“That’s Why Darkies Were Born”: Black Singers and the Minstrel Tradition in New York City, 1931-33
After last March’s POP/IASPM-US joint conference, Sounds of the City, a collaborative project was hatched to feature the work presented at that conference in both print and online versions. This collaboration pulls in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler), the EMP Museum (Eric Weisbard, also on the IASPM-US executive committee), and IASPM-US (Anthony Kwame Harrison, also on the JPMS editorial collective, and Justin D Burton). A print version of JPMS appearing in Fall 2012 (24:3) features eight essays from the conference, and we’ve selected several more to publish on the IASPM-US website this fall. So enjoy the reverberations of a spectacular March weekend in New York, and don’t forget about the 2013 conferences for IASPM-US and EMP’s POP.
“Underneath the Harlem Moon” was Mack Gordon’s first hit. A Polish Jew originally named Morris Gitler, Gordon had come to the United States in 1908. In 1932, at the age of twenty-eight, he decided to write a song that played upon the vogue for Southern nostalgia but was set instead in Harlem.
The song’s verse, which was rarely 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 refrain abruptly shifts to the third person, and describes a Harlem where “Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs,” where there’s no cotton to pick, and where the cabins have been replaced by Lenox Avenue penthouses.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 portrayed blacks in the bygone South, romanticizing or making fun of a group of people whose dignity had already been trampled 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.
I want to look at how black performers dealt with this and two other racist songs of the 1930s. I’ve identified three very different approaches employed by three very different singers. These illuminate the thorny relationship between black performers and songs that employ stereotypes of their race.
Although by 1900 vaudeville had largely replaced minstrelsy, songs in the minstrel tradition enjoyed great success until well after World War II. Literally hundreds of them expressed what Marlon Riggs would later call “the fantasy of happy darkies in their proper place.” While not actually written for minstrel shows, their central theme was the same as their predecessors—the goodness of the South and the innate happiness of black folk. Practically every great black singer of the era performed this minstrel-like material.
Earlier, though, minstrel songs had been, for a time, supplanted by coon songs. Musically, these featured syncopation, marking them as “black,” whether written by blacks or whites. The lyrics were always comic—unlike minstrel numbers, very few were sad, tragic, or sentimental. The first coon songs were published in 1880, and they became a full-fledged craze five or six years later. Their popularity persisted through about 1910, and by 1920 the genre had more or less disappeared. During its height, however, the most successful songs sold millions of copies (in sheet music, of course). Perhaps the most popular coon song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” was the work of Ernest Hogan, a popular black entertainer; but almost all the black songwriters of the time wrote some.
One of the main differences between coon songs and minstrel songs was violence. The razor was seldom seen or mentioned in the antebellum minstrel show; it was a constant in coon songs. “Four things you’ll always find together: a watermelon, a razor, a chicken and a coon!,” according to “The Coon’s Trade Mark,” a song popularized by Bert Williams and George Walker, the great black comedians who called themselves “Two Real Coons.” Coons were given to stealing, gambling, and hustling, not to mention fighting—even gunplay.
Coon songs likely appealed to black Americans because they painted a comic picture of masculine liberation which contrasted with their actual condition. Blacks no longer lived in plantations, under the thumbs of slaveholders; now they lived in big cities, under the thumbs of the police. The vices they bragged about in song had to match the nature of their new oppressors. Instead of indolence, gluttony, and laughter, which slaves could not enjoy but minstrels could, coons indulged in the sins that the police prevented them from enjoying: stealing, hustling, and adventure.
At the time of the demise of the coon song, a host of new songs were written for white blackface actors like Al Jolson, whose hits “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” and “My Mammy” resurrected nineteenth-century minstrel-show portrayals of black Americans. Similar songs of Southern nostalgia never failed to be popular. They implied the point of view of an ex-slave longing to return to the plantation, typified by black songwriter James Bland’s minstrel hit “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny.” Songs written by white Tin Pan Alley songwriters that on their face had nothing to do with slavery—“Georgia on My Mind,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Alabamy Bound”—were actually in the “carry-me-back” tradition. They went over well with white audiences, who liked a touch of nostalgia and the idea of the South as an American paradise.
The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday of these songs, many of which did indeed feature happy “darkies” in the South: “Black Bottom,” “The Birth of the Blues,” “Alabam’ Banjo Man,” “In the Pickaninnies’ Heaven,” “There’s a Cabin in the Cotton,” “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” (and, of course, the answer song “Yes It’s True What They Say About Dixie”), “I Haven’t Mentioned Mammy,” “I’d Love to Fall Asleep and Wake Up in My Mammy’s Arms,” and “Pickin’ Cotton,” in which “There’s a beat, there’s a measure for each cotton row; they make work seem a pleasure, dancing as they go.” Then there were equally pernicious songs about lascivious black women—“Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Pretty Quadroon,” “Louisville Lou”—and randy black men—“Romeo in Georgia,” “Lovin’ Sam (The Sheik of Alabam’),” “Georgia Gigolo,” “Dapper Dan,” “Charleston Charley.” A number of these songs had very long lives—“Sweet Georgia Brown,” a perfect portrait of a female “happy darky,” is one of the most durable standards of the last hundred years, kept alive as the theme music for the Harlem Globetrotters.
A pale moon shines on “darkies” playing banjos, “crooning songs soft and low,” and then dancing all night. “Take me back where I belong—how I’d love to be in mammy’s arms,” the singer confesses. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was written in 1930 but its trite, minstrel-like lyrics seemed a hundred years old.
Yet Louis Armstrong recorded it close to a hundred times and sang it at almost every concert from 1932 on—probably several thousand times in all. In 1942 he even made a “soundie” film of it (“soundies” were short films made for viewing through a coin-operated machine), in which he sat on a hay bale dressed in a plaid shirt and straw hat, while Nick “Nicodemus” Stewart did his Stepin Fetchit imitation and ate a turkey drumstick, a big lazy river rolling by in the background.
And Armstrong was far from the only black performer connected to this song. In fact, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was composed by Clarence Muse, a black actor, and Leon and Otis René, black songwriters from Louisiana, who gave it to Armstrong in 1930. Armstrong recorded it in April 1931, and a slew of other versions followed. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra’s version, with Mildred Bailey singing, reached number six on the Billboard charts in November. In the movie Safe in Hell (released in December), Nina Mae McKinney, a black actress who played a Caribbean hotel owner (Muse played the porter), sang an imitation of Armstrong’s version while serving dinner to her white guests. Ethel Waters performed it too, and beautifully, though she characteristically gave a twist to the lyrics: after singing “folks down there live a life of ease,” she gives that line the lie by singing, “when mammy falls down upon her poor tired knees” (in her version, the “darkies” aren’t quite as happy).
Even more puzzling to modern-day listeners, Paul Robeson, an actor and singer who was most famous for his roles in The Emperor Jones, Show Boat, and Othello, also recorded it in 1931—the year of the near-lynching of the Scottsboro Boys. Violence was endemic in the South, especially against blacks, who had no rights that anyone was compelled to respect. Yet the idyllic “Sleepy Time Down South” was written by blacks, performed by blacks in a Hollywood movie, and recorded by three of the most famous black singers of the day.
At the same session, Robeson recorded an even more astonishing song. “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was written for Kate Smith to sing in a 1931 Broadway revue; at first glance, it seems the most reprehensible song of the decade, urging blacks to work hard and “accept your destiny”: “Someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to plant the corn; someone had to slave and be able to sing—that’s why darkies were born.” But Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into “Go Down Moses.” His classically trained basso profundo invested everything he sang with weight, seriousness, and depth.
Robeson, who had no connection to the rural South (he was raised in New Jersey and worked in New York and Europe), was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for Southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. His strong Communist sympathies were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race.
Robeson, like Armstrong, never explained why he sang such songs, and I doubt anyone ever thought to ask him. But Will Friedwald has written a convincing explanation. Like “Ol’ Man River,” which had been written for Robeson, and which he had helped popularize three years earlier, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley could relate to—casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world.” Both songs have the same somber undercurrent: life is hard for blacks, even painful, but the river keeps flowing toward the Promised Land. And that’s the same message one finds in spirituals.
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like—they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
Robeson had given his first solo recital in 1925, at which he had sung only “Negro songs and spirituals.” By 1931, practically all of the forty-odd songs he had recorded were either spirituals, actual nineteenth-century minstrel songs, black folk songs, or songs written about black people. He largely avoided songs that had nothing to do with his race. For Robeson, almost all songs about blacks, whether written by whites or not, functioned like spirituals.
This also helps explain why Robeson sang “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”: he gave everything he sang an air of spirituality. The “dear old Southland” becomes an imagined place of spiritual succor, the equivalent of the spirituals’ “promised land.” There’s a melancholy in Robeson’s version that simply isn’t in the song as written.
But this was a very different conception of “Down South” than that of the song’s primary interpreter—and, one surmises, its composers.
Louis Armstrong grew up not quite as removed from the rural South as Robeson—although he was raised in New Orleans, he had a feeling for country life, having spent over a year at the Colored Waif’s Home on the outskirts of that city and a few weeks in a small Louisiana town called Houma. But these were a far cry from the “dear old Southland” of the song, a paradise of leisure and pleasure. And in contrast to Robeson’s reading, for Armstrong the succor of the Southland was physical rather than spiritual. “Folks down there live a life of ease,” he sang; “darkies” could “dance till the break of day” and then fall asleep in mammy’s arms. Yes, it’s a fantasy of infantile regression with anachronistic imagery originating in racist ideology. But for Armstrong, as for the composers, it was no less potent for all that. There was nothing calculated about Armstrong’s love for this song—it was genuine. Here was a place he could go to in his music, a heaven/haven away from the frenetic life he led, and he went there as often as he could.
It’s no coincidence that the song was written in 1930 and recorded in 1931, during the Great Depression, when blacks who had come North were discovering that life wasn’t necessarily easier than it had been in their old hometowns. In fact, in his first recording of the song, Armstrong begins with some banter with his pianist, Charlie Alexander, evoking the Great Migration: “How long you been up here, boy?” “Oh, I been up here ’bout, about a year and a half.” “A year and a half? Well, man, I been up here a long time myself. I’m goin’ back home.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine that in the year of the Scottsboro Boys’ trials the injustices of “Down South” could be utterly forgotten. Where else, then, could this “Sleepy Time” heaven be found in reality?
Nowhere else but in the minstrel show. Yes, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” functioned as an exercise in Southern nostalgia, but since it was common knowledge that no such plantation scene had ever existed except in fiction, it also functioned as an exercise in minstrel-show nostalgia—an evocation of a show-biz rather than an actual plantation heaven, as Laurence Bergreen suggests in his excellent biography of Armstrong. The song effectively celebrated American entertainment itself.
With this in mind, the “soundie” that Armstrong filmed appears in a new light. Nicodemus Stewart’s eyes widen when he sees the turkey drumstick. He’s too lazy, at first, to go get it, but when he does he goes into a slow loping dance, and he falls asleep cradling it in his arms. What is this but a reenactment of a minstrel show? True, there’s no blackface involved, but it’s very clear that this is being filmed on a set, not in the actual South, and there’s no explanation of why a turkey drumstick should appear in the middle of the night. This is nothing but traditional show-biz, which had been very good to Louis Armstrong. “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was, at least in part, his tribute to it.
But Armstrong suffered for his indulgence of minstrelsy. Not only did he insist on performing songs like this, he was known for his large grin and grimaces, his deep hoarse chuckle, and his “aw shucks” demeanor. Making the white folks laugh was essential to his performances. The beboppers roundly criticized him for his “plantation image,” in Dizzy Gillespie’s words. He was “tomming,” according not only to them, but to the generation of more militant blacks who followed. Armstrong fought back, attacking bebop even more fiercely than the beboppers had attacked him. Nobody could make Armstrong ashamed of his minstrel roots. In 1949, he donned blackface and became the Zulu King in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade, fulfilling a long-cherished dream. His embrace of the minstrel tradition was now complete.
At a 1951 recording session, he sang “Sleepy Time” as written for the first take, but for the second was asked to change “darkies” to “people.” He turned to Gordon Jenkins, the conductor, and growled, “What do you want me to call those black sons-of-bitches this morning?” He often made some substitution for “darkies” after that, but his own preference was made clear by playing the song at almost every performance for the rest of his life.
“Underneath the Harlem Moon,” as mentioned earlier, was written the following year, and despite containing the lyric “that’s why darkies were born,” it essentially turned the “happy darky” theme on its head, with the imagined black paradise “in your own back yard.” 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 clearly 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 add 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. 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, echoing the coon song, Waters’s Harlemites have denied the plantation in favor of something a whole lot better. It’s an incredible act of reclamation, transforming happy darkies into triumphant rebels. 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 them 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.
The simple answer is that “Underneath the Harlem Moon” was a celebration of Harlem, however couched in racist metaphors and analogies; and blacks had good reason to celebrate 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 it 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 of these songs, like the white folks were. With the exception of Paul Robeson, 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 these 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. Their “signifying” was more sly and playful than ironic. They performed the demeaning songs of the era either with spiritual overtones, like Robeson; with unfeigned nostalgia, like Armstrong; or with humor and defiance, like Waters. And in doing so they transformed the minstrel heritage into a thing of their own making.
After the 1930s, songs about “happy darkies” became less prevalent. But some prominent African Americans continued to sing them, and none were more successful than Louis Jordan. His conversion of the minstrel-song tradition from easygoing swing to electric excitement—of plantation conventions into big-city jive—was pivotal, for it led directly to the birth of rock ’n’ roll.
While that music for the most part steered clear of the minstrel song, Ray Charles, in 1957, signified on Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” by making it into “Swanee River Rock,” scrubbing the song of all reference to plantations, “darkies,” or banjoes. Quickly covered by white rockers, the song exemplified rock ’n’ roll’s approach to minstrelsy. Absolutely anything from the past could be fodder for a rock ’n’ roll song, but it had to be made new, wiped clean, and injected with youth and vigor. Rock ’n’ roll’s foundation was a multiracial youth market which was either ignorant of minstrelsy or saw it as something better forgotten. By the 1960s, rock had adopted folk music’s disgust with phoniness, and what could be more phony than songs about a hundred-year-old make-believe land?
The rise of the civil rights movement soon brought about a complete turnaround in the subject matter of black song. “Happy darky” material was no longer acceptable; black pop singers wanted to sing about what blues singers had always sung about: real life. Throughout the 1960s, singers ranging from Nina Simone to James Brown introduced songs about racial injustice and black pride. For the twenty years between 1960 and 1980, American popular music was, with some important exceptions, minstrel-free.
Of course, with the rise of hip hop, which resurrected “coon song” stereotypes with gusto, all that would change.
Yuval Taylor is Senior Editor at the Chicago Review Press. He is the coauthor of Faking It (with Hugh Barker) and Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (with Jake Austen, August 2012, WW Norton & Company).