If you could've taken five hundred black Mississippians in 1937, showed them two dance halls, and told them they could either go see Robert Johnson perform in one or Walter Barnes perform in the other, Johnson would've ended up alone. Shit, Johnson would hightail it over to check Walter Barnes, too. Barnes was hot. As the Chicago Defender, the national black news of the day, had lately reported, "Besides having the largest band ever to play Meridian and Jackson, Walter Barnes broke the record when his band played music for more than two thousand dancing feet in each city. Leaving Jackson, the band went to Vicksburg and Greenville where he continued to pack them in...." Poor Bob might've sold his soul again for such turnout.
Their stories run parallel, however, there's a vast discrepancy between Johnson's and Barnes's respective roles in actual history and their respective places in written history. Both were born in Mississippi, a few years and a few miles apart, and both died in Mississippi, a few years and a few miles apart. In between, they traveled different paths despite sharing a profession on the same side of segregated ground. Johnson's tale is told in books, plays, and documentaries, and taught in college courses. Barnes, though a nonentity in the big picture of American music, deserves to have his out there, too. Steeped in fact, it's pretty damn interesting: a do-it-yourself celebrity who shared the secret of his success and sacrificed his life for his fans.
Barnes was born in Vicksburg on July 8, 1905, one of fifteen children. (Johnson entered the world via Hazlehurst, fifty-five miles to the southeast, nearly six years later.) Barnes's big family joined The Great Migration in 1922, and Walter completed his education in Chicago, hitting the books and his horn charts. He picked up the clarinet and saxophone, studying at the Chicago Musical College and in private sessions with Franz Schoepp, a classical clarinet tutor who instructed Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey. Dig the contrast with growing up black in 1920s Mississippi.
Music brought Barnes into the most colorful folds. He turned pro in 1926 and joined Jelly Roll Morton's band. By the latter part of the decade, he'd graduated to bandleader and determined that his success relied on the patronage of white hustlers. So he kissed the Pope's ring in 1929, took the helm of the house band at Al Capone's Cotton Club.
Capone and the affable, good-humored Barnes had camaraderie going for them. Capone called Barnes by his family nickname, "Brother," and tore down barriers for Barnes. Capone sent Barnes to a Chicago radio station to arrange a broadcast from The Cotton Club. The station manager replied, "We don't air colored." Capone accompanied Brother on the follow-up.
"But we don't air colored," the station manager reiterated.
Capone countered, "You do now."
The result? In late 1930, Walter Barnes & His Royal Creolians became the first black band to broadcast in Chicago, over WHFC.
Barnes expanded his platform, joining the staff of the Chicago Defender as a band columnist, not a moment too soon. In early 1931, the fall of Capone's empire began with an indictment. Barnes needed a new gig. Still, he had this in his favor: the Defender was carrying his name across the South, as the paper circulated not just in Chicago but throughout black America. As one, he knew that black Southerners thirsted for big-time entertainment like Chicagoans after bathtub booze.
He used the Defender to build contacts, writing in early 1932, "Walter Barnes would like to communicate with all promoters and clubs who are interested in first class dance attractions." That spring, the new Chicagoan Barnes embarked on his first Southern tour. This in itself was courageous and innovative, for the basics of where to safely eat and sleep were not apparent to black travelers. He followed the Defender's back-channel circulation to where the people knew his name. He learned that the necessary infrastructure existed through the kingpins who ran dice games and bootlegging ventures, sold time with women, and operated what might charitably be called nightclubs. Barnes not only exploited this information, he published it—can you imagine a more critical intelligence trove for ambitious black bands uncertain about taking their acts on the road? Barnes encouraged "All organized bands headed toward Memphis, Tenn., get in touch with Prof. Maurice Hulbert, manager of the Barn Night Club...."
So here it is: Barnes's major innovation and prime method of influence were delivered not on record but in print. As a fortuitous combination of swing bandleader and journalist, Barnes surveyed the black South and reported his findings in the Defender, from 1932–1939. His shout-outs to hustlers and descriptions of black Main Streets provide the most vivid documentation of a crucial part of American music at its beginning. Barnes was more than just an observer of the chitlin' circuit—he was its pioneer. Barnes's writing became the guide to working Dixie, opening a new frontier to the black band business.
The savvy maestro assessed the group psychology Down South. He noticed that Southern blacks were suffering from Harlem fever, affecting suave manner and sophisticated style. They named their dirt-floor dance halls The Cotton Club, after the posh New York swing capital (not the Capone headquarters), or The Harlem, in honor of the Mecca of black culture. Of course, it was all rather optimistic, since the top bandleaders, Duke, Cab, and the Count, didn't often play this low down. Barnes's greatness as an entertainer stemmed from his ability to exploit his audience's desires. He became Duke Ellington to their Cotton Clubs.
His writing for the newspaper will never compare to the raw poetry in Johnson's recordings, yet there is genius in Barnes's work. He developed an inimitable style, characterized by hep euphemisms that pandered to his audience and fed its uptown pretensions. A gambler who pitched dances became a financier. A shotgun-shack juke joint was a ballroom. The block of weathered storefronts that comprised most black Main Streets became The Stroll. It all gleamed as bright as Broadway in Barnes's telling.
The image he presented kept with this bluster. He parked his gold Nash across the street from the ballroom, and wore white tails on stage, while his orchestra donned black tuxedos.
There's little reason to doubt that Barnes outperformed Johnson at the bottom line. His sidemen earned more than the union minimum and he had no trouble poaching players from other orchestras. In fact, his success, and on-the-fly documentation of it, invited competition. Within three years of launching his circuit, Barnes found plenty of band traffic down South. Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, Erskine Hawkins, and Earl Hines all followed and crossed the maestro's path, but Barnes played his one big advantage. "The most successful of the touring bands, as we have said before, is the Walter Barnes outfit out of Chicago," wrote Defender reporter Rob Roy for April 27, 1935, "playing every night to large crowds...."
Robert Johnson's maturation and improvement with his instrument led to a parallel moment: Thanksgiving 1936. Johnson and Barnes were both in Texas. In San Antonio, Johnson was recording for the first time, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," and "Sweet Home Chicago," ensuring, unbeknown to himself, his immortality. By the time Johnson plucked those first fragile notes of "Kind Hearted Woman," Barnes had begun his magnum opus, the complete '36–'37 Chicago Defender dispatches from The Stroll. He introduced up and coming powers in the business, like "Don Robey, a clean cut young fellow and industrious business man," who promoted Barnes's dance in Houston, and would go on to develop one of the more successful (and controversial) enterprises in the black music business.
Barnes noted where to get a haircut, find a safe boarding house, and eat the best fried chicken, from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Miami. In December, Barnes broke down the scene in Monroe, Louisiana. Then he went back home to Mississippi, where his orchestra played The Crystal Palace in Jackson and The Harlem Club in McComb. Barnes hit The Continental Ballroom in Vicksburg after Earl Hines had played there and threw a nice jab at his competitor. "They say the admission was a little high the last appearance, Earl." Clearly, Barnes's Mississippi and the Mississippi conjured in Johnson's music—and in much of the scholarship surrounding it—are not the same place.
Appropriately, Barnes's 1937 tour wrapped in Capone's favorite getaway—Hot Springs, Arkansas—days before Johnson's final recording session occurred in Dallas.
The two paths continued, Barnes in the headlines, Johnson in the taillights, until August 16, 1938, when Johnson died in Greenwood. There to play a plantation ball, he succumbed to some yet unknown occupational hazard of the itinerant bluesman. Just a year and a half later, the hellhound caught Barnes, two hundred miles away.
As Barnes and his band wound down their latest long tour, word reached them that a gig had been added, April 23, 1940 at The Rhythm Club in Natchez. 11:30 that night, the orchestra stopped. Barnes saw flames dance up the wall and split across the ceiling. To the seven hundred dancers, he called, "You can all get out if you remain calm." Barnes almost certainly did not know that the sponsors of the dance had shuttered every window and barricaded all but one door. Nor did he know that the Spanish moss, strung fancifully through the rafters and down the support posts, had been sprayed with kerosene-based insect repellant. Nevertheless, from his spot on the bandstand, it must have been obvious that he could not escape The Rhythm Club alive. Barnes stood firm on the stage, and called for his band to begin "Marie."
Screams drowned out the lilting music as fire engulfed The Rhythm Club. The people stampeded, plugging the only exit. They smashed the boarded windows with furniture, and men threw their dates out to the street. The orchestra never finished "Marie." The roof collapsed onto the stage as they played. Walter Barnes and nine of his musicians were among the 209 victims of The Natchez Rhythm Club fire. In a real sense, he died for his fans, hoping that his music could calm the frenzied crowd, and allow a few more of them to flee.
Afterward, Barnes and company were compared to the heroic band that played as the Titanic sank. "Trapped in a seething furnace, the young maestro gave the world an example of courage seldom equaled," the Defender opined. Again, the Johnson contrast—his death went unreported, while accounts of Barnes's last moments dominated the Negro press for weeks. Fifteen thousand mourners crowded in and around Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church for Barnes's last rites, while no one knows for sure where Johnson lies.
The paths twisted once more. In late 1940, a Fisk University scholar named John Work applied for a grant to study the effect of the Natchez Rhythm Club disaster on folk song in the surrounding area. The application was denied. The next year, a research team from Fisk and the Library of Congress began a field study of black music in Mississippi that included the first inquiry into the life, influence, and recent death of a musician. This time, the subject was Johnson, not Barnes.
Robert Johnson is enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone once named him one of the most important figures in rock & roll history. His direct influence on rock & roll was between negligible and none until white people heard him in the 1960s. Barnes illuminated the way that Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Little Richard followed. Neither for the first time nor the last, a mythical quest has shrouded the simple truth.
Image courtesy of Toya Johnson.