Program notes for Bellows & Squawk Seattle Accordion Social, Feb. 13, 2017
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. Some of the songs we will sing tonight were popular hits in the 1910’s.
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. 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 was a founding father of the American Popular Song of the 20th century. 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.”
“Play that Barbershop Chord,” with music by Lewis F. Muir and words by Wm.Tracy, was recorded in 1910 by the legendary mime, comedian, and singer Bert Williams. Williams, who was African American himself, was forced to perform in blackface in order to appear on a stage before a white audience. The characters in the song are explicitly black, but we have modified the lyric to make it less offensive.
“After You’ve Gone,” which incidentally was written by two African-Americans, was popularized by Sophie Tucker in 1916. 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. 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.
A common theme in 19th century American songs was absence, the yearning to return to a home far away, the yearning of slaves forcibly separated from home and family. By 1912, when Irving Berlin wrote “When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’ “, the popular song had evolved. The character in this song is not a slave in the south, but lives in a dreary rented flat in the city. Irving Berlin himself was born in Russia and left that home at age 6.
Notes by Gerson Robboy and Betty Booher