We hired a car in New Orleans for a road trip through the South. First stop, Natchez, Mississippi.
Established by French colonists in 1716, Natchez is the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River since the beginning of European colonisation.
First it was the southern terminus of the overland route for goods and white workers heading to Nashville and on to points further north. As the South opened up, it funnelled slave labour to huge cotton and sugarcane farms on the fertile lowlands of Mississippi. And when steamboats made upriver transport commercially viable, it served as the principal port for shipping those products to St Louis and Chicago.
Natchez reached peak prosperity in the decades preceding the American Civil War. Slave traders, plantation owners and wealthy merchants built grand mansions here. Aside from New York, the town was, at one time, home to the greatest number of millionaires in America.
All good things must come to an end, and Natchez’ prosperity faded when rail replaced steamboats as the preferred means of freight transport.
Today, it’s small and not particularly prosperous, but attracts visitors like us because, thanks to the Confederate Army surrendering the town without a fight, it has the greatest concentration of intact antebellum houses of any town in the South. More than 600, in fact.
Several, including Stanton House, Rosalie Mansion and Magnolia Hall have been meticulously restored and are open for tours.
Thomas Leathers built pretty Myrtle Terrace. The renowned steamboat captain survived several near-death experiences in river disasters only to die after being struck by a bicyclist in New Orleans. Ironic.
Our hotel was a Georgian Revival townhouse built in 1840 and later converted to a guesthouse.
Texada, constructed in 1792, was the first brick house in the Mississippi territory.
A walking trail with information boards winds through town past these and many other homes which together warrant the town’s reputation as a historical treasure.
As we read one of the boards, a local who oversaw restoration work on Magnolia Hall and clearly loves his town stopped for a long chat about the history of various buildings. Natchez is that kind of place.
The wealthy part of town was built on the bluff with panoramic views over the Mississippi River. Along the riverbank below was Natchez Under-the-Hill, the working part of town, with docks, saloons, gambling dens and houses of prostitution. In 1816, a traveller described it as “without a single exception the most licentious spot that I ever saw”. Another recorded that “dreadful riots occur … eyes are gouged out, noses and ears are bitten and torn off”.
Although all but abandoned after the steamboats ceased operating, a few houses of entertainment remained. The Blue Cat Club was where Jerry Lee Lewis gave his first professional performance at the age of 13. He was the Club’s most popular entertainer when he left for the bright lights of Memphis at age 20, and within two years Great Balls of Fire had sold a million copies. The building still stands, now somewhat prettied up.
The town celebrates its African American history too. Kyle House was built by white merchant Thomas Kyle in 1820 for a woman of colour who was the mother of his child. It was saved from demolition and preserved by the Natchez Historical Foundation as one of the few remaining examples of pre-Civil War houses which were home to working class whites and free people of colour.
In 1965, members of the African American community in Natchez repeatedly marched in defiance of city ordinances which banned demonstrations in support of equal rights. Almost 500 were arrested, many were savagely beaten. White supremacists came from adjoining counties to intimidate marchers. A local activist was severely injured when his car was bombed because he was promoted in his workplace ahead of white workers.
In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the troubles, the city issued a formal apology, acknowledging that the arrests were unjust and the ordinances banning marches were unconstitutional. And a memorial was erected honouring those who took a stand.
Natchez was one of those low key gems, a joy to explore, with so much history and locals who clearly love their town.
Heading north we passed through Port Gibson. It’s tiny but also has a swag of preserved antebellum houses. The Civil War raged through the town, but when the Union army prevailed, General Ulysses Grant famously declared the city was “too beautiful to burn”.
And then for something completely different, we came to Clarksdale, the ‘Birthplace of the Blues’.
The Clarksdale Moan filled the air
Well, well, well, well, you heard it everywhere
Yeah, it was the sound of the Delta, yeah
Sung so sweet and low
(Clarksdale Mississippi, Omar and the Howlers)
African American musicians developed the blues in the Mississippi Delta, taking it north during the Great Migration when around six million African Americans left the rural south between 1910 and 1970 due to economic circumstances, segregation and disadvantage.
Many of the greats came from around here – Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were all children of cotton plantation workers or sharecroppers in the Delta.
Led Zeppelin band members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant named their only studio album Walking in Clarksdale as a tribute to the significance of Clarksdale in the history of the Blues and its influence on rock and roll.
Muddy Waters famously sang:
All you people, you know the blues got a soulWell this is a story, a story never been told Well you know the blues got pregnant And they named the baby Rock & Roll
Well the blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll.
There’s a mural in Clarksdale that confirms it!
Mick Jagger was holding The Best of Muddy Waters album when he bumped into Keith Richards on a train in 1962. They formed a band named the Rolling Stones, from Waters’ hit of the same name:
Well, my mother told my fatherJust before I was born “I got a boy child’s comin’, he’s gonna be He’s gonna be a “Rollin’ Stone”
You can learn all about it at the Delta Blues Museum. A local librarian first established the museum in the 1970s. His collection was so small, he would take it home every night for safe keeping. But it’s grown into a large, well presented walk-through of the history of the Delta Blues with old footage, photographs, stage outfits and memorabilia spanning from the origins of the blues to today.
In 1988, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibson took some fallen boards from the plantation hut where Muddy Waters once lived, fashioned them into guitars and toured one through Hard Rock Cafes around the world to raise money for the museum.
The remainder of the hut has been salvaged and rebuilt inside the museum itself.
The town doesn’t look so promising on first sight. There’s some desperately poor neighbourhoods. But also some charming period signs.
If you fancy yourself an old time blues musician, this is definitely the place to shop. We found these in the window of the local menswear store.
There are information boards on the streets profiling musical greats from the town. We were conflicted about Ike Turner being honoured. He was born near Clarksdale and started off playing blues and boogy woogy piano here, finding success as a DJ on a local radio station before forging a career as a musician. He’s credited with recording the first true rock and roll song, Rocket 88, but no mention of the fact that he was also an abusive husband to one of Australia’s favourite American rockers, Tina.
The local council has clearly made big efforts to brighten up the town with loads of murals of local blues greats and contemporary blues artists.
It’s not just music. Tennessee Williams lived in Clarksdale for several years as a child and they have a festival in his honour each year.
An unknown artist has even painted a mural of Clint Eastwood, although no one knows why.
There’s a mural featuring local civil rights activist, Dr Vera Mae Pigee. No doubt she would have been proud that the local police chief labelled her “the most aggressive leader of the NAACP in Clarksdale” for her efforts with desegregating the bus terminal and organising voter registration for African Americans in the town.
Clarksdale’s best feature, though, is its thriving live blues scene. On a freezing Tuesday in January we saw a fantastic line up at The Hambone, an art gallery that doubles as a performance venue at night.
The advertised performer was a blues man with a steel string guitar and a voice like gravel. After a few solo sets, he was joined by a band which took it up another notch.
Little did we know we would also get to see a blues legend, Watermelon Slim. He may have put away a few sherbets before he came on. He could barely stand, but wow could he play the harmonica and sing.
The gallery owner was a true multi-tasker. Turns out he’s a talented saxophonist, drummer and singer.
That’s when he wasn’t manning the bar, ably supervised by his cat.
All for the princely cover charge of $7.00 each. We just want to know why we can’t have this at home.