In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Yuval Taylor, whose paper “‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’: Black Singers and the Minstrel Tradition in New York City, 1931-1933” is scheduled for the Early Category Killers session, 9-11:00 am on Friday, March 23 in Global Center Room 95.
“Underneath the Harlem Moon” was Mack Gordon’s first hit. Gordon was a Polish Jew, originally named Morris Gitler, who had come to the United States in 1908. In 1932, at the age of twenty-eight, he penned a song that played upon the current vogue for Southern nostalgia songs, but was set instead in Harlem. His lyrics were pure racist malarkey.
The song’s verse, which was rarely if ever performed, asks if you’re missing the South, with its candy yams and Virginia hams, its sunny skies and “mammy’s pies.” It then reassures us that “the South is in your own back yard.” The chorus abruptly shifts to third person, and describes a Harlem where “Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs,” feet, lips, and eyes; where there’s no cotton to pick; and where the cabins have been replaced by Lenox Avenue penthouses. “They just live on dancing,” Gordon tells us, “they’re never blue or forlorn. ’Tain’t no sin to laugh and grin—that’s why darkies were born.” Joe Rines, a white Boston bandleader, helped popularize the song, and it became a huge hit, with at least eight different versions on record.
Of all the racist songs of the early 1930s, perhaps none were as colorful as “Underneath the Harlem Moon”—or as demeaning. The others all portrayed blacks in the bygone South, romanticizing or making fun of a group of people whose dignity had already been severely compromised by poverty and abuse. But “Harlem Moon” explicitly caricatured the most sophisticated corner of contemporary African American society, making it seem plantation-like.
Yet at least half of the people who performed “Underneath the Harlem Moon” in the 1930s were black themselves. The Washboard Rhythm Kings did it. So did Don Redman and His Orchestra, with vocals by Harlan Lattimore (billed as “the colored Bing Crosby”). So did Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, with Katherine Handy (W. C. Handy’s daughter) on vocals. Ethel Waters performed it in the movies, as did the Brown Sisters. Even Billie Holiday used it to audition for a spot in a Philadelphia theater. It appears that black artists liked this song. Their performances are fast and funny, full of unfeigned enthusiasm and joy.
The Washboard Rhythm Kings, Harlan Lattimore, and Katherine Handy all really swing the lyrics, but don’t make any changes—except for Handy, who replaces “laugh and grin” with “guzzle down gin.” The Brown Sisters, a Los Angeles trio who performed with Ethel Waters and were heavily influenced by the Boswell Sisters, recorded the song—their only recorded performance—for the 1938 short film Harlem Review, which despite its title is set on a ship, and also features black comedians in blackface speaking dialect. Near the end they added a surprising lyric: “Ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones!” Either they were negating the racial aspect of the song by removing their skin, or they were simply quoting the chorus of the 1929 hit “’Tain’t No Sin.”
But Ethel Waters transformed the song completely. Rufus Jones for President was a short 1933 film shot in Brooklyn, starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a seven-year-old whose mother, played by Waters, dreams he gets elected president. In it, Waters sings her monster hit “Am I Blue” to the assembled black senators. But one of them objects—“You’ve got all the senators goin’ to sleep around here! Let’s give them somethin’ to wake them up!” And Waters goes right into it.
First off, she changes “they” to “we” throughout. Then she changes “darkies” to “we schwartzes.” “You may call it madness” becomes “white folks call it madness,” and Lenox Avenue becomes St. Nicholas Avenue. And then she really goes to town, supplying brand new—and brilliant—lyrics for the last half of the song. Now the Harlemites have exchanged bandannas for Parisian hats, going barefoot for shoes and spats, being Republican for being Democrats. “We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in—that’s why house rent parties were born,” she sings. When they’re feeling bad, the Harlemites in Waters’s lyrics drink gin and puff reefers, which gives them enough courage to take on anything from traffic to policemen. She ends the song on a note of spirited defiance: “Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go—underneath the Harlem Moon!”
By revising the lyrics, Waters completely changes the meaning of the song. In the original version, Harlem was, for nostalgic listeners, a good plantation substitute. Now, Waters’s Harlemites have denied the plantation completely in favor of something a whole lot better. It’s an incredible act of reclamation, transforming racism into triumph. The song would become a theme song for Waters, who frequently performed it on stage, though she never recorded it on a disk.
Why did black performers choose to sing “Underneath the Harlem Moon” and songs of that ilk? Of course, they didn’t necessarily like all the songs they performed. In many cases, they sang songs because they were popular with a white audience. But some also performed them for all-black audiences. For example, Harlem Review was a race movie, made by blacks for blacks, so the popularity of “Harlem Moon” among whites was not a factor for the Brown Sisters.
“Underneath the Harlem Moon” was a celebration of Harlem, however couched in racist metaphors and analogies; and blacks had good reason to celebrate Harlem, the locus of the Harlem Renaissance, in those days.
In addition, blacks were so inured to minstrel imagery by this point that it may have been like water rolling off their backs. Nowadays the blatant racist imagery strikes us as unspeakable. Ben Ratliff is horrified by Handy’s performance of “Harlem Moon,” which he quotes in his guide to the 100 most important jazz records; Rolling Stone has written of it that “every line contains some of the most blatant racial typing ever set down in song.” But back in 1932 it was simply par for the course. Racist or not, these songs could be a lot of fun to sing.
But most importantly, these artists weren’t just performing straight versions like the white folks were. They were jazzing them up. Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong did it best, Lattimore hardly at all, with the others somewhere in between. But what Waters did is a perfect example of signifying, and the variations in tempo, emphasis, and spirit that these other artists introduced constitute a measure of signifying too. For by jazzing up songs, performers present them with a wink and a shrug.
Thirty-eight years later, Randy Newman engaged in a “white” kind of signifying when he recorded a slow, lovely, seductive version of “Underneath the Harlem Moon” on his second album, 12 Songs. It closed side one. The other side began with “Yellow Man,” which is equally racist malarkey penned by Newman himself, followed by a satirical version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the Stephen Foster minstrel number. Newman’s point was unmistakable: he was singing racist and demeaning songs in order to upset his listeners. It seemed that everyone who listened to “Underneath the Harlem Moon” became uncomfortable.
And that points out a broader difference between how whites and blacks approached racism in music. Whites used irony, and there’s no better example than Newman. They made white racism seductive, thereby problematizing it. Blacks, on the other hand, tended to keep things close to home, performing racist material either with humor and defiance, like Waters, or with unfeigned nostalgia, like Louis Armstrong. Their “signifying” was more sly and playful than ironic.
Yuval Taylor is Senior Editor at the Chicago Review Press. He is the coauthor of Faking It (with Hugh Barker) and the forthcoming Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (with Jake Austen, August 2012, WW Norton & Company).