Thursday, February 4th, 2016...4:21 pm
African American composers and performers: portrait images in sheet music
In honor of Black History Month, here are some pieces from the Historical Sheet Music Collections of 19th and 20th century music celebrating the work of Harry Davis, Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, Jerry Mills and Lottie Grady.
Images of African American composers and performers in 18th, 19th and early 20th century sheet music were largely negative. Illustrations were often dehumanizing caricatures; with minstrel music and vaudeville tunes, photographs of white performers (or sometime black performers) in blackface were common. Or possibly the elimination of a black composer’s picture completely is the result of the publisher’s views on what will or will not sell. The following publishers chose to present composers and performers of color with respect.
The colored regimental guards
Harry Davis, composer
The lovely wood engraving is a head and shoulders portrait of Davis with pages of his music below. The song, a march, describes a black regiment in full regalia marching through New York, with lyrics that counter the lampooning songs by Harrigan and Brahams and others. 1 In the Musical Critic and Trade Review in 1881 the unnamed reviewer writes: “Artistic work would be entirely out of place in a minstrel show.” Davis is mentioned in contemporary trade publications as a promising composer. 2 As you can see from these other covers from Chicago Music Co.’s contemporary music publications, portraits were uncommon for this publisher.
Notice that Scott Joplin’s wildly successful Maple Leaf Rag was issued sometimes with and sometimes without a portrait: the third edition had what was probably a mounted albumen photograph of Joplin, however, our examples (there is another with the same cover design printed in 1916) do not seem to have had the photograph when issued. The design is meant to include it.
Bob Cole, composer, J[ames] W[eldon] and J[ohn] R[osamond] Johnson, lyricists
Bob Cole was a composer, actor, playwright, director and producer. “Louisiana Lize” is one of his most popular songs. He partnered with brothers J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson; James became executive secretary of the NAACP, a diplomat, civil rights activist, poet, educator and Harlem Renaissance leader. Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson had a popular vaudeville act, touring America and Europe. In 1902 Cole wrote an article titled “The Negro and the Stage” for The Colored American Magazine, in which he argued against stereotypes of African Americans in theatre. J. Rosamond went on to a career in songwriting (the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), acting, and touring with The Harlem Rounders and The Inimitable Five. He originated the role of Frazier in the original production of Porgy and Bess. The publisher, Joseph W. Stern & Company, often featured illustrated covers, many with caricature images of African American, Asian, Latino or Native American people.
Robert Allen Cole, composer
“As sung by the authors.” The three paragraph blurb below the portrait begins: “Cole and Johnson claim and it is a well-known fact that they have originated every vogue or cycle in the evolution of ragtime.” The blurb goes on to list the teams’ hits.
Dat lovin’ rag
Bernard Adler, composer, and Victor Smalley, lyricist
[with portraits of Jerry Mills and Lottie Grady]
This sheet music has prominent photo portraits of Jerry Mills and Lottie Grady, star members of the Pekin Stock Company, where The Merry Widower premiered at the Pekin Theatre, Chicago, in 1908. The show was a great success, and this song was the hit number. Mills became a vaudeville stage director and producer; Grady starred in numerous musicals and variety shows and was at one time the highest paid black performer in Chicago. 3 Mills and Grady starred together in William Foster’s silent film The Railroad Porter, 1912, considered the first film produced and directed by an African American. In 1913 they co-starred in Foster’s The Grafter and the Girl; Mills wrote the screenplay. The composers, who are white, are pictured also, but with smaller portraits. F. B. Haviland, the publisher, issued a lot of ragtime music and like Stern some of its popular tunes had caricatures of people of color. These examples, while they might be uncommon for their time, testify to the work by black composers, lyricists, dramatists and performers shaping the American musical landscape of the new century, and the audiences that supported them.
1. Finson, Jon W. The voices that are gone. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 224-225.
2. Simond, I. Old Slack’s reminiscence and pocket history of the colored profession from 1865 to 1891. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1974. p. 25.
3. Luckett, Moya. Cinema and Community : Progressivism, Exhibition, and Film Culture in Chicago, 1907-1917. 2014. Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television Ser. p. 244.
[Thanks to Dana Gee, Project Sheet Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]