Photo courtesy Blues Archive, John D. Williams Library,
The blaze reportedly began when a discarded match or cigarette ignited the decorative Spanish moss that hung from the ceiling of the Rhythm Club (also called the Rhythm Night Club), a corrugated metal building on St. Catherine Street. Windows had been boarded shut, and when the flames erupted, hundreds of frantic patrons stormed the only door. Bandleader Walter Barnes was hailed as a hero for trying to calm the crowd while he and the band continued to play the song “Marie.” When the mass of bodies blocked the exit, victims suffocated or were burned or crushed to death.
The Chicago Daily Defender, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper, covered the Natchez story extensively. Barnes had also been a columnist for the Defender, and the paper reported that more than 15,000 people attended his funeral. The first monument to the victims was dedicated on the Natchez Bluff on September 15, 1940, by the Natchez Civic and Social Clubs of Chicago and Natchez. A state historical marker was later erected at the former site of the Rhythm Club.
Did you ever hear about the burnin’
That happened way down in Natchez Mississippi town?
The whole buildin’ got to burnin’,
There my baby laying on the ground.
“The Natchez Burning” – Howlin’ Wolf
Much more can be written about the various songs dealing with the Natchez fire, but for now, we should point that some erroneous references have been cited at various web sites, including the never-to-be-trusted (but often useful as a starting point) Wikipedia. These songs, for instance, have been given as examples of songs about the fire, but I’ve listened to them and none of them has anything to do with Natchez, a fire, a departed loved one, or any sort of tragic disaster:
-“We The Cats Shall Hep You” – Cab Calloway
- “For You” – Slim Gaillard
- “You’re a Heavenly Thing” – Cleo Brown
A good discussion of songs inspired by the fire (and other events) can be found in Luigi Monge’s chapter, "Death by Fire: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire," in the book Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History, edited By Robert Springer (University Press of Mississippi, 2006). The songs are:
- "Mississippi Fire Blues" and "Natchez Mississippi Blues" by Lewis Bronzeville Five, Bluebird B8445, Chicago, May 9, 1940.
- "The Death of Walter Barnes" by Baby Doo (Leonard Caston) and the flip side, "The Natchez Fire," by Gene Gilmore, Decca 7763, Chicago, June 4, 1940.
- "The Natchez [Theater] Fire Disaster," by Charles Haffer Jr., unissued Library of Congress track 6623-B-2, July 23, 1942.
- "The Natchez Burning," by Howlin' Wolf, Chicago, July 19, 1956, Chess 1744.
- "Wasn't That a Awful Day in Natchez?" by Robert Gilmore, prob. 1956 or 1957, Plaquemines Point, Louisiana, a track on the LP A Sampler of Louisiana Folksongs, Louisiana Folklore Society LFS-1.
- "Natchez Fire" ("Burnin'") by John Lee Hooker, Detroit, April 20, 1959, a track on Riverside LP 008.
- "Fire at Natchez (The Great Disaster of 1936)," by John Lee Hooker, March 9, 1961, Culver City, California, a track on Galaxy LP 201 and 8201.
- "The Mighty Fire" ("Great Fire of Natchez"), by John Lee Hooker, July 28, 1963, Newport, Rhode Island, a track on Vee-Jay LP 107.
- "The Natchez Burning," by Willie Wright, April 7, 1976, Sweet Home, Arkansas, a track on Rooster Blues LP R7605.
- "Ice Storm Blues, Parts One & Two," by Big Jack Johnson, 1994, Clarksdale, Rooster Blues cassette R-60C.
- "The Burning," by Little Whitt & Big Bo, February 1995, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a track on Vent Records CD VR 30009.
- "Natchez Fire," by Elmo Williams & Hezekiah Early, 1997, Waterproof, Louisiana, a track on Fat Possum CD 80313.
Monge mentions two recordings that were released on Rooster Blues Records during the time I [Jim O'Neal] co-owned the label. The first, a version of Wolf’s “The Natchez Burning” by Arkansas guitarist Willie Wright, was first released on the Rooster Blues LP Keep It To Yourself: Arkansas Blues, Vol.. 1 – Solo Performances, which is now available on CD (Stackhouse SRC-1910). This was recorded by Louis Guida in 1976 as part of a Bicentennial field recording project, and the title on the original tape was “Madison, Mississippi,” because that’s what Wright is singing, rather than “Natchez, Mississippi.” (Or it could just as well have been "Mattson, Mississippi.") I changed it on the album to “The Natchez Burning” because that’s what the song was, just with a different town name. (Monge transcribes this as “the messy Mississippi town.”)
The other recording, also inspired by Wolf’s Natchez song, with new lyrics sung to the same music, was Big Jack Johnson’s “Ice Storm Blues,” in which the Clarksdale ice storm of 1994 replaces the Natchez fire of 1940 as the topic of disaster (although on a much less deadly scale). This was a cassette-only release in the U.S. although it was issued in Japan on a P-Vine Special CD. It’s among a number of tracks recorded at the Stackhouse Recording Studio (R.I.P.) in Clarksdale that I hope to release on a Stackhouse CD and/or in whatever digital/electronic format is necessary in the coming day and age.
Another recording that transposes Wolf's song about the fire onto another event is "The Burning" by Alabama bluesmen Little Whitt and Big Bo, recorded for Vent Records in 1995: "Have you ever heard about the burning that happened way down in a Mississippi town? Well, those evil people there burned the schoolhouse down to the ground."
As for Wolf’s own recording, “The Natchez Burning,” although it was recorded July 19, 1956, in Chicago, Chess did not release it until November 1959 when it appeared as the “A” side of Chess single 1744. I don’t know the reasoning for this, other than it appears from perusing Wolf’s discography that he was not recording many sessions for Chess in 1959-60, and Chess started pulling some unissued tracks from past sessions to keep the singles flowing. I also thought maybe there was some sort of 20th anniversary memorial to the fire in Chicago in the spring of 1960 and that the single might have been released to coincide with that, but I have no evidence of that. The Defender did run an article about Walter Barnes on the 20th anniversary of his demise.
John Lee Hooker’s first song about the fire, “Natchez Fire," issued in England on Riverside LP 008, "Burning Hell," was recorded April 20, 1959, in Detroit, according to The Blues Discography 1943-1970. Some have presumed Hooker’s track was inspired by Wolf’s 1956 recording, but unless he heard a pre-release version of “The Natchez Burning” either at a Wolf performance or at Chess, Hooker must have come up with the theme on his own. He had also just done his first version of “Tupelo Blues” (about the 1936 Tupelo tornado – although he depicts the event as a flood) on Riverside (U.S.) LP 12-838, so perhaps the Hook was either inspired, or prompted by the producer, to come up with some topical disaster songs. Hooker, who recorded three versions of this song on various albums, also dated the Natchez fire at 1936, but then he gave conflicting years for his own birthdate, too. (We’ll try to sort that one out when we get to the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Hooker.)
The Captain Beefheart version of "Natchez Burning" is a 43-second a cappella track from a 1972 radio show at WBCU in Boston, with Beefheart giving his best Wolf voice simulation. This was released on the Grow Fins boxed set of Beefheart rarities, which also includes a few other Wolf songs, and, following the disaster theme, a version of "Tupelo" (in a John Lee Hooker-ish voice, of course) and another blues that mentions a tornado. The British blues-rock band the Groundhogs also recorded "Natchez Burning."
Some other notes:
- Musicians who died in the fire
Walter Barnes, 33, leader, sax and clarinet, Chicago.- Musicians who survived the fire
Juanita Avery, 20, vocalist, Dallas.
James Coles, sax, Huntington, W. Va.
John Henderson, sax, Augusta, Ga.
Jesse Washington, sax, Chicago.
John Reed, sax, Huntington, W. Va.
Clarence Porter, piano, Ft. Myers, Fla.
Harry Walker, guitar, Cincinnati.
Calvin Roberts, trombone, Cincinnati.
Paul Stott, trumpet, Indianapolis.
Bud Scott, visiting band leader.
Arthur Edwards, bass, Denver.- The Rhythm Club drew a paid Tuesday night attendance of 557 to dance to Walter Barnes's orchestra, according to Time magazine. The club's wooden interior burned, but the metal structure kept the deadly flames inside. New safety laws were enacted after the disaster of April 23, 1940.
Oscar Brown, drums, Denver.
Jimmy Swift, bus driver, Chicago.
Walter Dillard, valet, Chicago.
- Tiny Bradshaw and his band were originally booked to play the Rhythm Club on April 23, but Bradshaw accepted an offer to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem instead, and Barnes took the booking.
- The 1940 monument to the fire victims on the Natchez Bluff lists all the deceased band members cited in the Down Beat clipping except for John Henderson. James Coles is listed on the monument as James Cole. The Down Beat clipping was actually the same as one that first appeared in the Chicago Defender on May 4, 1940, except for the headline.
- All the news reports on the Barnes band cited their name as the Royal Creolians. Barnes had used this name when the band recorded in 1928-29 for Brunswick (which included a couple of covers of blues hits with vocals – “It’s Tight Like That” and “How Long How Long Blues,” in addition to dance instrumentals), and continued to use it in performance. However, the 1939 photo reproduced on the marker is identified as the “Walter Barnes Sophisticated Swing Orchestra,” reflecting the change in musical fashion from hot jazz to swing. News reports also often referred to Barnes “and his band from Chicago,” but as the list of band members showed, only Barnes and saxophonist Jesse Washington were from Chicago; both were originally from Vicksburg. Washington had also played with Ransom Knowling’s Aristocrats of Swing in Chicago, according to the April 15, 1939 Defender. Barnes had developed a routine of heading south for the winter every year and using Jacksonville, Florida, as a base for his tours of the southern states. Barnes was not a major recording artist; he cut only a few singles, and did not record after 1929 – but apparently he didn’t need to; in the tradition of many traveling show bands, dance orchestras, and territory bands, all he needed to do to attract and entertain crowds was to hire good musicians who could play the dance hits of the day.
- The Bud Scott who died in the fire was a saxophonist and bandleader from Natchez. He was booked to play a dance in Greenville with his 12-piece orchestra the following week. He was the son of Clarence “Bud” Scott, Sr., who led what must have been a very impressive string band – Little Brother Montgomery recalled that Scott, a Natchez mandolinist, had 14 violinists in the band. Scott Sr. raised his son in Chicago, according to the Defender, and Scott Jr. returned to Natchez, where he had been leading his own group for four years. These Scotts have been confused with the banjo player Arthur “Bud” Scott (c. 1890-1949), a prominent New Orleans jazzman who played with King Oliver, Kid Ory, and others, and who was also based in Chicago at one point, and later in California.
- Many histories written long after the fact have incorporated stories told by blues shouter (and later the Reverend) Arnold Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore that he was singing with the band, but survived because he was outside in the bus when the fire broke out. Moore had indeed sung with the band – in the 1930s – but he is not mentioned in any news accounts of the fire, including the short list of musicians who survived the fire, and in fact Down Beat placed him in Memphis, along with former band members Tommy Watkins (trumpet) and Edgar Brown (piano) in a May 15, 1940, article headlined “Ex-Barnes Men Happy They Left Before Tragedy.”
- There are many more articles about the fire, which was reported in Time, Variety, Down Beat, and other magazines in 1940, as well as in an Associated Press story that was carried by newspapers all across the country, and of course in all the African-American newspapers.
- An article in Time magazine gave the story the jive treatment, focusing on the sponsorship of the dance by the Moneywasters Social Club and concluding with a quote from the bartender whose wife died in the fire: “My old lady looked like a pickle when they brung her out. She burned like a pickle. Dead."
- Other publications carried such headlines as “212 Negroes Perish in Dance Hall Fire That Sweeps Structure in Mississippi” (Reno Evening Gazette, April 24, 1940) and “Cries of Burning Negroes Heard For Blocks” (Natchez Democrat, April 24, 1940). The Natchez paper later printed a long list of every person who had donated even 50 cents to the relief and rescue effort.
- Preston Lauterbach has a good piece on the Natchez fire and monument at the internet’s best web site for those who want to dig deeper (as in underground) into the historical and living traditions of blues and other roots music, Backroads of American Music.
Future markers in Natchez will address the 1940 Library of Congress recordings of Lucious Curtis and others in Natchez, the 1941-42 Library of Congress/Fisk University study that was proposed for Natchez but ended up being conducted in Coahoma County and the North Delta, and the many Natchez musicians who have played the blues, from Papa Lightfoot and Cat-Iron to Hezekiah & the Houserockers and Y.Z. Ealey. We’re also hopeful that our Oxford (Mississippi) research associate Tom Freeland will have some real biographical information soon on the mysterious Geeshie Wiley, who was reported to be from Natchez, but who had family ties in Oxford.