Billboard charts. Rolling Stone Country devoted an article to the band and wrote: ' These are artists you have to hear! There are many musicians who have made recordings in the Muscle Shoals studio, but there are few who prove that they are worth it. Bishop Gunn is one of those acts! The CD is the perfect mix of the Nashville and the Shoals sound. It is an album that builds on the influences of the Delta instead of simply copying them.'
Matt was born in Natchez. When he was six years old he started piano lessons and continued until he was fourteen. At the age of thirteen he also started to play guitar. He listened to Hendrix, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan and heard them talking about their influences: BB King, Albert and Freddie King, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and he got to know the blues. When he was sixteen he started playing in clubs. Willis studied at the university and became a mechanical engineer, moved to Birmingham and married. Although, he continued to play the guitar he did not perform anymore. Matt earned a lot of money, was married, had a very comfortable life, but missed performing. Then he discovered the 'fingerpicking' style of Mississippi John Hurt. It completely changed his way of playing guitar. He started going back to the local jam sessions in Birmingham, and met an incredible number of excellent musicians who gave him great encouragement. He became one of the best guitarists in Birmingham. Matt divorced and began to perform again. He was getting a lot of work with more and more performances coming in and at the same time he was a full-time technician. Eventually he quit his job and became a full-time musician and decided to return to his birthplace Natchez. Ben Lewis (Bishop Gunn) booked him in Smoot's Grocery Blues Lounge and it was such a success that he became responsible for the music programming at Smoot's. He mainly books musicians he likes himself. Matt is one of the best guitarists from Natchez and performs almost weekly with various musicians. In addition, he is one of the main driving forces behind the revival of the blues in Natchez. "Natchez has been invisible for too long on Mississippi's blues map," he says, and he wants to do something about that.
Fred first heard blues music fifty years ago in a black juke joint on the Natchez Trace. He studied at the Southern University Baton Rouge Jazz Institute under the direction of Alvin Batiste. He has a professional drum career of more than forty years and has played with, among others, Alvin 'Youngblood' Hart, Brint Anderson and Chris Klein. You can still hear him playing at Smoot's and at Under The Hill Saloon in Natchez.
Phillip is a guitarist from Natchez. He played with the Juke Blues Band of Jimmi 'Soul Man Lee' Anderson from 1989 to 1995. Nowadays he plays almost every week in Natchez along with Larry Bagbey and Jerry Williams in the band 'Uncle Longhair'.
Junior Burnett and 'Pud' Forman grew up in Mississippi Avenue in Ferriday. Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart grew up in the same neighborhood. The musicians in that street played together in various informal bands. 'Pud' played with Linda Gail Lewis in a talent show at her school. Later on, they all went their own ways. About two years ago the friends decided to play music together again, this time with Jerry Williams and Fred Parker. To underline the importance and history of the street from their youth, they called the band 'Mississippi Avenue'.
Casey Gilbert is a guitarist from Vidalia, just across the Mississippi. He learned to play trumpet and drums as a child. In 1986 he started playing guitar. He received the John Phillip Sousa Award. He performed with several bands: Casey & Casey, Tongue & Groove, Mojo Mudd and eventually with YZ Ealey and he accompanied Ealey when he was inducted in the Delta Music Hall of Fame in 2016. Together they have played at countless festivals in Mississippi and Louisiana including the Ground Zero Blues Club, the Arcade Theater, and the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday and at the Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival. They are still performing as a duo in Natchez and surroundings at present.
Jack Garraway Kelly
Kelly has been playing washboard with national and international music groups for over thirty years, and with a repertoire ranging from reggae to down-home blues. In 1988 she jumped unannounced on to the stage of the Traditional Jazz Festival and played with a group of seasoned Dixieland musicians. She discovered the Zydeco at a concert by Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. That was the real start. She performed in 2007 with her reggae band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jack played with bands from Ireland, New York, Australia and played in The House of Blues in New Orleans in 2000 with reggae band, The Abyssinians. Even at the age of seventy-five she still plays regularly. At this moment she wants to be a free troubadour, not bound by the tight schedule of her own band.
Brandon McCranie was born in Natchez. Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart are his family. He learned to sing in church and at school. After he graduated, he bought his first guitar. When he was a student at Delta State University, his passion for blues really flourished. He says 'It is hard to believe that a handful of discriminated black men from the poorest parts of the country have had such a big impact on the whole world. The story of the blues is about overcoming obstacles and finding light in the darkest places. Blues music is not sad, despite what most people think, it is hopeful music.' After university he returned to Natchez and formed 'Mojo Mudd' and later 'Fellers Groove'. He also works as a booking agent and festival organizer.
Gabriel Bass is a 32-year-old singer-guitarist. His grandfather was one of his greatest sources of inspiration; he played gospel music on the piano and sang in church every Sunday. In 2002, Bass began playing guitar and performing, sometimes solo but more usually with Chris Kenney and Mark Richardson. As a trio they can be heard almost every weekend in the clubs and restaurants of Natchez and surroundings. Bass released his first CD of his own compositions in 2017. When you listen to the album, you hear the influences of different genres, from folk to country and from blues to rock and roll.
Kenneth L Dunn
Kenneth is an outsider in this roll of musicians, but has quite an influence on the music scene in Natchez as a booking agent. He was born 1951 Ferriday, Louisiana, two blocks away from where ' The killer ', Jerry Lee Lewis lived. He started the label 'Flyin' Dog Records ' and the Kenneth Dunn Agency in 1996. He booked Texas' blues artist Joe 'Guitar' Huges and Jerry Lightfoot on the first 'Natchez Blues Fest'. Over the years he has managed blues artists from all over the world. Flyin' Dog Records has released 6 CDs that are distributed worldwide.
In addition to these names, there are several musicians such as Tommy Porter, Stan Smith, Bubba McCabe, Maggie Brown, etc. to name a few who still keep the blues tradition alive today.
Blues clubs in Natchez
Natchez currently has an extensive network of bars, restaurants and juke joints where music is played daily. Blues clubs that you should definitely visit in Natchez are:
MS Daisy House of Blues
MS Daisy House of Blues is a juke joint located on Liberty Road, in the woods a few miles from Natchez. Miss Daisy lives there and regularly organizes blues concerts.
Smoot's Grocery Blues Lounge
This is a beautifully renovated juke joint, located on the corner of Broadway & High Street, with a view on the Mississippi. In Smoot's both local artists and foreign acts perform.
Gabriel House Blues
Gabriel House Blues is one of the most interesting places in Natchez. It is located in a beautifully restored house that was built in 1892 by Lucas Petkovsek. He had a furniture workshop there. The house burned down in 1916, but with the help of Natchez's citizens it was immediately rebuilt. It has had many functions over the years. By 2013 it was completely in disrepair. Jackie Cowan bought it in 2014 and renovated it preserving the style that is so typical of Natchez. The 'basement' is designed in the typical juke joint style. The first gig was with Tommy Porter in April 2015 and the house was named Gabriel House Blues. It was such a success that more gigs followed. Gabriel House Blues invites in particular artists who are not so well known in Natchez. It is a 'listening room', comfortable and small-scale, where the audience and musicians meet and appreciate each other.
Under The Hill Saloon
This is probably one of the most notorious places in Natchez. In the nineteenth century, 'Silver Street' was the harbor of Natchez and was described by countless nineteenth-century travelers as a lively port, the most riotous place on the Mississippi River. There were taverns, gambling halls and brothels. One of them was the 'Under The Hill Saloon'. Currently 'Under The Hill Saloon' is a bar where you can hear blues almost every day.
Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries
Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries specializes in the sale of architectural antiques from Mississippi and Louisiana. In addition, it is also a gallery where local artists exhibit their work. Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries organizes monthly gigs and endeavors to organize events that bring the whole community together.
Rollin 'River Bistro
The Rolling River Bistro is one of the best Natchez restaurants with live music every night.
Bowie's Tavern the largest bar west of the Mississippi with a view of the river was originally a cotton storehouse. It has a beautiful interior with a mahogany bar dating from 1880. Bowie's has music almost every night.
Biscuits and Blues
Biscuits and Blues is a restaurant located on Main Street, in downtown Natchez. It honors the tradition of Hot Biscuits & Cool Blues, but there are more things on the menu. You can also go there for live music.
Natchez on the 'Mighty Mississippi' earns a place in the blues history. It has been the 'forgotten blues town' for too long. Maybe the Delta is 'the cradle of the blues', but that was only possible thanks to the unique mix of music that was heard in Natchez, long before the birth of the blues found its way to the North.
These are reasons enough to go along to Natchez and experience the rich history and continue to appreciate the contemporary blues scene with excellent clubs and great musicians. Check it out!
About the author
Luc Borms has been working as a harmonica player for over 40 years. About fifteen years ago he founded Double Deal VZW with the aim of teaching as many people as possible to play the harmonica. The Double Deal workshops have already exceeded 1,800 participants.
In the past seven years he has been a musician on the Mississippi stages, which have included Blind Mississippi Morris, Jimmy Mayes, YZ Ealey, Eddie Cusik, Core Pratt, Eden Brent, Dave Sherman, Brint Anderson and Matt Willis. Luc and his brother have written three books on the culture of the Mississippi Delta: 'Catfish & Cotton - drivin' down the blues highway', 'A People' and 'Highway 61'.
The theme of blues music is also reflected in his paintings.
Get in contact with Luc Borms via Lborms@telenet.be
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You can download the original article in Dutch, published in "Back To The Roots" blues magazine in Europe, by clicking on the link below