Friday, October 29, 2010

Many Lives Was Gone Down That Night: The Natchez Rhythm Club Fire

I've posted on songs about the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire of April 23, 1940, before, but since reading Luigi Monge's "DEATH BY FIRE: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire"* and the creation of a new documentary** by Bryan Burch, it keeps coming up again. Why?

The catastrophe itself is comparable to the Richmond Theater Fire of December 26, 1811. The 1811 fire engulfed segregated white and black audiences during slavery times; African American fatalities were included in the subsequent memorial, but still in a segregated way. In the post-emancipation 1940 fire, all casualties were African American; unlike the earlier disaster, which was covered widely in white newspapers, the Natchez fire was almost exclusively covered (and in detail) by black-owned newspapers around the USA. Both fires left enduring impressions, but for different audiences.  

Monge catalogs eleven songs derived from the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire:

Lewis Bronzeville Five, "Mississippi Fire Blues" and "Natchez Mississippi Blues" (Chicago, 1940).
Gene Gilmore, "The Natchez Fire" (Chicago, 1949).
Baby Doo [Leonard Castron], "The Death of Walter Barnes" (Chicago, 1940).
Charles Heffer, Jr., "The Natchez [Theater] Fire Disaster" (Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1942).
Howlin' Wolf [Chester Burnett], "The Natchez Burnin'" (Chicago, 1956) and "Natchez is Burning" (unreleased, 1968).
Robert Gilmore, "Wasn't That a Awful Day in Natchez" ("prob." Plaqemines, Louisiana, 1956-1957).
John Lee Hooker "Natchez Fire [Burnin']" (Detroit, 1959), "Fire at Natchez" (Los Angeles, 1961), "The Mighty Fire" (Newport Festival, 1963).

Monge mentions more recent cover versions, as well.

*In Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History edited by Robert Springer (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), pages 76-107.

**The Rhythm Club Fire (2011).  Trailer below.

Today's Rune: Possessions.


Charles Gramlich said...

I had heard of this fire but didn't know it inspired this much music.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I got to Natchez a few years ago, but hadn't heard this story.

Erik Donald France said...

A lot of of things going on in Natchez; there's a museum, for instance.

Thanks for the comments!