When thinking of Natchez, music may be the last thing that comes to mind. Natchez is actually a part of the Americana Music Triangle, the birthplace of American music. From the tribal music of the Natchez Indians to the slave musicians who entertained at formal and informal gatherings to the burning of the Rhythm Night Club, Natchez’s music history runs as deep as the Mighty Mississippi.
Natchez was once home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the United States until the outbreak of the Civil War. After sharecropping became popular in the Mississippi Delta, many African Americans moved to find work at the same time blues music was taking off. Although very few commercial recordings document the sounds of blues in Natchez prior to WWII, we were still home to Geeshie Wiley, Bud Scott and band, guitarist William “Cat-Iron” Carradine, and saxophonists Earl Reed and Otis Smith.
The most memorialized musical event in Natchez happened on April 23, 1940. Walter Barnes of Chicago and his band made their way to Natchez to perform for over 200 African Americans at the Rhythm Night Club. While performing, a fire broke out. Walter Barnes, his band and some 200 people perished in the fire. The tragedy struck the nation and received extensive press, being picked up by several famous blues musicians who later wrote songs about the fire. The most notable of those is Howlin’ Wolf’s, The Natchez Burning.
New talents began to emerge in Natchez clubs and cafes. The most notable was Alexander “Papa George” Lightfoot. Lightfoot was known for playing a mean harmonica and recorded for several important record labels, such as Aladdin, Imperial and Savoy. Alexander “Papa George” Lightfoot is now commemorated with his own Mississippi Blues Trail Marker in Natchez.
Besides all of the places in Natchez where musicians performed, the most important live venue for blues stood in Ferriday, LA, just ten miles west of Natchez. Haney’s Big House was operated by African American entrepreneur, Will Haney. The stage had been graced by legendary blues artists, such as B.B. King, Ray Charles, Roy Brown, Johnnie Taylor and Joe Turner. Haney’s was also an opportunity for local talent like Y.Z. Ealey, Elmore Williams, and Hezekiah Early to perform. You would some times see Jerry Lee Lewis or Jimmy Anderson wandering about the crowd. In 1966, however, the club mysteriously burned to the ground along with other African American owned businesses near by. You can hear an interview of Hezekiah Early from American Routes here.
Other noted musicians around the Natchez area are Gray Montgomery, Scott Dunbar, David “Bubba” Ealey, “Hound Dog” Taylor, Mickey Gilley, and more. “Hound Dog” Taylor was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984. Lil’ Poochie is also from Natchez and recently played in Paul McCartney’s “Early Days” video, released in early 2014.
Today, you can get a glimpse into the Natchez area’s music history at any of the five Mississippi Blues Trail Markers, the Delta Music Museum, the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum or the African American History Museum. You can still hear live music in many venues throughout town and during festivals.