Blues veteran Hezekiah Early is associated with Natchez, Mississippi, and with the towns on the other side of the river, like St. Joseph and Ferriday, Louisiana. Folklorist David Evans was involved with a couple of albums made by Early’s band Hezekiah and the Houserockers, but his earliest roots were in Black fife and drum music, a genre that we usually associate with parts of Mississippi further to the north. Nevertheless, the influence of the fife and drum style can be clearly heard in much of Hezekiah’s drumset work. Since the 1990’s, Early has been working in duos with musicians such as Elmo Williams and Fayette, Mississippi-based Robert “Poochie” Watson, with whom he cut the Broke-and-Hungry Records release Natchez Burning. This latter duo was the one that appeared this year at the Juke Joint Festival, performing at a new venue called Our Grandma’s Sports Bar, which was a small but cozy venue that set a most appropriate atmosphere for the music. Early and Watson’s style is a soulful, rhythm & blues-influenced one that owes much to New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. Although the venue was not particularly crowded when they began playing, it soon filled up to capacity. Their performance was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
Natchez bluesman Y. Z. Ealey is 81-years old this May, and is a brother of the much better-known Southern Soul artist Theodis Ealey, of “Stand Up In It” fame. Y. Z., Theodis and their brother Melwyn were all blues musicians from the town of Sibley, Mississippi, just outside of Natchez, but Y. Z. has largely been a factory worker who plays music more as an avocation. Given the extent to which we have been losing our elder statesmen of blues over the last several years, I was determined to catch Ealey’s performance in Clarksdale at this year’s Juke Joint Festival. So I made my way to the Coahoma Collective , which had formerly been Ms. Del’s General Store, where Ealey performed in the courtyard with his band. His style is a swamp-pop infused style which demonstrates the fact that Louisiana is merely across the river from Natchez, and his current band features some younger musicians, and on this occasion, a clarinetist. But Ealey is still in fine form and voice, and his performance was definitely a high point of this year’s festival.
After R. L. Boyce’s show in Leland, we headed on down Highway 61 to Natchez and checked into the Hotel Vue. Duwayne Burnside had a show at the Circle Bar in New Orleans on Sunday night, and we wanted to get as close to New Orleans as we could get, so that our drive down the next morning would not be bad. Our room was big and comfortable, and better yet, it came with a free breakfast buffet for the next morning. Arriving at 2 AM, we hadn’t seen much of the decor, but on the next morning, we were able to see amazing views of the city of Natchez and the Mississippi River from the rather steep hill on which the hotel was built. After we checked out, we both wanted coffee, so we headed downtown to a place called Steampunk Coffee Roasters, which turned out to be directly behind Smoot’s Grocery, the local blues venue in Natchez. The coffee roastery and cafe was housed in an historic brick cottage that dated back to the 19th century, and was fairly crowded, a mix of local people and those coming or going from New Orleans Mardi Gras. Although the previous Saturday had been cold, the weather was warming up on Sunday, and people were walking along the Mississippi River, and enjoying the outdoor tables at the coffee bar. We took a table inside, and enjoyed our coffee drinks, and I purchased three bags of beans to take home, some Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan varieties. Across the street from the coffee bar was a large warehouse with a mural promoting a different kind of coffee, the Interstate Coffee Company of Natchez, and its brands of coffee, Double Eagle Coffee and Chicory, and Alcafe Coffee. The company was long out of business, sadly, but the mural had been beautifully restored by the building’s current owners, and we were told that it would soon become Natchez Brewing Company. Fueled with light food and coffee, we soon headed out to New Orleans.
Al Kapone had arranged for me to get access to the South By Southwest Music Festival in San Antonio, where he was performing this year, so I headed out early in the morning down I-55 across Mississippi. At Madison, I stopped for coffee, but since Jazz & Java had closed in December, I had to settle for Starbucks, and then I started down the Natchez Trace into Natchez. Although the city had seen better days, there were still a lot of old, historic buildings downtown, many with the upstairs balconies that people often associate with New Orleans. On Franklin Street, I found the Natchez Coffee Company, which was filled with a mix of tourists and local people enjoying sandwiches and coffees. I ordered a latte, and then noticed a bookstore across the street, but I felt that if I went in there, I would lose at least an hour of time, so I went back to my car and drove back out to the bypass, across the Mississippi River, and into Vidalia, Louisiana. The drive from Ferriday to Alexandria was hot and boring, and it was 5 PM when I finally got to Pineville.
I didn’t want to stop in Alexandria, but I did want to drive down Lee Street, since, judging from old city directories, it had been the center of Alexandria’s Black night life. As recently as 1984, there had been a couple of record stores on the street, but as I drove down it in the early evening, there was very little left. Urban renewal had taken its toll in Alexandria just as it had everywhere else, but there were some clues to the past along Lee Street. I noticed a building with signs indicating that it had been a hotel, a nearby tire shop, a couple of night clubs that looked as if they might still be open, a few older Black men gathered out in front of the buildings. Still, Lee Street was now more vacant lots than buildings, and I wondered if anything was being done to preserve the historic buildings that remain.
Heading south on I-49, I exited onto a state road that led to the town of Eunice, where the first thing I noticed was two young Black kids on horseback riding south toward the downtown. There had been a couple of record stores in Eunice, but one of them was closed for good, and another was closed for the evening. Across the street from it was yet another coffee bar, where I ordered another latte, while watching the same young kids I had seen earlier as they rode their horse down the main street of town. Highway 190 was good road to the west, and the sun stayed with me until I crossed into Texas.
The Holiday Inn in Beaumont where I had booked my room was across the street from a Pappadeaux’s, but I had decided I wanted steak instead, so after checking in, I drove down to Crockett Street, Beaumont’s entertainment district, where I ate dinner at a steakhouse called Spindletop. They were having a pre-South By Southwest party at the rock club next door, but I decided to drive down the streets that had been entertainment centers for Beaumont’s Black community back in the 1960’s. Urban renewal had devastated Black communities everywhere, but in Beaumont, there had also been hurricanes, so streets like Gladys and Forsythe were almost completely vacant. I had hoped to catch of glimpse of what life must have been like in those streets’ hayday, but I could see nothing. Disappointed, I drove the expressway southward into Port Arthur, thinking I might find some kind of live music going on along Gulfway Drive. But Port Arthur proved to be an eerie, ghostly city almost entirely abandoned. It had seemed troubled but still alive back when Al Kapone had been booked to perform there back in the 1990’s, but now there seemed to be nothing left. As I drove down the main street downtown, I came upon the abandoned Sabine Hotel first, and then street after street of abandoned business buildings. Boarded up department stores, boarded up furniture stores, an abandoned World Trade Center, an abandoned federal courthouse. The apocalyptic landscape was made all the more strange by the brilliant streetlights with bathed everything in this area (the residential areas were pitch-black, with few streetlights at all), as well as the strange mist and fog that hung over the city.
I drove back along the Twin City Highway, now thoroughly depressed, wondering how a whole city of 70,000 people could be so thoroughly abandoned. Catching Washington Boulevard, I drove across the Peach Orchard neighborhood, noticing a new Screwed Up Records store that hadn’t been there the last time I was in Beaumont, and The Unit store, which sold mostly clothing but a few compact discs. Realizing that I wasn’t going to find any live jazz, blues or soul, I decided to retire to the hotel and to bed.