Blueslore #02: The Natchez Fire
The Moneywasters Social Club had sold 557 tickets (50 cents in advance, 65 at the door) to its dance at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi, on April 23, 1940. Tiny Bradshaw‘s orchestra, originally scheduled to play, had cancelled when a booking came through at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the same night. The replacement was Walter Barnes ‘Sophisticated Swing Orchestra, but nobody in Natchez’s black community of about 9600 people was complaining. Clarinetist Barnes, a native of nearby Vicksburg, may not have had the star power of Bradshaw — he hadn’t even recorded since 1928-9, when his Royal Creolians Orchestra cut several Brunswick singles, mostly instrumentals but also a couple blues songs with vocals — yet his Chicago-based, 12-piece dance band was still one of the biggest names on the secondary black circuit; indeed, every winter he based himself in Jacksonville, Florida, and from there worked regularly throughout the South in towns that couldn’t attract the biggest stars of the day.
The Rhythm Club (also known as the Rhythm Night Club) was operated by Moneywasters vice-president Ed Frazer. It was a long, narrow building (200 feet by 40 feet) of corrugated metal with wooden walls. The Tuesday of the dance, Spanish moss was strewn around the hall and through the rafters for decoration; that was then doused with kerosene to keep away mosquitos. The windows were boarded shut to deter sneak-ins; the only way in or out was through the door on St. Catherine Street. Shortly before midnight, somebody apparently flicked a match or cigarette, and the Spanish moss lit up in one big burst. In his 1959 “Natchez Fire (Burnin’),” John Lee Hooker described what happened next: “People was screamin’/ They couldn’t get out/ Everybody runnin’/ Runnin ‘to the door/ The door got jammed/ Nobody got out/ All you could hear/ Crying ‘Lord have mercy’/ Mmmmmh mmmmmh/ Save me/ Save me/ Save me.”
As Barnes and his orchestra tried to calm the stampeding crowd by playing “Marie,” the wooden walls burned; with the corrugated metal holding the flames and heat indoors, turning the Rhythm Club into something like an oven, the stench of roasting human flesh permeated the night air. The front door quickly jammed with so many patrons trying to flee at once, and the crowd moved towards the windows in the rear. Drummer Oscar Brown, who carried a hammer on the road to nail his kit to the floor, quickly pounded through the boards covering one window; many escaped through it initially, then through other windows as they were cleared. It was all over in just 15 minutes. When rescue workers got inside, they found dead and dying bodies stacked atop one another. According to the Madison Country coroner, 208 African-Americans, including ten of the twelve musicians, were dead — more of them suffocated or crushed than burned.
The Natchez Fire was widely covered in the black press, especially in the daily Chicago Defender, and became one of the defining events of African-American history in the South. On May 9, barely two weeks after the inferno, vocal group balladeers the Lewis Bronzeville Five cut the lugubrious “Mississippi Fire Blues” b/w “Natchez Mississippi Blues.” In both, the lead singer mourns the death of his sweetheart in the blaze. That was followed early in June by a gutbucket Chicago blues single of Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston‘s “The Death of Walter Barnes” backed by Gene Gilmore‘s “The Natchez Fire.” Caston played piano and Gilmore sang on both sides, and the mournful harmonica man is believed to be Robert Nighthawk.
Howlin ‘Wolf‘s moving “The Natchez Burning,” recorded in 1956 but not released until ’59, is unfortunately not available on eMusic, but Willie Wright‘s riveting slide guitar version (which inexplicably moves the fire to another town) conveys the song’s power. And while you’re at it, check out the a cappella, 47-second snippet of “Natchez Burning” by Captain Beefheart that was recorded live at a Boston radio station in 1972; always enthralled by Wolf as a singer, Beefheart gets off some chilling howling of his own.
John Lee Hooker, who never met a blues theme he couldn’t endlessly improvise on, recorded three different titles about the fire that were at least partially the same song. The acoustic “Natchez Fire (Burnin’)” could just as easily have been called “Fear and Sorrow in Natchez,” with the Hook sounding like he’s simultaneously predicting the holocaust in advance and describing it later. His insistent, electric “The Mighty Fire,” cut live in 1963, combines elements of that one with motifs from Wolf’s better-known song; Hooker’s performance rides his singular blend of menace and tenderness while stilling a noisy Newport audience. Years later, Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early cut a crude, buzzing version of Hooker’s “Natchez Fire” that comes straight from the North Mississippi Hill Country.
And those are just the songs available on eMusic; there’s plenty more, ranging from the still-unreleased “The Natchez (Theater) Fire Disaster” by Charles Haffer Jr., recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax on his 1942 swing through Mississippi, to a muscular “Natchez Burning” by the Groundhogs, a sadly-forgotten British blues-rock trio of the early 70s fronted by Tony McPhee. And there’s still an annual memorial ceremony in Natchez — but with such powerful music available, it’s unlikely the fire will ever be forgotten anyhow.