Doin’ It

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

My friend Dale Cockrell has written a remarkable book, Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840–1917, which details the codependent development of social dance, popular music, and prostitution in New York City’s drinking establishments during the seventy years preceding the Great War. If you still harbor the lazy notion that Baby Boomers invented sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, maybe you should read this.

I feel a certain humble kinship with Professor Cockrell. He’s made a huge contribution to our knowledge of American musical history. The trends he chronicles in Doin’ It led to (among other things) the 1921 Broadway musical Shuffle Along. It so happens that, with my wife Lyn, I co-edited a scholarly edition of that show’s music, and last year—with the encouragement of the NEH and AMS—it was finally published (and last week won this award). We couldn’t have done our job without a host of mentors and predecessors too numerous to name here. In a just universe, those folks would be known and celebrated by everyone who loves American music. For instance: you know about the current Met production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess? Wayne Shirley, our mentor and friend, created the new edition they used.

Shortly I’ll say more about Shuffle Along, which more or less launched the Harlem Renaissance. But let’s start with what Dale Cockrell discovered about music in the Big Apple. In a riveting early chapter, he describes Charles Dickens’ arrival in 1842, “looking to tour the United States and observe and write about its institutions, culture, and citizens.” After a couple weeks of the dog-and-pony show his handlers planned, Dickens broke free and made his way downtown, to experience America firsthand. Cockrell unpacks these adventures using Dickens’ own published memories plus other contemporary accounts of Five Points “dives.” (Typically they were cellar dance halls, hence the terminology.) It was a wild scene.

Here’s a passage from Everybody’s Doin’ It that can’t help pointing up parallels between today’s tastes and those of 19th-century New Yorkers:

Music beckoned from every Five Points dance hall, with the virtuosic strains from the fiddle of Jack Ballagher (“the black musical wonder”) worth the highest fee-per-dance. Among dancers, the Inyard brothers were especially venerated; a contest with rival breakdown dancers could empty all the other “terpsichorean cribs.” In addition to dancing, Five Points merrymakers enjoyed comic songs by entertainers, one with the stage name “Jerry Go Nimble.” Tom Parsons could rap out lyrics on the spot, rhyming on topical issues and the names of local people. There were also tumblers, jugglers, a “blind man, with a clarionette,” a Scotsman with his kilt and bagpipes, and a “dark-skinned Savoyard” organ-grinder, with requisite monkey.

As expected, Cockrell offers copious evidence of sexual depravity. At one establishment,

Dickens first stumbled on a pile of rags that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be men and women entwined together and asleep. Appalled at all he saw, he observed that debauchery seemed to have aged the very buildings, which sagged with rotten beams and cracked and broken windows. . . . [He] danced with prostitute Amanda Flagrant until the wee closing hour, but, as a married man, he refused entreaties to revel what remained of the night in the embraces of Julia Simms, Amanda Brown, or Clarissa Brown, three notables among a large group of willing paramours.

Midway through the book, we read of reform efforts undertaken by civic-minded citizens who fought long and hard to break up the collusion of saloon-keepers, pimps and madams, and breweries who kept one another in business. Musicians were bit-players in this enterprise, so their stories—along with descriptions of their music—get short shrift. Undercover agents who infiltrated New York’s brothels and dance halls typically described the dancing as “vulgar,” “suggestive,” or “disgraceful,” and the music as “wild,” “alleged,” (!) and “discordant.” They saw no reason to add details.

As a new century got underway, popular interest in new dances and music peaked as well. Respectable young people, men and women, found themselves drawn to dance halls. Sales of sheet music and recordings hastened the spread of “animal dances” with names like the Grizzly Bear and Turkey Trot. Vaudevillians and medicine-show artistes took up the liveliest and most risqué numbers for their acts. As with earlier music, a common feature of most venues (and many song topics) was the free mingling of blacks and whites, which probably shocked and offended nearly as many earnest onlookers as did the sex-for-sale.

New technologies also appeared at the turn of the last century, a boon to historians frustrated by the lurid but limited Victorian descriptions of earlier years. In June 1902 pioneering filmmaker Robert Kates Bonine filmed Kid Foley and Sailor Lil doing what was titled “A Tough Dance at McGurk’s”; Cockrell describes this genre and the film’s specific actions in chapter seven of Everybody’s Doin’ It. Here’s the clip:


And here, ten years later, is a humorous commentary on dance crazes by a young New Yorker just beginning to make a name for himself, Irving Berlin:


Finally, new sounds from New Orleans: The Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, playing “Livery Stable Blues,” born in the brothels of Storyville and destined to change the face of American music forever:


Which brings us to 1921, when Shuffle Along opened on Broadway. It had been created entirely by black artists and featured an all-black cast. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, famous from vaudeville as the Dixie Duo, wrote the music and lyrics. (In his teen years Blake had worked as a ragtime pianist at Aggie Sheldon’s high-class Baltimore brothel; that career path was the rule for ragtimers like Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, Jelly Roll Morton, and others.) The show’s book was stitched together from routines created by comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. It became a runaway hit, its Broadway stand followed by hugely successful runs in Boston, Chicago, and smaller cities. From the historical point of view, a bigger takeaway was its enormous influence on music and show dancing during the decade that followed, not only in black shows like Runnin’ Wild but also in dances—taught by Shuffle Along alums—that surfaced in Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies and other white shows.

Our editorial work on the original show materials occupied fifteen years of our lives (not every waking moment, of course!). What can I tell you? Mainly that the music is wonderful. Blake drew upon every available stream in American popular song: he wrote love ballads meant to be delivered seriously (that was a new experience for black entertainers), “plantation” numbers, Viennese operetta turns, Cohan parodies, and much more. One song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” started out, in Blake’s sketches, as a gentle waltz but ended up an energetic one-step; years later Harry S. Truman used it as a campaign ditty.

The show’s music offers a time capsule of American popular song circa 1921. Ragtime was essentially over; the Jazz Age was barely underway. Blake and his colleagues had no idea what lay ahead. One of our watchwords in preparing the edition was to avoid anticipating the performance styles of Armstrong, Morton, Ellington, and others. We cautioned performers against making anachronistic choices, like adopting big-band “swung” rhythms instead of the original scores’ carefully notated ragtime beats.

On the other hand, surviving recordings suggest that Blake coached his orchestras to deliver zipper, juicier accompaniments than Will Vodery’s written orchestrations could specify. (Music notation, then as now, has its limitations.) Other editorial issues also came up. Here, for example, is Noble Sissle’s recording of “My Vision Girl[s],” recorded in late 1920. Only an incomplete set of manuscript parts for it has survived, so we used the cornet, trombone, drums, and contrabass lines on the recording to reconstruct a full score:


Although Sissle was a relatively conservative song stylist, cast members like Gertrude Saunders took considerable liberties with their numbers, and the results could be electrifying:


Finally, here’s a poignant rendition of “Love Will Find A Way,” the show’s big love ballad, from its creators, Sissle and Blake. Note the gentle, slightly swung rhythms Blake offers in the refrain: they’re notated as “straight eighths” in Vodery’s orchestration and in the published sheet music, but once you’ve heard Eubie Blake’s sensitive interpretation, you know you’ve heard the real thing:


At least one other thing separated Shuffle Along from the delights and sorrows in Everybody’s Doin’ It. Sissle, Blake, Miller, and Lyles set out to create a clean show—family entertainment—and they did it, much to many people’s surprise. (It was 1921, after all, and whites harbored lazy notions about black culture.) I could write another thousand words about the stereotypes these folks overcame, not to mention the stereotypes they left embedded in some of their jokes and old routines. But that’ll wait. Let’s end with words from Langston Hughes, who as a Columbia University student would drift over to the balcony seats at least once a week to see Shuffle Along. Later he would simply say

It was a honey of a show.

[Header image is of the original 1921 cast of Shuffle Along. Blake and Sissle are seated second row back, fifth and sixth from the right.]

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