The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Midget Maestro & The Rhythm Club Fire of 1940
Preston Lauterbach’s excellent book, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll, should be required reading for all music fans. In its broadest sense, the book connects the underground circuit of black performers in the 30’s and 40’s to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
The book is full of interesting stories about performers and promoters, but none more interesting than that of the “Midget Maestro” Walter Barnes, a bandleader whose column in the Chicago Defender helped form the Chitlin’ Circuit. Barnes wrote about the places he played and the performers he met along the way, paving the way for a network of performers and venues that would eventually impact music for everyone.
Barnes’s greatest moment, though, was during one of the worst tragedies in music history. 34 years old, Barnes perished as he kept his band playing while facing certain death in an attempt to keep Rhythm Club patrons calm and moving out the single exit as fire climbed the walls and covered the ceiling.
Lauterbach tells us that several songs about the fire at the Rhythm Club were recorded and released within weeks. One of those was The Natchez Fire by Gene Gilmore. Here’s that song along with images from and related to the fire:
Later, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf recorded their tributes. Here’s Howlin’ Wolf’s song, The Natchez
Lauterbach’s account of the fire is chilling. The Rhythm Club was “150 feet by 60 feet and made of lumber and corrugated tin.” The promoters of the dance that Tuesday night in April “wove dried Spanish moss through the Rhythm Club’s rafters and cascaded it down the building’s support beams.” To fight mosquitoes, some kerosene was added to the moss. And to discourage unpaid attendance, a “toilet” setup was used (one way in, one way out). “[T]hey boarded the club’s windows and barricaded every door” except the entrance.
Barnes wasn’t scheduled to play the dance, but when another performer pulled out, his wife was contacted by the promoters who had read about him in The Defender. His wife cabled him at the end of a six-month tour (Barnes and his band were due home the day after the fire): “‘One more dance . . . Natchez.'”
At 11:30 p.m., while playing Clarinet Lullaby, Barnes heard his drummer break rhythm then turned to see fire moving up the Spanish moss and engulf the club. According to Lauterbach’s account, “Barnes didn’t move. ‘You can all get out if you keep calm,’ he called.” Either unaware of the danger or resigned to his fate, Barnes started the band playing an Irving Berlin tune. The drummer abandoned ship, but the other musicians played. One eyewitness said that Barnes was “‘[t]he only calm person in the building . . .'”
Barnes’s efforts to calm the crowd helped some but things were too far gone to stop the panic. 209 died that night. “The flames never touched most of them. The succumbed to smoke inhalation, fell under trampling feet, and were smothered.” Bodies were “‘stacked like cord wood'” when firefighters entered the building.
Barnes died in white tails. His gold watch and the $500 earned from the door were taken by someone before his body was identified by his brother Alan, who had been outside guarding the bus.
Here’s a recording, circa 1929, of Walter Barnes and His Royal Creolians playing Birmingham Bertha, with some nice photos:
R.I.P. Walter Barnes.
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