Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Jimmy Anderson: Natchez Swamp Blues

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Jimmy Anderson: Natchez Swamp Blues

Article excerpt

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Linton Avenue in downtown Natchez, Mississippi, is dotted with large Victorian homes, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. In the early twentieth century it was home to successful Jewish families. The maids, gardeners, and carpenters who took care of these homes and the people who resided there lived right behind Linton Avenue on Maple Street, where simple cypress cabins still stand adjacent to small pine shotgun houses. This area was, and remains, one of the only African American neighborhoods in downtown Natchez. The city was highly segregated during the Jim Crow era and today its built environment still recalls its complicated social and racial history.

Jimmy Anderson was born in 1934 to Jennie Lee Risen, a sharecropper from Woodville, Mississippi, who gave him up for adoption a week and a half later to Leola Newell, who raised him in the Maple Street neighborhood in which he still lives today. In the late 1950s, Anderson moved from Natchez to Woodville, Mississippi, and then to Baton Rouge. He returned to his hometown in the late sixties and has remained there since.

I met Anderson in 2006, when I moved into his neighborhood. While working on the terribly dilapidated house that my wife and I had bought, the music of Clarence Carter, Little Waiter, and Johnny Cash would pour out from our then-windowless little property. Jimmy frequently stopped by, encouraging us with humor, always saying that we "played some good tapes." Right away we began to talk about music, about any kind of music. Jimmy has extensive knowledge of the subject. We gladly put our tools aside to sit and talk with him. After we became friends and swapped records, Jimmy began to tell us his life story. His first revelation was that he was a blues singer during the 1960s, recording about twenty songs in that era. We then began to work together, releasing the recordings that he made in Louisiana and organizing events around his music. We also recorded his memories.

Although our talks always began with music, our conversations took many paths: Jimmy talked about his family, his childhood, the hardships finding employment for African Americans in the Deep South, the beauty and pains of love, fishing parties along the old river, and his loneliness as an older person. This essay takes into account only a small part of Jimmy's memories. His powerful words are not simply beautiful stories. His career as a Baton Rouge bluesman during the heyday of the Louisiana Swamp Blues draws us back to the segregated South where this music was born, back where working-class black men and women created the sound in the bars and clubs of the Chemical City.

NATCHEZ BLUES

In the 1930s, Natchez was a hotspot for African American music: fife and drum during Sunday picnics in the country, gospel singing in church, and the blues of the clubs. A decade later, in October 1940, John and Ruby Lomax would record these beautiful blues with three men, Lucious Curtis, George Boldwin, and Willie Ford, whose hypnotic blues evoked the hardships endured by African Americans in the Jim Crow South. These men were eager to sing secular songs at a time when black secular music was scarce in Adams County. Ruby Lomax observed in a letter to family in October 1940 that "[a]ny songs besides spirituals are hard to get here; for that terrible dance hall fire of several months ago has sent the Negro population to the mourners' bench, and they will not sing 'reels' or 'worl'ly' songs." (1)

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In April of that year, 209 people had died in a tragic fire at the Rhythm Club on Saint Catherine Street, during a performance by Walter Barnes and his swing jazz orchestra. Many were young students celebrating their graduation; others were sharecroppers, teachers, nurses, and other young professionals. This accident, poignantly recalled in the songs "Natchez Fire" (1956) by Howlin' Wolf and "Natchez Fire (Burnin')" (1959) and "The Mighty Fire" (1962) by John Lee Hooker, cast a pall on secular black music in Natchez. …

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