2000 Volume XXIX, No. 2
by Edward A. Berlin
Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 by David A. Jasen and Gene Jones (Schirmer Books, 1998; $29.95) sets out to explore how African American songwriting became a force in the development of Tin Pan Alley. Their method is to present a succession of twenty-four biographical sketches of key figures or song-writing teams who made their impact prior to 1930. Beginning in the minstrel era with James Bland and extending to Fats Waller, the parade includes many of the giants one would expect: Gussie Davis, Irving Jones, Bert Williams, Will Marion Cook, Cole and Johnson Brothers, Cecil Mack, Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks, Spencer Williams, Maceo Pinkard, Andy Razaf, Clarence Williams, Jo Trent, Perry Bradford, Sissle and Blake, Creamer and Layton, and James P. Johnson. A few who would not make the cut on songwriting credits alone are included because of their importance as performers or publishers: Ernest Hogan, James Reese Europe, Shep Edmonds, W. C. Handy, and J. Mayo Williams.
Jasen and Jones tell their stories well, and the narration soars in several of the introductory overviews. Eighty-one photographs, including many sheet music covers, enhance the book’s attractiveness.
In contrast to the biographies, the authors’ attention to the songs is slight. They quote and discuss a few lyrics, but mostly on a cursory level, and they overlook opportunities to go into greater depth or provide adequate illustration. For example, their discussion of Razaf’s racial protest lyric in “Black and Blue” builds to the point that one wants to read the lyric, but they end the discussion without quoting a line.
Music is discussed only in rare instances, and then inadequately. They make a valiant effort to convey the significance of “St. Louis Blues,” comparing it with “Jogo Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” but, lacking any musical example, the argument is virtually impenetrable (pp. 237-38). Without substantive musical discussions, we never learn about the songs responsible for “spreadin’ rhythm around.”
Though the book occasionally imparts new information, as with stories of Jo Trent or J. Mayo Williams, it usually retells what is available in other publications. Even more troubling, however, is the authors’ indifference toward documentation, leaving the careful reader wondering where information comes from and whether it is accurate. Without footnotes, what are we to think of categorical statements that lace the book, such as those concerning sales: “‘Baggage Coach’ sold over a million copies of sheet music within a few months of its issue (p. 20); “‘Some of these Days’ sold over two million copies over the next few years” (p. 147)? Do these statements reflect reliable information or do they depend upon publishers’ exaggerated advertising claims? The authors provide little indication of their sources or methods, and their two-page “Select Bibliography” and puzzling three-page “Sources” fail to clarify issues.
Citations occasionally occur within the narrative, but more as teasers than as information. We are told that Gussie Davis was interviewed in “the New York Evening Sun early in 1888” (p. 18); the authors quote a passage from “an 1899 editorial in the Musical Courier” (p. 45), and another from “the New York Age in 1908” (p. 55). Why are they so intent upon keeping the precise information to themselves?
In effect, the reader is expected to trust the judgment and veracity of the authors. However, evidence argues against such trust. For example, citing the September 1947 issue of Theatre Arts (a rare instance in which they identify the source), they recount an incident told by Will Marion Cook about his composition of Clorindy. But they embellish Cook’s story: “The next morning, Cook couldn’t wait to play his score for his mother.” He plays for her “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”; his college-educated mother, who had dreams of him becoming a great classical musician, is devastated (pp. 82-83).
This account raises questions: Cook must have known how his mother would react to a coon song. Why was he so anxious to play it for her? Was this a cruel intention to shock her? However, the original article says nothing about his wanting to present the music to his mother; he was simply practicing it, alone, when his mother, in another room, overheard him. Whatever the authors gain in drama, their “poetic license” introduces a disturbingly false element.
One wonders also about their account of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The great music sales, they maintain, were “prompted by Sophie Tucker’s hit recording” (p. 242). Do the authors have information on a hit recording whose very existence seems to have escaped the notice of Tucker herself (as recounted in her autobiography) and of her discographers? If so, why not share it?
The authors’ interpretations, presented as facts, also raise questions. In comparing Ernest Hogan with Bert Williams, they write: “Like Bert Williams, he was funny; unlike Williams[’], his comedy was tinged with pathos.” It’s difficult to imagine how Williams, the sad-faced comic whose public persona was built upon such tunes as “Jonah Man” (“My hard luck started when I was born”) and “Nobody” (“When life seems full of clouds and rain,/ And I am filled with naught but pain”) could be perceived as lacking pathos. Furthermore, how was the comparison even made? Hogan, unlike Williams, never recorded.
Fluent narration cannot compensate for the lack of scholarly rigor and integrity. We should not only enjoy a story, but be convinced of its truth. Authors should win our confidence rather than raise suspicions that they hide behind a veil of secrecy.