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Folklore: Pickaninny in closet

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MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 07:07 PM
MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 07:44 PM
MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 07:53 PM
Joe Offer 09 Aug 13 - 08:42 PM
McGrath of Harlow 09 Aug 13 - 08:51 PM
MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 09:54 PM
MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 10:48 PM
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GUEST,.gargoyle 09 Aug 13 - 11:15 PM
MorwenEdhelwen1 09 Aug 13 - 11:59 PM
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GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1 10 Aug 13 - 01:49 AM
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Subject: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 07:07 PM

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!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 07:44 PM

"of."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: "Pickaninny" in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 07:53 PM

And also, don't take this the wrong way, but could we please not turn this thread into a racism discussion? It's not about whether or not the word "pickaninny" is racist. It is., but the point of the thread is me trying to find out what was meant by something that's puzzling me.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Joe Offer
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 08:42 PM

Interesting question, Morwen. Did you read this excerpt from Larry Karp's The King of Ragtime? (hope the link works in all nations)

I think that certain American music of the early 20th century was considered "black," and people harbored some doubt that white people could write music like that.

-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 08:51 PM

I'm not sure it would necessarily have been knocking Irving Berlin. It could be taken as a kind of backhanded compliment - "this stuff is good enough to have been written by a brother."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 09:54 PM

@Joe: Hi. Yeah, I did. Seems the story was known around Broadway during Berlin's early career. In fact it followed him for most of his life.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 10:48 PM

@McGrath: Thought of that interpretation too.

I've been looking at pages 114-115 of A Right to Sing The Blues by Jeffrey Melnick claim that the story was meant to be an accusation of homosexuality and linked to ethnic and racial stereotypes of Jewish and Black people. But I don't know whether "in the closet" would have been understood that way in 1911.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 10:49 PM

*which*


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 11:15 PM

Welcome Back   ME ( one can only imagine your recent adventures at "the Y"'..but surely NOW you are fully enrolled in school.)

About 1961

I asked a question to a close friend...a question presented to me from my family, "How old must a negro boy be...until one stops referring...to them as a pick-a-ninny?"

The black friend replied, "Until they are old enough to fight."

Sincerely,
Gargoyle

You will lots of other assburgers here.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 09 Aug 13 - 11:59 PM

:Groan:

I knew gargoyle would post here. I've actually read the exact quote he posted in an older thread. What's the point of bringing that up again?

Again, I KNOW the word "pickaninny" is racist. Nearly everyone knows that. It was used here in Australia too, to refer to Aboriginal children. I heard it on a documentary my CAFS teacher at TAFE had our class watch when we discussed ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, for those unfamiliar with the term) issues. It goes without saying that I'd never use the word. But the word isn't the point of this discussion. My disabilities aren't the point of the discussion, so why mention those? They've got nothing to do with this.

This discussion is about an old rumour I came across, which is obviously not true but raises er, interesting images if you assume that the people spreading it meant it literally.

EDIT: Sorry, I tend to get heated when gargoyle's posts crop up.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 12:11 AM

BTW, getting back on-topic:

Irving Berlin actually gave a number of sarcastic responses to this rumour about "the little coloured boy in his closet," including one in the form of a song medley/parody referenced
.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 12:18 AM



It's hard to get used to this site again...


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 01:49 AM

*preparing for thread derail*.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: "Pickaninny" in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 04:52 AM

refresh. Does anyone have any ideas on whether or not "closet" was meant literally?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Joe Offer
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 05:17 AM

Hi, Morwen - I don't believe the phrase "in the closet" surfaced until the late 20th century, as a phrase meaning to conceal one's sexual orientation.

I believe there were "monster in the closet" or "bogeyman" stories in which the creature in the closet was supposedly black.

But I don't think that either of these had anything to do with what was said about Irving Berlin. I think the implication was that his music was "black," as in written in an African-American style.

I thing the "pickaninny in the closet" bit was just to add impact to the insult, but I think maybe it's best not to read too much into the comment. "Back in the day," people made racial comments like that all the time and thought nothing of it. I remember being embarrassed by the way my grandmother talked about other races, and she didn't have a hateful bone in her body - that's just the way people talked back then.

-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 05:32 AM

Thanks, Joe. Mild digression- I know what you mean about racial comments. My friend's grandma supposedly would not approve of her having a non-White boyfriend.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 10 Aug 13 - 05:26 PM

Refresh for some reason. I think the most noticeable thing about this legend is the fact that the person in the closet is described ambiguously as a child (keeping in mind that "boy" could also refer to a grown man).


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 02:53 AM

Here's some of the information I found on the story from A Right To Sing The Blues: Jews, African Americans, and American Popular Song by Jeffrey Melnick:


****
pages 114-115

-snip-

"Irving Berlin's major biographer recounts that the songwriter was a self-taught pianist who hit only the black keys. Berlin referred to these as "nigger keys" and to his instruments as "nigger pianos."
(Berlin's lack of skill initially restricted him to the key of F-sharp major. Later he bought a transposing piano which could change keys with the switch of a lever below the keyboard.) The racist language----which biographer Laurence Bergreen says was typical of the heavily Jewish Tin Pan Alley---- is not surprising coming from a man whose early successes in music were accompanied by the dogged rumor that he kept a "little colored boy" in his closet (or basement) to write his music.

The anecdote offers a compelling narrative of Black-Jewish relations in which powerful Jews control hapless African Americans. The rumor also hints at an intimacy between the Jew and the African American which was unsettling for many observers.

In this anecdote, as in the Jewish use of the nickname "Nigger," we find a decidedly anti-utopian rendering of the connections of African Americans and Jews. Rather than the usual melting pot romance of Jewish involvement of African American music, the case of Irving Berlin's "little colored boy" emphasized a bleak version of group relations in which Jew and African American seem at once unhealthily close and yet estranged. The anecdote interprets Jewish interventions into African American culture as the result of theft and force rather than in talent and voluntary cultural merger. While the rumor imagined the Jew and the African American as physically intimate---- although it did not make clear whether Berlin was in the closet with the "little colored boy"---- it also suggested that the terms of the relationship were dictated by Jews, for the benefit of Jews. In the mythology of Berlin's "little colored boy", the Jew emerged as exploitative and paternalistic, and perhaps (most frightening) as sexually interested in the African American."

-snip-


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Blandiver
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 05:09 AM

To what extent was the tin-pan alley / Hollywood / Broadway tradition of Berlin (et al) strictly (& culturally) Jewish? There's a case to be made here (with The 4 Marx Brothers et al for whom Berlin provided early scores) but it's not Jewish in the same sense as (say) the paintings of Marc Chagall are Jewish (interesting to note Chagall & Berlin were both Belarusian Jews born within a year of each other). How that music relates to the Blues is vague to say least, and confined so a few notes & clichés by way of a dumbed-down popularist exotica rather than a serious attempt to understand The Blues as a music born of The African Experience in the New World. Are there any hints of Jewish folk / village music in Berlin's work I wonder? The only song of his I really know is The Monkey Doodle-Doo from The Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929) and Say It Isn't So from Sun Ra's Reflections in Blue (1987) so I'm no expert.

The P-word remains deeply offensive regardless how previous generations might have callously bandied about such hateful & dehumanising terminology. It is born from social & cultural apartheid and the glib use of such a lexicon by older generations just goes to show how deep seated such hatred was (and IS) in American society. No amount of retrospective / revisionist 'folk-tolerance' can hide that much.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 06:29 AM

@Blandiver: Re: your first point, I have no idea. But I can say that a lot of Berlin's music reminds me of some of the stuff Billy Joel does. Catchy melodies and harmonies that are easy to sing but hard to play (I've tried to figure them out on the piano- not easy). Sentimental, very clever lyrics. I'm especially thinking of 'Worse Comes To Worst' and 'Somewhere Along The Line' from Piano Man, which I recently bought. 'Rosalinda's Eyes' from 52nd Street could have been a Latin number in an old Broadway musical, except the lyrics are much darker than most 'latunes.'

RE the racism of the P-word: I'm not even going to go there, except to state that I know it's racist, and I'm not excusing its use.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 06:36 PM

Refresh. It could've also been a slang term.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 08:18 PM

So Blandiver, you've never heard, "White Christmas"?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 09:53 PM

Maybe he forgot to mention it, Stim.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 11 Aug 13 - 11:01 PM

How can you forget "White Christmas"?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 02:10 AM

I have no clue...


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Blandiver
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 04:50 AM

White Christmas is part of the general cultural ambience of things which are just there. You don't have to out of your way to find such things - on the contrary, the difficulty is in avoiding them! I dare say on that level there are hundreds of Irving Berlin songs that I know, but do not know it. Did I know White Christmas was a Berlin song? I don't think I did. The instances I mentioned (there are bound to be several more) DO mean something to me and those meanings are quite specific. These things you have to dig a little deeper to find. I can't remember ever seeing The Cocoanuts on (UK) TV - and no matter how 'straight' Sun Ra could get, he never quite found the popularist appeal he was undoubtedly looking for at various times in his long & varied career.

White Christmas is a good example of the absence of any overt Jewishness in Berlin's work. On the contrary - it celebrates Whiteness on more than the one level (especially in the context of this thread) and is, in any case, quite forgettable as a piece of mind-numbing middle-American mawkish schmaltz.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 08:18 AM

I don't think all that many people would know who wrote White Christmas. Or Blue Skies, either.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 09:44 AM

Actually, Irving Berlin had an amazing sensitivity to the idiomatic scansion of American spoken language, and a lot of his earlier work uses the slang, phrasing, and rhythm of the various ethnic groups, including the characteristic Yiddish left dislocation.

As to "White Christmas", it's a song about peace, and far better known, and more remembered than most of the traditional ballads we like to fuss about.

And Morwen, here in the US at least, we all know what a "Berlin Ballad" is...


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 05:45 PM

@Stim: Would most Americans be able to name the xomposer of White Christmas though?

Also, what do you think the rumour mentioned in the OP means?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 06:45 PM

Most Americans, like most people, know fragments of songs, rarely able to sing more than a chorus at best, unless they play an instrument. Before TV the computer, pianos were fairly common in the home; now they are rare- so no sheet music in the home.
Composers? More guesses now than correct identifications.

Irving Berlin is better known than most, "Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning" would be well-known, learned in school along with some WW2 history, but not much else.

Berlin died almost 25 years ago, so is little known to the 30 and under set.

He was still on the hit parade in 1935-1945, when I was in my teens, so I would know a number of his songs, including "White Christmas," bought as a record, often heard on the radio, and possibly picked up as sheet music.
Now "W. C." is played in the Christmas season, and the average person cannot name the composer, any more than they can name the composer of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 06:51 PM

@Q: Thanks for that. It's the same way in Australia.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 07:32 PM

We've been learning Puttin' on the Ritz in a choir I sing in, and it has struck me there's a distinctly Klezmer feel about some of it.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,JTT
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 07:58 PM

Humans are amazing, the way we give cruel names to each other, and even make these names out of others' languages.
As for the 'legend', it sounds to me like a joke that may have come out of Berlin's own racist speech - he mocked black people, so people ask mockingly whether he might have a black child writing his beautiful songs.
And the racism: that came from other hatreds - the Jews who went to America were subject to sneering anti-semitism, and in response they turned on the black Americans. Same thing happened with the Irish. Same thing will happen with the blacks as they rise and stamp on the next unfortunate group of outcastes.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 08:00 PM

I refreshed the thread with Will Fly playing "Puttin' ....."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 08:05 PM

I would disagree with Q on Berlin--anyone who is a fan of films, theatre, or music before the rock era knows Berlin. And they teach him in school now. And the under 30's with those tastes are children of the information age, and have access to way more, They've seen the Fred Astaire movies, and White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Easter Parade, etc, either on AMC, TMC, or Netflix. They can find the soundtracks to all the movies on Spotify, and, in ten seconds, can come up with things like "Irving Berlin: A Tribute to his Music, which is a collection of original recordings from 1921-1931. He's way more accessible than he was, even 40 years ago.

As to the OP, I think it's a sly joke that is a tribute to his facility with ragtime(they used to kid about things like that once), which, incidentally, was in it's third decade of popularity when ARB was first a hit. Ben Harney, who was regarded as the father of Ragtime because he brought it from Louisville to Vaudville, was accused of "passing", though his father and mother were both from distinguished Southern families, so it was not exactly a new thought.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 08:28 PM

@JTT: Why supposedly a child though, instead of supposedly a grown adult? (Grown adult- sounds funny). Anyway, why did they claim that a child was writing them instead of an adult? There are child musical prodigies, but they are rare. Is it because a child is a) small and b) easy to stuff into a closet?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 09:10 PM

"Puttin' On the Ritz" sounds to me like a lot of the sounds from the revues in Harlem back in the 30s.
Where did Berlin "mock' Black people?
Racist talk was everywhere, good and bad-natured, Jewish, Irish, Polish, Chinese, Italian, etc. etc.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 12 Aug 13 - 10:19 PM

@Q: TBH I had a "Huh?" moment reading that.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Joe Offer
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 04:03 AM

I haven't seen any evidence Irving Berlin was racist, although I don't doubt that he may have engaged in the racist speech that was the usual practice of the time. This excerpt (click) from Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater (by Jeffrey Magee, 2012) makes it seem that Irving Berlin was almost heroic in defending the Afro-American cast members of This Is the Army in 1942. But yeah, I suppose he must have used racist speech - everybody did.

-Joe-


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 06:45 AM

@Joe: I can't find the exact quote now, but Berlin once told a reporter that "American composers are not Negroes, but of Russian birth and ancestry and of pure white blood."

EDIT: Apparently it was "Our popular songwriters are not Negroes, but of Russian birth and ancestry and of pure white blood."

So yes, very iffy. It might have been a way of getting people to accept him writing in different styles and different voices because there was apparently pigeonholing going on back then, as in "You're an X, so you can only write 'X' songs and not Y." Also, I think some groups of people were seen as impossible to assimilate.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 10:02 AM

If you want to discuss Irving Berlin and racism, you should consider this:

In 1933 Berlin wrote "Supper Time" for his topical revue "As Thousands Cheer". It was the first song about lynching, some years before "Strange Fruit". He got Ethel Waters to perform it on Broadway and she was deeply impressed:

"If one song can tell the whole tragic history of a race, 'Supper Time' was that song. In singing it I was telling my comfortable, well-fed, well-dressed listeners about my people" (Waters, p. 222).

Berlin and producer Sam Harris even sent the whole show including "Supper Time" and Ms. Waters on tour down south, "the first time a colored person had been co-starred with white players below the Mason-Dixon line" (Waters, p. 224).

From here" Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" Oh, and here's the song" Ethel Waters sings "Suppertime"


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 12:00 PM

The Harlem Renaissance- A very important survey in the book, "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance," by Aberjhani and West; a preview available on Google.
The subject is too large to outline in one post; it is better to read the excerpts and the many other articles on urban Black society and its strengths.
The Black community in New York City developed their own fashions, events, and shows which were an important part of the New York scene.

The Harlem Easter Parade, as they say was legendary. Enjoyed and commented on by all New Yorkers.
The Seventh Avenue events and "scene" were observed and were the subject of several songs, including "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Don't forget to look at the stories of the "Cotton Club,", the Savoy and the Apollo Theaters which brought talented Black performers to white eyes.

Much material on Google; it would take too long to give their content, but they are there to read for anyone interested in early urban history and the first leanings toward recognition of Black artists and, I believe, the important movements toward equality in the urban communities. Similar events took place in other northern cities.

"High Yellow," by Reginald Marsh, was published in "Life Magazine," which came to many American households at the time. It is typical of the recognition of Black Society by artists. Berlin's "Ritz" was an earlier attempt to picture this segment of urban life. These efforts were an eye-opener in many ways- mock? no, a sense of wonder. (See definition of High Yellow in the Urban Dictionary
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vielles_announces/4035808638/

Henri Cartier-Bresson made notable photographs of the Harlem Easter Parade, which were published internationally.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 06:28 PM

@Stim: How could I have forgotten 'Suppertime'?

@Q: Never knew that about POTR! I personally love the original version- sounds much less clunky IMO than the later one.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 08:57 PM

Check the lyrics:

Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lennox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air

High hats and Arrow collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

If you're blue
And you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where Harlem flits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Spangled Gowns upon the bevy of
High browns from down the levy
All misfits
Puttin' on the Ritz

That's where each and every lulu-belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin' elbows

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend
Their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz

If you're blue
And you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where Harlem flits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Spangled Gowns upon the bevy of
High browns from down the levy
All misfits
Puttin' on that certain Ritz

That's where each and every lulu-belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin' elbows

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend
Their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 09:00 PM

Sorry, that was from me, and it got away before editing. The Fred Astaire version from "Blue Skies" changes Lennox Avenue to Park Avenue and has different verses.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Morwen Edhelwen
Date: 13 Aug 13 - 10:44 PM

Thanks, Stim- as I said, I love that version.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 14 Aug 13 - 05:12 PM

In that context, why is POTR sometimes seen as racist?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 14 Aug 13 - 06:40 PM

People might be uncomfortable with the reference to "High browns from down the levy". It's not one of my favorite Berlin lines, because it harkens to a time when skin color was connected to social standing, and legal rights. That wasn't his intention, though. Consider that POTR was introduced in a 1930 film of the same name, and had the distinction of being the first song ever sung in a film by an interracial chorus. Not really something any sort of racist would be likely to do.

Anyway, he re-wrote the lyric when the song was filmed again 1946.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 14 Aug 13 - 08:43 PM

During the Harlem Renaissance, there was a relationship of social standing and income to the shade of brown.

The lighter the color, the easier it was for a performer to get a job in the Cotton Club and the other venues in Harlem, which were well-attended by white New Yorkers, or to get a job in the City.

This color shade form of "racism" is well-known in Haiti and the Caribbean.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 15 Aug 13 - 12:48 AM

Q and Stim: Thanks for the explanation.

Do you think the "high browns" in the song referred to the women who worked at the Cotton Club? For some reason I always thought the song referred to "slumming", mzybe because of these lines:

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 15 Aug 13 - 09:35 AM

It seems to me that the song is a street scene that characterizes the night life in a very exciting place. At the time, lots of women wore spangled gowns, and, of course, lots of people spent money like they had a lot of it, even when they didn't. It's still like that, at least in some places;-)


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 15 Aug 13 - 03:41 PM

Unfortunately the stuff about shades of skin still operates in many places - for example just today in the Guardian there's a piece about how it works in India "India's unfair bsession with lighter skin".


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 15 Aug 13 - 05:57 PM

@McGrath: Yes, and in other Asian countries too. Last year my parents, brother and I went to Singapore to visit relatives, and I noticed a lot of stores there sell skin-whitening creams and other skin-whitening products. IIRC, it has to do with the days when poverty and hard labour meant you spent most of your time working out in the sun while a rich person could afford to stay inside because they had servants/tenants (if their family owned land).


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Dani
Date: 16 Aug 13 - 10:47 AM

How could I not have KNOWN of "Suppertime"?! Amazing.

http://youtu.be/Y5Zvjjbc-Hk

Dani


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Morwen Edhelwen1
Date: 17 Aug 13 - 01:07 AM

i think the idea that Berlin mocked Black people comes from the fact that he used to write blackface minstrel tunes-- pretty common back then, but unacceptable now.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 17 Aug 13 - 06:48 PM

Also that comment about "Russian birth and ancestry."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 18 Aug 13 - 04:20 AM

I think the quip is intended to say that Berlin was adept at writing music in the "Black" idiom—or at least as that idiom was perceived at the time. People thought his music had the ring of authenticity. However, this sense of authenticity could be *separated* from the individual (Berlin). He was not perceived to *embody* Blackness. It was one of the "tricks up his sleeve." (in his closet ~ up his sleeve).

There is a racist logic to why the person in the closet was a boy rather than a grown adult. I don't know whether you want to explore that 'logic', but I believe at least, intuitively, that I understand why people did that. That is, why at the time racists —who weren't all about Racism, but who were racist nonetheless— used images of Black kids.

What I am trying to say is that I think the fact that the person in the closet was a boy is merely incidental (i.e. incidental to the language of racism people were using). The main point was to note Berlin's skills of (as it was perceived) imitation. And to say it in such a way as made clear that "Black" stuff was indeed both distinct in its characteristics AND *district from* the (perceived) essential make-up of Jews and/or Whites. It's a comment that rejects the idea that anybody can learn anything and that culture is independent of race. In later eras, it would be looked at as a good thing if a White/Jewish performer had "grown up with" African-American culture because that would provide an elegant way to account for the authenticity of their music. This quote, however, reveals that while people appreciated the "Black" characteristic in the music, they did not want to view the performer as partly Black himself.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 18 Aug 13 - 07:06 AM

Gibb, could the "logic" have had something to do with the belief that Black people are childlike and incapable of looking after themselves, which, as you know, was a common justification for slavery. I was thinking it might have a religious element to it as well because Berlin was a Belarusian (or Russian) immigrant from a religious Jewish family. The "fact" that the boy in the closet is, well, a boy might (if the rumour reflects religious prejudice) might be intended to portray Berlin as a child exploiter, like the old fence Fagin in Oliver Twist.

That's just my opinion though.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 18 Aug 13 - 04:38 PM

As a point of information,I've been looking through the complete book of Irving Berlin lyrics, and I cannot find one single lyric that could be characterized in any way as a "blackface minstrel song"--"Alexander's Ragtime Band" doesn't have any of ethnic caricatures that inhabited the "coon songs"(and many of them, such as "All Coons Look a Like to Me", were written by black composers and lyricists), and in one song that uses a form of the "c" word, he uses it as a synonym for ragtime music...given that lyrics of the time were full of this sort of thing, Berlin was actually an exemplary writer...


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 18 Aug 13 - 07:11 PM

Morwen,

In the U.S., "pickaninny" does not (/did not) just convey the meaning of "Black child." The "pickaninny" represented a specific type of symbol / trope / meme / whatever in racial imagery—a symbol employed in various yet often specific ways.

For example, one might want to evoke certain racialist ideas of Blackness without evoking others. I don't really want to get into that world of thinking and its demented "logic." It suffices to say that I think people who used the quip about Berlin were adeptly (if that can be said) using the racial language to convey what they wanted —the idea of an essential Black character/ way of being/ musicality/ etc— without any extra unwanted connotations and within prescribed ideas of what one could say so as to not be perceived as "a racist" per se (while of course still subscribing to ideas about race).

My last sentence was a long one so in brief: My opinion is that while "pickaninny" (or "little colored boy") is rich with connotations, I doubt that in the context of the quip there was any intended meaning re: Berlin beyond the one "Berlin is a White man amazingly adept at capturing Black musical style."

I think your various interpretations are well thought out, Morwen, and interesting. Could be; they don't ring especially true to *me* though.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 01:10 AM

@Gibb: So in a way it's sort of a backhanded compliment?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Gibb Sahib
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 03:41 AM

Morwen-

In New York, all compliments are backhand!

It's one of the reasons a lot of us from that part of the world have a tough time tolerating (not really) Canadians, people from Seattle, etc. (They are stereotypically kind and direct.) And though they seem to appreciate _Seinfeld_, I always wondered if they were "getting" it the same way as me!

Now: the challenge is figuring out exactly where the insult (the "backhand" part) lies, along with whether or not the person giving it intends to cause hurt or to show affection!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 04:45 AM

@Gibb:

In New York, all compliments are backhanded!

Mentally noted down as something to remember for the steampunk sci-fi novel I am 'writing' which is set in Five Points! :) :D


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 06:25 AM

Anyway, back to the topic: maybe the symbol behind the image of the pickaninny may be related to this:
http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/picaninny/

@Stim (few posts back): "Alexander's Ragtime Band" would probably have been considered a "coon song" in 1911 though, just because of the name and dialect lyrics.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 11:14 AM

"Alexander's Ragtime Band:"

American speech of the period 1900-1920 was full of usages that to a foreigner seem to be dialect. Ragtime speech was popular among all who did the dances of the day and talked the latest slang.

Moreover, the "little woman" was often referred to by almost anything that was "cute" or belittling. Women did not have complete suffrage until passage if the 19th Amendment.

"Honey" remained common through WW2. Often the woman called the man "honey." It was not dialectic in American speech. In many greasy spoons the waitress referred to a male customer as "honey." (The equivalent in London was "love," in cockney speech.)

Your reference to it as a "coon" song brought me to a full stop!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 11:51 AM

Waitresses still call their customers "Hon" around her,Q(Central and Western Maryland up into Pennsylvania.

To expand on Q's point, it is important to understand that Berlin, as well as Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, and all the other Jazz age lyricists tried to capture the speech of ordinary people in their lyrics. This was a very different thing from 19th century lyricists who tended to write in a poetic language that was formal, heavily Latinate, and often turned on word and grammatical usage that was rarely used in spoken English.

As Gibb Sahib pointed out, congenial insults, backhanded compliments, ironic comments and smart remarks are pretty much a staple of American conversation, and not just on the sidewalks of New York.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 12:34 PM

Ya said it, Stim.

Nothing to do with book English.
Talk on the street and over the back fence, if written the way it sounds, ends up the way these lyricists set it down.

Austrailian also would be peculiar if attempt was made to write it as heard.

G'die, Bob Bolton! Haven't seen you in mudcat recently)


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 02:14 PM

As to humor, years ago, I worked in onboard services on a one of the former New York Central lines. There was a brakeman everybody called "The Irishman" and one day, one of deadheads asked the conductor, "Half the crew on this line are Irish. How come he gets called "The Irishman"?" The answer: "Because he's Polish."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: KB in Iowa
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 02:31 PM

ME1, reading through this your question about why it would be a "little colored boy" rather than an adult got me thinking. I had previously come across a song called "The Old Music Master" with a similar theme.
Turns out it was written by Hoagy Carmichael and recorded by Paul Whiteman who had a minor hit with it in 1943.

Here are the opening lyrics:

One night long ago by the light of the moon
An old music master sat composing a tune
His spirit was soaring and his heart full of joy
When right out of nowhere stepped
A little colored boy

You gotta jump it, music master
You gotta play that rhythm faster
You're never gonna get it played
On the Happy Cat Hit Parade


These are the lyrics as found on the internet but the recording I have says "On the Lucky Strike Hit Parade"

Now I wonder if this was inspired by the story about Irving Berlin, or perhaps both spring from an idea common at the time.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 02:32 PM

Berlin was accused by the Schuberts (the theater moguls) of hiring only Jews for his shows. He pointed out that the majority were Italians.

The various immigrants from Europe tended to settle and associate with those from their own country. There were Irish, Jewish, Italian, Polish, German, Chinese and other communities within the city, each with its own stores, clubs, etc.
Some of these still survive, if diluted.

Demographics change. Large sections of East, and west, Harlem, are mostly Hispanic now.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 07:16 PM

@Q: Not just in America but in Australia too.

Re ''Alexander'' as a coon song:

http://www.benandbrad.com/alexander.html


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 19 Aug 13 - 10:51 PM

@KB: Very interesting about the song!


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Azizi
Date: 20 Aug 13 - 11:33 AM

Thanks to MorwenEdhelwen1 for providing a link to the article entitled by "Alexander's Ragtime Band at One Hundred" by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner.

As a result of reading that article, I published this post on my cultural blog:

http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2013/08/black-race-markers-in-irving-berlins.html "Black (Race) Markers In Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band".

I also added the following comment to that post:
"As a matter of information, for five years I was a very active member of Mudcat folk music forum. However, for some time I've very rarely posted there for various reasons, most of which have to do with the scarcity of commenters who are People of Color, and my concerns about comments on that forum about race & racism.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that I have learned a great deal from some Mudcat commenters. And I also acknowledge that I sometimes get ideas about posts on my blog from scanning that forum. One such idea is this post aboout Black markers in Irving Berlin's song "Alexander's Ragtime Band".

Also, for what it's worth, with regard to the subject of that particular Mudcat thread which is about the meaning of "Pickaninny in closet" as it was used in reference to Irving Berlin, I'm largely in agreement with the comments made by Gibb Sahib Date: 18 Aug 13 - 07:11 PM."

-Azizi Powell


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 20 Aug 13 - 06:59 PM

@Azizi: Hi.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MhedGM
Date: 21 Aug 13 - 02:30 PM

I had a 78 record [you can work out from that how long ago! back in the 1940s!] of Hoagy Carmichael himself singing The Old Music Master, flip side of Stardust. I remember that he distinctly sang "a little curly boy", rather than "colored".

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 22 Aug 13 - 12:01 AM

@Mhed: Probably a bowdlerisation?


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 22 Aug 13 - 10:22 AM

Could be [that was me by the way, with cookie down & typing finger going a bit funny]. Metro lyrics certainly gives 'colored'. But it was Carmichael himself singing. All these years I have seen an angelic child with fair curly hair, a bit like Sir John Millais's 'Bubbles' [url below] - the image that 'curly' brought to my mind, as it was the emblem of Pears Soap, whose Child's Encyclopædia I had a copy of to look things up in, & of course Millais' curly-headed painting formed the frontispiece. I shall have to rethink my mental image, clearly.

~M~

http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/displaypicture.aspx?id=299


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 01:26 AM

@MtheGM: I actually wonder what the sheet music for the song says- whether it's 'colored' or 'curly'.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 01:38 AM

Not sure about that, Morwen; but, as I say above, the "Metro" online lyrics site certainly gives 'colored'. So does "SONGLYRICS - know the words". Also www.johnnymercer.com. (Only the music was Carmichael's, of course: the brilliant lyrics were by the distinguished Johnny Mercer.)

It is of course possible that I misheard [tho Carmichael's diction, tho idiosyncratic in delivery, was always well articulated]. I don't think, tho, that my memory is at fault, tho it was 65 or so years ago!.

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 01:58 AM

Drifting a little ~~ One of the sites I found points out that the little boy tells the music master that "about 1935, You'll begin to hear swing, boogie-woogie and jive", tho the song was actually published in 1933. So Mercer obviously fudged it a bit for the sake of the '35 - jive' rhyme.

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 02:21 AM

Another somewhat forced rhyme worth drawing to attention is, "You'd better tell your friend Beethoven And Mr Reginald De Koven That they better do the same as you Or they're going to be corny too"" ~~

"Henry Louis Reginald De Koven (April 3, 1859 – January 16, 1920) was an American music critic and prolific composer, particularly of comic operas." wiki

Very famous in his time [see wiki entry], but I wonder whether still a name to conjure with as late as the 30s. Made a good rhyme, though.

The post originally mentioning this song, 19 Aug 0231 pm, mentions a variant in lyrics ('Happy-cat Hit Parade/Lucky Strike Hit Parade') between some online and recorded versions. So maybe my 'curly/colored' confusion is another example. @KB in Iowa, whose is the recording that you mention in which you find this 'Hit Parade' variant?

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 06:56 PM

refresh. I'm wondering that too.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: dick greenhaus
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 07:13 PM

FWIW, I remember that, back in 1953, I was playing some banjo in a state forest camp in NC. A passerby stopped, and then said, admiringly," You pick that like a nigger,' I considered it a compliment then, and still do.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: KB in Iowa
Date: 23 Aug 13 - 09:32 PM

I found "The Old Music Master" on the Internet Archive among a collection of Paul Whiteman music.

I later found the same version on Youtube where the description says it is Johnny Mercer and Jack Teagarden (which sounds right to me) and that is was recorded on June 12, 1942. One of the comments below says it is the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Here I found confirmation that the above info is probably accurate.

I know the phrasing is no longer considered appropriate and I probably wouldn't play it if my son's girlfriend or her dad were around but for myself, I like it. Of course I am partial to Jack Teagarden.

I just found a version by Hoagy Carmichael where it sounds to me like he says 'colered boy' but that doesn't mean he didn't record a version with 'curly boy' instead.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 24 Aug 13 - 01:28 AM

Many thanks KB. That is probably the recording I remember. I am more & more coming to think that I must have misheard 'colored', which he does slur a bit; and have carried a false recollection all these many years; so this hare I have started is a non-runner. Sorry about that!

The "Lucky Strike" instead of "Happy-Cat" presumably some sponsorship deal with the cig co; or perhaps the sponsors of the radio hit-parade referred to had changed between 1933 & 1942 [who/what was "Happy-Cat"? Was it the name of some manufacturing firm?], so JM emended his lyric accordingly.

Mercer didn't seem to sing 'a "solid" music master', the original lyric [see Metro online version] tho I couldn't quite make out what he did sing; something like "soothing"? but that doesn't make all that sense? (On seconds thoughts, perhaps 'sure-thing'?). And he sings "What about my friend Beethoven" rather than "You'd better tell your friend..."

But a great song nonetheless; and we are used to variants around these parts, aren't we just!

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,MorwenEdhelwen1
Date: 24 Aug 13 - 07:00 PM

@KB: Thanks for the information.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 24 Aug 13 - 08:10 PM

An early Irving Berlin song was "The Pullman Porters On Parade," published under a pseudonym. Lyrics in the thread "Pullman Porter Man."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 25 Aug 13 - 10:15 AM

According to Indiana University, who maintain the Hoagy Carmichael archive, OMM was copyrighted in 1942. According to Joel Whitburn's "Pop Memories 1890-1954", the Paul Whiteman version with Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer was on the Billboard Charts for 1 week, November 27,1943. The HC version with the "Happy Cat Hit Parade" line seems to have been recorded for an album in the late 1950's. Can't find any reference to it other than the song.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 25 Aug 13 - 10:47 AM

But, Stim, I repeat that I had it on a 78, not an album, as flip side to Stardust in the mid-1940s; on which I certainly remember Happy Cat. The ref I give above to its being written in 1933 seems to have been a mistake for 1943, the date given in wiki's Hoagy Carmichael entry. Was the 1950's album track you cite above perhaps a remastering of the mid-40s 78? Wonder when Lucky Strike replaced Happy Cat, which sounds like a sort of proprietary cat food. Did any such firm, does anyone know, ever sponsor a hit parade?

~M~


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: GUEST,Stim
Date: 25 Aug 13 - 06:39 PM

I was referring to the link above, recorded in the 1956 sessions that were released as "Hoagy sings Carmichael".

Brunswick 03752, released in the UK, with had OMM as the A side and Hong Kong Blues as the B side. HK Blues is here: The Sound of 78's podcast Sadly, still can't find the old OMM.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: KB in Iowa
Date: 26 Aug 13 - 11:51 AM

I can't find any info about a US release of OMM by Hoagy. All I can find is the Brunswick recording Stim mentions. That record had "Mr. Music Master" on one side and "Hong Kong Blues" on the other.

Here is a page with an image of that record. Recording date listed is 1942.

In the Podcast page Stim linked it has the following abut "Hong Kong Blues":
Hoagy Carmichael (piano & vocal) with Artie Bernstein (bass) & Spike Jones (drums):
Hong Kong Blues (Carmichael)
Brunswick 03752 recorded Los Angeles, 11 May 1942


Hoagy definitely sings Happy Cat Hit Parade. I Googled that and the only hits I got were references to OMM and pages about cats.

Different story for Lucky Strike Hit Parade. It was actually called Your Hit Parade but was sponsored by Lucky Strike. It ran on the radio from 1935 to 1955.

I wonder now which way it was originally written, my guess is Happy Cat.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Pickaninny in closet
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 26 Aug 13 - 01:53 PM

That is the record I had ~~ I had misremembered 'Stardust', but on recollection the other side was Hong Kong Blues. I suppose that Johnny Mercer invented 'Happy Cat' as a convincing enough sounding brand name which might have been used as sponsor to a hit-parade; perhaps avoided the name of the actual Hit Parade current at the time for reasons of © or some such?

~M~


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