Program notes for Bellows & Squawk at Artichoke Music, Dec. 9, 2016
Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Irving Berlin 1910
Play that Barbershop Chord, music Lewis F. Muir, words Wm.Tracy. Recorded 1910 by Bert Williams.
Under the Chicken Tree, music Kerry Mills, words Wm.Tracy, (Possibly written by Irving Jones, who sold the rights to F.A. Mills Co.), copyright 1908. Recorded 1927 by Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band
Oh Susanna, Stephen Foster, 1848
After You’ve Gone, music Turner Layton, words Henry Creamer, 1918
The Ragtime Cowboy Jew, music Lewis F. Muir (who also wrote Barbershop Chord), 1912, words Grant Clarke, modified by G. Robboy
When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’ , Irving Berlin, 1912
We will sing some early 20th century songs, which form a bridge between blackface minstrelsy and what we call the Great American Songbook. Minstrelsy refers to white men blacking their faces and doing an obscene parody of black men and women, while stealing actual African-American songs, dances, and styles of performance. It was the most popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. The songs we’ll sing were popular hits in the 1910’s, and to our ears today they are really bizarre.
We are dealing here with racist material and I feel that we can not avert our eyes from this or try to erase it from our history. Racism permeates all of our popular music and entertainment, if you pay attention to it, as does the appropriation of African American music and styles of performance. Understand that we are not interested in the really grossly racist “coon songs,” but songs that were mainstream popular hits in their time. If I speak of race in these notes, or of an individual being black or white, we are not talking about a biological fact, but a social caste system.
Irving Berlin, born in Russia in 1888, was a founding father of the American Popular Song of the 20th century. He practically invented the genre himself. His first big hit, written in 1910, was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song was performed and recorded by the blackface minstrel duo Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, who sang in a grossly racist, so-called “Negro dialect.” We’ll do a couple of early Irving Berlin songs in this show.
“Play that Barbershop Chord,” with music by Lewis F. Muir and words by Wm.Tracy, was recorded in 1910 by Bert Williams, one of America’s greatest mimes and singers. In order to reach a general audience, Bert Williams, who was African American himself, was forced to perform in blackface because a black performer was not allowed to appear before a white audience with his own face. The characters in the song are explicitly black, but we have bowdlerized the lyric a little because we found it offensive.
There are clips of Bert Williams’ pantomimes and recorded songs on YouTube, which is where we discovered “Barbershop Chord,” and these clips are haunting. He reproduced the minstrel stereotype of the Negro with such sensitivity and genius that he turned the stereotype inside out.
On YouTube is a 1927 recording of “Under the Chicken Tree” by Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band. It’s noteworthy that these musicians were black. If there was a paying audience for Minstrel songs, then black musicians performed them, sometimes in blackface themselves. In the recording, there is a dialogue using broad, vaudevillian fake-negro accents, in which one man accuses another of stealing a chicken and the other denies it. We do not reproduce this dialogue.
“Oh Susanna,” one of the most popular songs ever, was written by Stephen Foster in 1848, firmly in the time of minstrelsy. It was featured by the Ethiopian Serenaders, a famous minstrel troupe of that time. To this day, this song permeates our culture, masquerading as a sort of light-weight American ditty. When I heard the ukulele player James Hill sing it, I understood that this is actually a deep song. This is a mystery that fascinates me; that a horrific song about slavery can be repeated constantly and obliviously 170 years later.
“After You’ve Gone,” which incidentally was written by two African-Americans, was popularized by Sophie Tucker in 1918. In her early days, Sophie Tucker was forced to perform in blackface. When she took off the blackface, her style continued to owe a great deal to African-American vocal styles, and was noticeably different from the white popular singers of her time. I believe she changed how popular songs are sung. Sophie Tucker is one of my heroes because she aggressively sang about being fat and Jewish, and liking sex.
Lewis Muir, the composer of “Barbershop Chord,” wrote many other songs, including “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” which coincidentally was parodied by Bellows & Squawk as “The Ragtime Cowboy Jew” before we ever heard of Lewis Muir.
These songs interest us because they show us the evolution of the popular song. We see the song writers figuring out the techniques of music and lyrics that would later be fully expressed by writers like the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, and Irving Berlin himself. (White males, we might add, but that’s another essay).
Notes by Gerson Robboy and Betty Booher