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A Look at Bert Williams

Something comes along to inspire each generation to look at Bert Williams' achievements on stage and record. In the early 1940s Columbia reissued eight of Williams' recordings, partly because singer Phil Harris revived Williams" "Woodman, Spare That Tree" and "The Darktown Poker Club" into big hits. Louis Armstrong as well as comic team Moran and Mack tried reviving the memory of Williams by re-recording Elder Eatmore sermons (two Eatmore ser- mons were issued as a single 12 inch Columbia disc for Bert Williams in 1919), but these were not big sellers.

In 1970, Ann Charters published Nobody - The Story of Bert Williams, which helped generate interest in a play performed in the 1970s with Ben Vereen depicting Williams' trials and triumphs.

Today's Bert Williams fan should be excited for two reasons. First, Eric Ledell Smith has written an impressive scholarly biography. Second, a new CD set issued by England's Pearl label features extremely rare selections of Bert Williams with partner George Walker. Some were recorded for Victor in 1901. This three-CD set, titled Music From The New York Stage: Volume One, features seven songs from the Williams and Walker shows Sons of Ham and Abyssinia. Anyone who has tried to acquire an original Williams and Walker pressing knows how rare the 78s are. Aside from "Nobody," these titles have never been reissued before.

The biography and CD set compliment each other perfectly, giving theatre and music enthusiasts new opportunities to assess Williams and Walker's contribution to the stage nearly a century ago.

The New Bert Williams Biography

Smith's Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian gives rich details in summarizing all Williams and Walker productions and documenting critical responses. Since readers with CD players can now listen to recordings from that time, the details add up to something meaningful. One can turn to the Smith book for dialogue from the 1902 stage hit In Dahomey and then turn to a CD selection to hear the performers' delivery. The records were brief, so the book is essential if we want a sense of what an entire show was like.

Smith's emphasis is on Williams as a stage personality, especially one who struggled in a racist America. Relatively little is said about Williams as a major recording artist for Columbia even though the 78s are the artists gifts to posterity (there is a small amount of silent film footage). I believe Bert Williams" best recordings are among the funniest made by anyone. We can know and love Williams today because of his fine records.

Record collectors recognize "Nobody" as Williams' signature tune but I confess I do not rank "Nobody" among Williams' best recorded performances. Williams himself was surprised at the song's success and eventually expressed frustration at having to sing it again and again after its introduction in the 1906 Abyssinia. As Smith points out, Williams worked up enthusiasm for the countless performances of "Nobody" only by altering lyrics periodically so the song had something fresh. The mock-solemn "Nobody"is a one-joke tune and nearly a one-note tune. Smith states the song's popularity is due to "the unique lyrics of Alex Rogers" and concludes it "had a philosophical bent:it expressed the existential desire to be treated as a person". I am not sure this says anything meaningful, but such analysis is not representative of Smith's book, fortunately. I also find Williams too dour in "On the Moonshine Shines the Moonshine" and cannot understand why a new Columbia CD set celebrating African-American music represents Williams with this dirge, which is unlikely to spark interest in those unfamiliar with the artist.

Smith is excellent at describing stage productions and summarizing audience responses. Sadly, Smith demonstrates no familiarity with the Columbia discs themselves even though they sold well and can be found today. After naming songs recorded in 1915, Smith states, "It is not known if Williams composed these" and says composers of other songs are "unknown". But the discs display the names of composers in parenthesis under song titles. After mentioning that Ring Lardner wrote lyrics for a Bert Williams song in the 1917 Follies, Smith guesses that "No Place Like Home"is the song ("This may well have been the Lardner song"). The disc clearly credits Lardner. I love this tune's lines about a home suffering as much turmoil as European battlefields:

My wife is a pacific [pacifist]
She says, "Cut it out or somebody's bound to get hurt."
And I says, "Yes, madam, I'm with thee —
Cuz that somebody's first name is Bert."
Ah, home sweet home — I think that's where the real war is

Smith, who disclaims in the preface having an intimate knowledge of music, works with so many important primary sources (aside from the discs themselves) and gives so much good information that record collectors can overlook an occasional overstatement or error. Had Smith more familiarity with recording pioneers, he could have avoided claiming several times that Williams and Walker were the first blacks to make records. Smith is evidently not familiar with George W. Johnson. Moreover, Smith strains to make Williams seem more seminal than he was, as in this non-sequitur: "If singing the blues includes singing about hard luck, then certainly Williams had been singing the blues for a long time." There is more to blues than lyrics about hard luck, as even characters in opera curse bad luck. If Smith is eager to relate Williams somehow with blues (a difficult task), he could point to Williams speaking of a blues singer in one of his last recordings, "You Can't Trust Nobody":

That dark brown lady sang a wicked blues
I said a wicked blues
Full of moanful news
It ain't no use to arguefy
For the blues is blues
And you can't deny it
It's hard to listen to such sad tales
But to everyone that lady would wail

This was issued in 1920, when Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" for Okeh. Acknowledging the truth - that Williams was neither the first black to make records nor a blues pioneer (his "Unlucky Blues" is not a blues recording) - subtracts nothing from his stature as an artist. The book is published by McFarland & Company (Box 611, Jefferson NC, 28640) and costs $37.50. It stands as the definitive Williams biography though I hope a revised edition incorporates a few corrections. Smith carefully documents his many sources.

Collectors should know about a book-in-progress by Jas Obrecht, an editor for Guitar Player. Titled Before the Blues Began: Slaves, Minstrels, Medicine Shows & Vaudeville, the book will include a CD of minstrel selections, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, black pioneer Carroll C. Clark, Collins & Harlan, and others. It places Bert Williams" career in the context of various musical trends and should be out by late 1994. Sections I have previewed are excellent.

Rare Selections of Bert Williams Reissued

New Pearl CD sets should excite many record collectors. The first of four volumes offers three CDs of recordings that document New York's important musical productions from 1890 to 1908 (twelve discs make up the four volumes). Volume One offers over three hours of early discs and cylinders, with over a dozen pre-1900 performances. Except for Marie Cahill's 1917 rendition of "Under the Bamboo Tree," nothing was recorded after 1913. Not a single record could be considered "common" unless one counts George M. Cohan singing "Life's a Funny Proposition After All". Cohan sings three other tunes.

Volume One features 84 selections of rare Berliners, pre-dog Victors, early Columbias, and Edisons. DeWolf Hopper is represented on a cylinder made around 1890. On Berliner discs, the elusive Jessie Bartlett Davis sings "O Promise Me" from Robin Hood and "Don Jose of Sevilla" from Victor Herbert's The Serenade. Other names include Thomas Q. Seabrooke, May Irwin, The Rogers Brothers, Edward M. Favor, Harry Tally, and Richard Jose. I especially admire the exuberance of Grace Cameron singing "Since Dolly Dimple Made a Hit" from the show Piff! Paff! Pouf! The sound is surprisingly good for these discs from the earliest years of recording. The producers sought not only rare titles but the best copies available among the few in archives.

The set is valuable if only for the seven songs sung by a young Bert Williams, accompanied in two cuts by partner George Walker. Three titles from Sons of Ham were recorded in 1901:

  1. The Phrenologist Coon: Victor 992
  2. All Going Out and Nothing Coming In: Victor 994
  3. My Little Zulu Babe: Victor 1086

Titles are announced, probably by Victor recording director Emilio De Gogorza. Also included are four songs recorded in 1906, three of which were featured in Abyssinia: "Nobody" (Columbia 3423), "Let It Alone" (Columbia 3504), and "Here It Comes Again" (Columbia 3454). Notes claim that a seventh selection, "Pretty Desdemone" (Columbia 3410),is also from Abyssinia, but this was written by FE. Collis Wildman, who was never connected with the Abyssinia show. The song seems to be from a 1905 vaudeville engagement at Hammerstein's Victoria Theater.

I am grateful these early Williams recordings are available even if they don't match the best recordings from the last years of Williams' career, which ended with his death in 1922. Nine more selections of Williams, from 1908 to 1913, are in the 3-CD set Music From the New York Stage: Volume Two. The older Bert Williams was a more subtle comic artist. "The Phrenologist Coon" has funny lines but,like all "coon" songs, will be too crude for some listeners, with its references to razors, chickens, and pickpocket artists ("By just feelin' in your pocket I can tell what's in your head"). The 1923 book Bert Williams: Son of Laughter - published in England, where Williams had a following - recounts how songwriter Ernest Hogan wrote the song after Williams had described to Hogan his dabbling in phrenology, astrology, and palmistry.

In "All Going Out and Nothing Coming In," Williams uses a surprisingly upbeat melody to rail against hard times. Money is the subject in question: it goes out but does not come in. The CD set does not include lyrics, but I can cite lines from this (and later from other songs) because of repeated listenings:

You know how it is wid money?
How it makes you feel at ease?
Things look bright all around
And your friends am thick as bees
But oh! when yo' money is a-runnin' low,
An' you clinging to a solitary dime
No one can see where you come in
Dat am the awful time
Dat am the time
When it's all goin' out an' there's nothin' comin' in

George Walker sings "My Little Zulu Babe" with Williams making background noises and helping with the chorus. It partly parodies an African tribal chant and is fairly weak. The other title sung by George Walker, "Pretty Desdemone," is disappointing. Although Williams' own range was limited, he was more expressive than his partner. Walker was better at fast talking on the stage and playing the dandy to Williams' bumpkin.

Bert Williams" Characters on Discs

Bert Williams' records are unique. Even musical arrangements on the discs are distinctive, with trombones and bassoons making very strange noises (including some hilarious "raspberries"). Williams' real strength was his ability to create a few distinct characters in his careful comic delivery. Consider the character in "I Want to Know Where Tosti Went When He Said "Good-Bye," one of Williams' best. The singer proudly rattles off what he knows, and the joke is that one who can say what one knows in a few lines of song cannot know much. The singer announces that one of the very few things he does not know is where composer E Paolo Tosti was going when he wrote the popular song "Good-Bye." He brags about knowing all that "Mr. Wagner" wrote but fails to pronounce the composer's name in the familiar German manner. Consider the pride he takes in biblical knowledge:

I know about Peter and Paul
'Course, I don't know it all
Know all about them planets, though
Up in the sky

Williams' delivery suggests that knowing that planets are "up in the sky" is the same as knowing "all about them planets". This is one of his best performances.

Many Bert Williams songs do make use of racial stereotypes common at that time. Many Williams characters come off as naive, luckless, shiftless. He is too quick to inject "Yes sir". The character of "Samuel" complains of his job at a hotel but insists he cannot leave because the hotel serves good fried chicken. But expecting Williams to depict only admirable characters when no white comics are held to any such standard is unfair. Moreover,it is difficult to generalize about Williams' characters. In "Somebody," the singer tells about how he is asked to perform actions that others claim are brave or noble. He knows he is really being asked to carry out reckless acts. He is no fool, after all. Save a Little Dram for Me" evokes a sharp parson who cajoles his congregation into sharing gin they sneak in. The humour is gentle, as in these lines:

He closed his Bible gently in the middle of the psalm
And started thinking mentally where that smell was coming from

The redundancy in "thinking mentally" is deft. This determined parson shares qualities with the indignant deacon who emerges in the very funny "It's Nobody's Business But My Own". Williams makes a proud parson.

"Unexpectedly" was recorded in the late Columbia years and is among the best. It is one of several tunes - others include "Somebody," "Constantly," and "Not Lately" - that repeat one word or phrase. These clearly capitalized upon the success of "Nobody" though these later songs are more clever, avoiding the snail pace of the signature tune "Unexpectedly" tells in the second verse of a thief harshly punished not for stealing but for stealing too little. The judge (a white judge?) objects that there isn't enough loot worthy of a bribe:

Got some work in a swell cafe
And I took me home a little fresh meat every day
Just a small piece
And the boss got wise to me in some kind a way - unexpectedly
One next morn the judge says,
"What have you to say about that?
Your boss says he caught you
With two pork chops under your hat"
I said "not guilty, sir"
He says "Take 6 months for that"
And it came so unexpectedly, whee!
"Twas then I found out, yassir, whole lot of meaning
In that little word - unexpectedly
It seems like I never knew till then
Of things could happen so unexpectedly
He said, now, had I taken a steak and a ham or goose, then
"I mighta found some way that I could of let you loose
But for two measly pork chops - let you free?
Officer, take him and throw away the key"

Although many Williams songs employ common racial stereotypes, direct references to Williams' race are rare after the early "coon" songs recorded for Victor in the earliest years ("coon" is in two song titles). This is worth considering since how Williams speaks of race determines for some people today how much respect or recognition he merits. Had he not evolved beyond a "coon" singer, Williams would be of less interest today. I believe William's last use of the term "coon" is in the 1906 "I'm Tired of Eating in the Restaurants" ("Coons all bow when | pass by, say ‘Good evenin'''). The fact that Williams rarely refers to race surprised me as I listened again to lyrics. I expected more references since Williams was the only black entertainer before 1920 to record regularly. Certainly Williams was not allowed to forget about his race as he pursued a stage career. Columbia, proud to have Williams under contract, seemed eager to minimize references to race.

In the 1910 song "Play That Barber Shop Chord," Williams does speak of a "colored" family and "a kinky-headed lady they call Chocolate Sadie," but by 1910 the derogatory term "coon" is long abandoned and the crudest stereotypes are gone. A rare reference to skin color is in a later song, "I'm Neutral," recorded in 1915, when Americans worried about being drawn into the European conflict. Describing individuals in a mob, Williams comments, "A Russian saw my color and he hollered, "Kill the Turk!" In the context of the song, this reference to skin differences establishes that Americans were antagonistic towards Turks (allied with the Germans), not towards blacks. References to skin color are also made in the 1921 "Brother Low Down," in which an itinerant preacher speaks of different shades of color:

All you satin blacks and chocolate browns
When I pass this hat around
If you want to keep from sin
Drop your little nickels in
And help poor Brother Low-Down

"Borrow From Me" describes ways to cast Uncle Tom's Cabin: the Czar of Russia could "blacken up" to play Uncle Tom and another role could be played by "a brother who doesn't come too dark". I find no other direct references to race. Whether such lyrics are offensive now must be determined by individual listeners.

There are indirect references to racial tensions in some Bert Williams selections. In "I'm Gone Before I Go," the singer speaks of a friend who volunteered to spy in Mexico rather than enlist with regular troops, but the pal's plan backfired: "Since then I have heared [sic] that they hung my friend from a sour apple tree. Oh-oh! I'm gone before I go". This allusion to a lynching is uncharacteristic for Williams. The title of "The Darktown Poker Club" reminds listeners in what part of town Williams places the song's action. The song does not directly refer to blacks but "brothers" are depicted as too eager to gamble, cheat, and wield razors.

Today's scholars are highly critical of anything close to a racial stereotype. Because he emerged from a tradition of "coon" songs and blackface performances, Bert Williams is not often cited today by those eager to promote awareness of African-American artists from the past. I presented a program of Bert Williams' music during Black History Month at Santa Clara University, where I teach. Students were not offended by Bert Williams selections, but neither did they show genuine appreciation or express curiosity. The truth is that music from the early decades of the century strikes nearly all young people today as merely quaint, slightly interesting in small doses. It is not something they would listen to for pleasure since the music is too different from music popular today. Bert Williams is respected by many with a keen interest in music of this period but non-specialists show little interest. At least Smiths new biography of Bert Williams and the recent Pearl CD set give Williams fans something new by which to assess the artist.