I: 1901


On Eternal Springs, the Global Economy, and Beginning in Medio Rerum


1. Williams and Walker: “My Little Zulu Babe”

There were a thousand places I could have chosen to start; but I begin here.

By 1901, commercial recordings had been a boom industry for nearly a decade; the little wax tubes and brittle shellac wheels which had begun their cultural life as a highly extravagant form of record-keeping were proving themselves to be a new piston in the engine of the global economy, the perfect medium for preserving and disseminating popular song. Their short running times—three minutes and change—were inadequate for capturing the oratory of the period, but two or three choruses of a music-hall, parlor, or vaudeville song worked even through the fogbanks of surface noise, conveying the point of the song without giving it time to pall. Which was fortunate; at least in memory, the eighties and nineties were something of a golden age of popular song.

But a golden age which we will for the most part be passing over. Gay Nineties hits like “After the Ball,” “Daisy Bell,” “The Streets of Cairo,” and “Hello! Ma Baby” are all superb ditties that still resonate today, but they will form no part of this narrative. Neither, incidentally, will Dvořák’s New World symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or Puccini’s Tosca, written and premiered in the same years; these pages are inevitably the product of a pop sensibility, with more weight given to the vulgar living than to the great made to live again.

And speaking of vulgarity.

In 1901, concert premiers and operatic debuts were the big musical sensations covered in the upmarket dailies, while in sheet music, “Hiawatha,” “Mighty Lak’ a Rose,” and “I Love You Truly” were parlor-song hits. But pool-rooms and saloons resounded to “Coon! Coon! Coon!” and “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden” and “Ain’t Dat a Shame,” three examples of a major genre in popular music known as the “coon song,” sung in ersatz dialect, theoretically comic but often sentimental, in which case the comedic premise was the very idea of black people having feelings. It wasn’t always racist trash—the lightly romantic “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden,” for example, was written by black men in an attempt to divert the stream into less bilious channels—but it was nevertheless an act of oppression, exoticizing and Othering black Americans at best and sheer bullying at worst.

The coon song, which had originated in the Gilded Age, was an industrialized, mass-marketed version of the most successful American entertainment form of the nineteenth century and the eternal wellspring of damn near all American popular culture, the minstrel show. By the turn of the twentieth century, minstrelsy in its classic form was no longer the commercial force it had been in the Reconstruction Era, supplanted by family-friendly vaudeville, but its spirit lived on everywhere. Blackface was so common a feature of popular entertainment as to be thoroughly unremarkable; not only coon songs, but associated popular music forms like ragtime and the creole dances which were beginning to seep north from the Caribbean and Latin America, were received in a minstrel spirit. And of course any black people who were any good at entertainment worked as minstrels, or didn’t work at all.

Bert Williams and George Walker were not just good at entertainment; they were the unacknowledged best. There had been comedy duos before, of course, as long as there had been any entertainment at all—but Williams, a tall, light-skinned, and educated man with an excellent voice, and Walker, a dark, carelessly handsome comedian and dancer, upended the usual tradition. Minstrel tradition had a pompous, dicty fellow bandy words with a comic fool, and that arrangement—high-class straight man and low-class comedian—is still familiar today. But Williams and Walker realized they were funnier when they switched roles. Walker dressed flashily, inhabiting the urban stereotype of the Zip Coon, while Williams put on blackface and wore comically ill-fitting clothes, and they were genuinely hilarious.

Their interaction was, in fact, a lot like Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s; and Williams and Walker’s stage productions were not unlike the Road movies, with elaborate sets in exotic locales (often African) and loose plots, punctuated by song, dance, and slapstick, that mostly consisted of Walker tricking Williams out of his little plenty and swanning off with the girl (the beautiful Aida Overton, who married Walker and was the first great African-American lady of the theater). Starting in 1896, they had conquered Broadway, toured Europe, delivered a command performance before the Royal House of England, and popularized the cakewalk, a minstrel dance with origins in slavery.

Their 1900 production was called Sons of Ham, a mocking reference to white-supremacist ideology about lines of descent from Noah, and it contained a cod-African love song—or rather, a coon song—called “My Little Zulu Babe,” written by white men and performed by the duo in “cannibal” costume. When they were contracted to record a handful of songs for Victor in 1901—the first recording contract awarded to professional black entertainers—it was among the numbers they chose to perform.

It is an electrifying performance. Not good, exactly; Walker, who takes the bulk of the vocal, was a dancer, not a singer, and its racial caricature, however fondly or ignorantly or cynically meant, is horrifying. But it’s amazing to listen to: ugly, and noisy, and weird. Williams makes strange grunting animal noises in the background, the instruments whine tunelessly around them, and they both seem to be lampooning the song even as they come together in harmony on the final chorus.

We will hear many, many more songs before we are done; but we will hear little so intentionally grotesque, so alien to our ideas (and even to 1901’s ideas) of what constitutes proper music. In its vulgarity, in its energy, but more than anything else in its blackness, it shows the path—or anyway a path—we are going to take. It is not the beginning of time; but it is our beginning.