The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #151811   Message #3547398
Posted By: MorwenEdhelwen1
09-Aug-13 - 07:07 PM
Thread Name: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
Subject: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
This post is going to be long. I'm a fan of the kind of music people in my parents' or even grandparents' generation listened to, including some of the singers mentioned on here (although I wouldn't call myself a "fan" of say Pete Seeger, I like their music, but not enough to listen to it repeatedly, which is how I figure out if I'm a fan or someone or not. But I'm a fan of calypsonians like Lord Invader. And of folk-influenced singers like Billy Joel.)

Some of the singers my parents listen to and are fans of cover standards by composers like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Mild digression here: I think being exposed to those singers influenced the kind of songs I like to sing, and as soon as I've had enough early nights to get rid of my stuffy nose and sore throat, I'm recording Irving Berlin's 'I'll See You In C-U-B-A'' and Billy Joel's ''Rosalinda's Eyes'' (a sentimental ballad about a Cuban musician which was actually inspired by the songwriter's parents) to test out whether I can put across a song to an audience of people over the Internet when there's nothing blocking my nose.

The point of this background is that recently, I was googling stuff related to Tin Pan Alley "Latin" songs, Irving Berlin, and Billy Joel out of interest and came across the urban legend that Irving Berlin kept a "little colored boy" or "pickaninny" in his closet to write his songs and thought, "Huh?" After googling a bit more and asking on a few other forums, I'm still not clear on what exactly was meant by this, other than that it was clearly intended to denigrate Mr. Berlin and isn't true, but I have three ideas:

1. It was meant literally as a joke which commented on White exploitation of Black music, because let's face it, if you look at it superficially, claiming that your rival keeps a Black kid in his closet to write his songs sounds ridiculous. And Berlin was suspected of having paid a Black guy to write "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and/or stealing a melody from "A Real Slow Drag," a section of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha which wasn't performed until 1972. (Of course, Joplin was very sick with syphilis by 1911, so according to some rundowns about "Alexander" I've found, quite a few scholars suspect his accusation was due to the disease's effects on his mind.) So I can imagine somebody at a party in 1911 telling the story and getting the laughs he wanted.   

2. It was meant as a bawdy/racial reference, implying that a) Berlin must have had Black ancestry in order to write a song like "Alexander"
or b)(here goes) slept with a Black man in order to write those songs, because the thinking back then was that no White man could possibly do that without something along those lines happening.

3. It was meant as a take on a phrase like "skeleton in the closet."

Something about point 2 (b) seems off to me so I'm inclined to think it's either 1 or 3. Of course it could've been any combination of the three meanings, and it's likely we'll never know, but do any Mudcatters have opinions on what was meant? (Someone on here must have come across the story somewhere).

Whew! Sorry for the long post, but I hope it's clear!