Columbia's Charms

Natchez presents its lovely pilgrimage and
a rousing blues celebration each spring.
By Carolyn Thornton

Roused from winter slumber, Natchez, Miss., blushes pink in spring with necklaces of azaleas surrounding regal residences. The doors of these courtly homes–many privately owned–are flung wide in welcome during the state’s oldest tour of homes, the Spring Pilgrimage, this year March 7–April 11.

Corydon Town Sqaure

Above: Stanton Hall is among the gems on display during the pilgrimage. Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Below: The Natchez Bluff Blues Fest features three days of great performances, indoors and out. Carolyn Thornton photo

People

That’s just the prelude to experiencing this antebellum queen’s beauty, history and soulful heartbeat. As the Spring Pilgrimage closes, the music begins to tune up. The Natchez Bluff Blues Fest, April 17–19, offers a mix of free and ticketed events that takes place in several venues.

Maybe a springtime getaway to Natchez will strike a chord with you.

Homes and gardens

Long before pioneers planted cotton in rich river soil, the Natchez Indians used the area as a hunting ground. The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians (400 Jeff Davis Blvd.) includes three ceremonial mounds and a reconstructed house to recount the lifestyle of these first residents. The museum, a National Historical Landmark, also has a visitor center that offers Native American crafts for sale.

Following the Native Americans, cotton planters brought fortune to this high bluff town. Indeed, prior to the Civil War, the number of millionaires living in Natchez rivaled those in New York City. Today, about 500 antebellum structures remain as a lasting testimony to the city’s Golden Era.

Natchez bustles in spring with hoop-skirted hostesses in period costume. Heady aromas of traditional Southern cooking–fried chicken, cornbread, black-eyed peas and more–waft on soft breezes. In the evening, residents don pageant finery for “The Historic Natchez Pageant,” presented by approximately 200 local performers. Gospel music, “Songs of the South,” the “Southern Road to Freedom” and “Southern Exposure” round out the nightly dramatic and musical entertainment offered during the pilgrimage.

During the day, horseshoes clop as horse-drawn carriage drivers reminisce about storied mansions. They pause at Stanton Hall that was built by an Irish cotton broker in 1857 as “an ornament for Natchez.” Ceilings are 16 feet high and walls 21 inches thick, and there are only four large rooms downstairs divided by a long central hallway. Visitors walk past the colossal 26 columns that surround Dunleith, whose owner hid his prized horses in the basement while serving Union officers in the dining room above.

Nostalgia lovers wind along the wooded lane to exotic Longwood. When news of the Civil War came to Natchez, artisans, painters and carpenters abandoned their tools and left to join the war. This octagonal, multi-tiered, Oriental-Moorish-Byzantine mansion was never completed. Some visitors sink into four-poster beds, spending the night in splendorous inns such as Monmouth, home of John A. Quitman, a pre-Civil War Mississippi governor.

Heart and soul

The Natchez Bluff Blues Fest that follows the Spring Pilgrimage has indoor and outdoor events on both sides of the Mississippi River. “It’s a three-day house party,” said producer Eric Glatzer. “(The festival brings) folks together across all lines, man-made or natural, to experience the influence of one of Mississippi’s most valuable natural resources, the blues.

“Natchez was one of the original stops on the old Blues Trail (Highway 61) from Memphis to New Orleans,” Glatzer said. Markers throughout the state commemorate the rich blues stories along this music trail. “By bringing these back stories to the forefront, it makes them more personal.”

In 2008, a blues marker was dedicated on Main Street in Natchez. The plaque recalls the tragic fire of the Rhythm Club that took the lives of 209 people, including Bud Scott, one of the early jazz superstars. All but the front door of the club had been boarded up on April 23, 1940, to prevent people from sneaking in to hear the music. When a fire ignited the Spanish moss used for decoration, many trapped guests were trampled at the door or died from the smoke and fumes. Walter Barnes and his band continued to play in an effort to calm the crowd. He and nine band members died in the fire; three survived. Numerous songs were recorded about the fire, including “The Natchez Burning” by Howlin’ Wolf in 1956.

To learn more about the Rhythm Club and the history of blacks in southwestern Mississippi, visit the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture Museum, 301 Main St. The museum displays art and posters from the 14-year history of the Natchez Bluff Blues Fest.

The three-day blues festival kicks off Friday afternoon with Broadway Blues Bash in Natchez and the Sun Set Blues open air concert at the Vidalia Landing on the Mississippi River’s west bank in Vidalia, La.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, Natchez clubs–including Biscuits & Blues, Pearl Street Pasta and Peacocks Bar & Grill in the Eola Hotel–will feature live music. On Saturday from noon–7 p.m., the main event will be on the grounds of Historic Rosalie’s Bicentennial Garden with music galore.

“We then mix in a crawfish boil and other regional food and crafts booths to spice things up,” Glatzer said.

On Sunday, select restaurants create blues brunch menus. Other places for good meals include the three Diamond restaurants at Monmouth and Dunleith. At 3 p.m., a Rhythm Club Gospel Tribute will be staged at the Gazebo on Broadway.

“The backyard of Historic Rosalie mansion is the best festival site,” said Glatzer. “And with today’s best blues and home cooking–whoo-eee!”

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Mar/Apr 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For details, contact the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 647-6724 or www.visitnatchez.org.

To visit Natchez, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Offices to serve you.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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