On 23 April 1940 the Rhythm Club on St. Catherine Street in Natchez was the scene of a great tragedy in American history. Around 11:15 p.m. a fire broke out in the hall, where a crowd of a few hundred people, mostly young African Americans and their teachers, were dancing to the music of the Walter Barnes Band. More than two hundred people, including nine of the twelve members of the band plus the leader, died of asphyxia or were burned by the flames after being trampled while trying to reach the venue’s door. The high number of fatalities resulted from many factors: the only accessible exit could only be opened inward, the windows had been boarded up, and the rear door had been bolted to prevent people from watching or entering without paying. Moreover, the interior walls had been festooned with highly flammable dried Spanish moss, which caught fire quickly because a fan was turning at top speed. The exact cause of the blaze is thought to be a lighted cigarette dropped by a careless person, though the unproven suspicion of arson committed either for racial reasons or by an angry young man who had not been allowed to enter the dance hall was aroused and promptly rejected a few days after the disaster.
Journalistic coverage of the fire was extensive in light of the fact that the event struck a highly segregated black community in the midst of the rampant discrimination that existed in the South in the 1940s. The white-owned Natchez Democrat, a daily, dealt with the news item the day after it took place but devoted most of the coverage to matters such as voluntary donations, the role of the American Red Cross, and updated lists of contributors and victims. In addition, the paper expressed concern about growing tensions in town. Black-owned weekly national newspapers did not publish until five days after the event, but they provided much more detailed and extensive coverage. The Chicago Defender gave particular prominence to Barnes’s heroic and fatal decision to urge his band members to continue playing to calm the trapped revelers. J. Robert Smith, the first New York Amsterdam News correspondent to arrive on the scene, interviewed Natchez mayor W. J. Byrne, who said he had received words of condolence from many African American organizations but not from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Music seems to have been the most vital way that the memory of this tragedy has remained alive in the African American community. Over the rest of the twentieth century, no fewer than ten original compositions were recorded about the tragedy, plus some covers belonging to musical genres ranging from vocal group harmony to blues, from gospel to juke joint music. The first two songs, the Lewis Bronzeville Five’s “Mississippi Fire Blues” and “Natchez Mississippi Blues” (Bluebird B8445), were waxed immediately after the disaster. Most of the rest of the songs feature lyrics that display a remarkable preoccupation with the concept of memory: Gene Gilmore’s “The Natchez Fire” and Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston’s “The Death of Walter Barnes” (Decca 7663); Charles Haffer Jr.’s “The Natchez [Theater] Fire Disaster” (Library of Congress 6623-B-2, unreleased); Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Natchez Burnin’” (Chess 1744); Robert Gilmore’s “Wasn’t That a Awful Day in Natchez” (Louisiana Folklore Society LFS-1); and John Lee Hooker’s “Natchez Fire [Burnin’]” (Riverside LP 008), “Fire at Natchez” (“The Great Disaster of 1936”) (Galaxy LP 8201), and “The Mighty Fire” (“Great Fire of Natchez”) (Vee-Jay 1078).
- Blues Unlimited (January 1969, February–March 1970)
- Preston Lauterbach, The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll (2011)
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993)
- Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz (1974)
- Luigi Monge, in Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History, ed. Robert Springer (2006)
- John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)