Was Somebody

Enjoying, not forgiving, the ragtime era's biggest black star

Comedian Bert Williams was the biggest African American performer of the ragtime era. He sold hundreds of thousands of records. Yet racism limited his surviving film appearances to one reel, and guilt over racism has kept his music out of print. Only now, more than a century after he began recording, can the greatest of the black men in blackface be heard in full.

It's tough to know how to respond. These are often stories of razor-toting darkies, sung in dialect; I scare myself involuntarily warbling "The Phrenologist Coon." But that song's woozy, trombone-like charms are pure Bert Williams: less sung than acted out in a perfectly musical concoction of slurs, groans, and yes, beauty. As the momentum builds, swings, rocks, the power is all Williams. To set up this: "If his head looks like a razor you can bet that coon will cut/If his head looks like a billy goat, beware that coon will buck!"

These are comedy records that come to us framed as tragedies. We're told of Williams's desire to go "legitimate," instructed to find solace in his accomplishments of bringing the black musical to Broadway and headlining the Ziegfeld Follies. That said, can Bert Williams be less forgiven and more enjoyed? After all, squandered gifts and unsustainable aspirations practically define pop. "Legitimate" isn't a 21st-century aesthetic standard. "Illegitimate" is turning out to be, especially as, with hip-hop especially, blackface minstrelsy replaces blues as modern pop's fundament. Mos Def himself blacks up in the artwork of his new album.

The power was all him.
photo: The Theatre Magazine/Archeophone Records
The power was all him.

So listen and decide for yourselves. The tiny Archeophone label heroically began with Bert Williams: His Final Releases, 1919–1922 in 2001, put out The Middle Years, 1910–1918 in 2002, and only this year managed to secure and digitize the rarest early releases. Introduced separately by an announcer (" 'The Phrenologist Coon,' sung by Mr. Bert Williams of Williams and Walker"), these first records date from when singing into a machine was stepping through the looking glass. Sans blackface for once, Williams proved a natural. A shy man who may have needed the burnt cork to cut loose, he could be outrageous in this alien setting too.

I like The Early Years best. Williams had a scene then, fed material by other black show professionals and allied with George Walker, who died in 1911. Satirizing class, religion, and all pretense, swerving all over in grand ragtime fashion, Williams and Walker were masters, not slaves, to the chaos their craft generated. Williams still sounds like he's getting away with something, ending "She's Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day" with loaded slang and an open laugh about the palefaces. The authority of this big man is immense: A simple number like "Let It Alone" gets across on controlled artifice alone.

In The Middle Years, you hear Williams, post-Walker, leaving the black theater world for crossover celebrity. At first, circa "Play That Barbershop Chord," he's still the same bravura force. But with ragtime fading as fast as his voice, his material stiffened, though topically he went new places, commenting cynically on World War I as it approached America. By The Last Years, the jazz age brought pep and simulated "blues" back into his recordings, and Prohibition gave him a great new subject. He died at 47 in 1922, still mocking preachers like his character Elder Eatmore and wishing someone would offer him a drama.

Williams's great hit was called "Nobody"; however acute, he was limited to playing cowards and drunks, to writing himself off as his ante into the game. But then, from the whoops and animalisms of "My Little Zulu Babe" to the Edgar Allan Poe spoof "Never Mo' " and the operetta of "I Want to Know Where Tosti Went" (you thought Biz Markie couldn't sing?), his brilliance was in making vulgarity and sophistication impossible to distinguish. Is that as great a pop ideal as sincerity, self-expression, soul? Hard to say. But it's at least as sturdy a tradition, we now realize, and Bert Williams was the godfather.

 
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