A Look at Bert Williams
by Tim Gracyk
Something comes along to inspire each generation
to look at Bert Williams'
achievements on stage
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
- The Phrenologist Coon: Victor 992
- All Going Out and Nothing Coming In:
- 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"
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'
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
Bert Williams" Characters on Discs
Bert Williams' records are unique.
arrangements on the discs are distinctive, with trombones and bassoons making very strange noises
(including some hilarious
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
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
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.
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.