Natchez in Adams County, Mississippi — The American South (East South Central)
“The Natchez Burning”
One of the deadliest fires in American history took the lives of over 200 people, including bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his dance orchestra at the Rhythm Club (less than a mile southeast of this site) on April 23, 1940. News of the tragedy reverberated throughout the country, especially among the African American community, and blues performers have recorded memorial songs such as “The Natchez Burning” and “The Mighty Fire” ever since.
"The Natchez Burning" Few events in African-American history have been as memorialized as the Natchez fire of 1940. In addition to a monument, markers, museum exhibits, and annual local ceremonies in remembrance of the dead, the fire has inspired both prose and poetry, as well as songs by blues and gospel singers. Just weeks after the disaster, the Lewis Bronzeville Five, Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, and Gene Gilmore recorded the first commemorative songs in Chicago. The most well-known song to address the topic, “The Natchez Burning,” recorded in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf, led to versions by Natchez bluesmen Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, rock performer Captain Beefheart, and others. John Lee Hooker, blind ballad singer Charles Haffer of Clarksdale, and Louisiana guitarist Robert Gilmore
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 nailed 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.
Barnes, a Vicksburg native, had moved to Chicago in 1923 and recorded with his Royal Creolians band in 1928-29. He developed a successful career taking his dance music to small southern towns where big-time entertainers rarely performed. In keeping with the musical fashion of the era, by 1939 he had renamed his unit the Sophisticated Swing Orchestra. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his final tour. The impact of the holocaust hit home not just in Natchez and Chicago, but all the way from Texas to Ohio when the musicians’ bodies were sent home for funerals. Fellow bandleader Clarence “Bud” Scott, Jr., Barnes’s guest, also perished in the flames.
The Chicago Daily Defender, the
Erected by Mississippi Blues Commission.
Marker series. This marker is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail marker series.
Location. 31° 33.652′ N, 91° 24.242′ W. Marker is in Natchez, Mississippi, in Adams County. Marker is at the intersection of Main Street and North Wall Street, on the right when traveling north on Main Street. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Natchez MS 39120, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Site of Bank of Mississippi (within shouting distance of this marker); Commercial Bank Building (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Andrew Marschalk (about 400 feet away); Bud Scott (about 400 feet away); William Johnson House (about 500 feet away); a different marker also named The William Johnson House (about 600 feet away); The First Presbyterian Church (about 700 feet away); The Natchez Trace (approx. 0.2 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Natchez.
Also see . . . Mississippi Blues Trail. (Submitted on December 19, 2013.)
Categories. • African Americans • Arts, Letters, Music • Disasters • Entertainment •
Credits. This page was last revised on June 16, 2016. This page originally submitted on December 17, 2013, by Robert M. Cook, Jr. of Biloxi, Mississippi. This page has been viewed 811 times since then and 44 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3. submitted on December 17, 2013, by Robert M. Cook, Jr. of Biloxi, Mississippi. • Bernard Fisher was the editor who published this page.