For a long while now I have been taken by the rhythm of the world in the nineteen-twenties. It’s composers, it’s politics, its artists; the strife and the glee of a young century contributed to its movement and its momentum. Some of the most spirited, gutsy, and tender American songs were born as a result of the clash between chaste Victorian ideals and the irresistible pulse of all that jazz represented: unbuttoned, bob-headed freedom. The extraordinary composers and musicians of this renaissance were musical pioneers, as were the women who sang their songs.
Most people will recognize the chorus of “I’ll See You Again”, written by Sir Noel Coward in 1929 for Bitter Sweet (the only British book musical import of the 1920’s), but fewer are familiar with its beautiful, poetic introductory verse, which is twice as long as the chorus! Given that the song in its entirety is only about three minutes long, it is a testament to the power of Coward’s sentiment that the tune of a one-minute chorus still beats in the hearts of so many song lovers.
Cole Porter, with a sophisticated intellect, wrote songs which were romantic and clever, as well as progressive and controversial. Frustrated with the existing artistic and social limitations (racism and prohibition, in particular) in the United States, he wrote songs like “Lost Liberty Blues”, the scathing “A Toast to Volstead” and “The Heaven of Harlem (has moved to Gay Paree)” which dealt with the lamentable lack of artistic exposure afforded to Black American musicians. Cole Porter moved to Europe, where the artistic world was much less oppressive, and much less racist. Many Black American musicians also found that Europe, Paris in particular, was a haven for them. They were La Rage, in fact. None more so than Josephine Baker, for whom the song “J’ai Deux Amours” was especially poignant, having escaped her troubled past rooted in St. Louis to find stardom and adoration in Paris.
Cole Porter had the great good taste to work with some of the great Black musicians he met in Paris; among them, “Hutch” Hutchinson, Mabel Mercer, and Elisabeth Welch, who sang his haunting and profoundly sad (in my opinion) song, “Love for Sale” on Broadway in 1931. She replaced Kathryn Crawford, the original white performer, after New York audiences refused to accept the notion of a white woman singing the part of a prostitute. The scene in which the song was featured was even relocated to Harlem.
After Cole Porter met Mabel Mercer at the cabaret Le Grand Duc in Paris, they enjoyed a mutually beneficial artistic relationship. Mercer provided exquisite vocal interpretations of the songs Porter gave her, and later recorded many of them. “Looking At You” is one of my favorites, and I’ve recorded it here the way Mabel Mercer did: The song is sung twice – the first time rubato, the second in a slight up-tempo.
My own grandmother has an extensive history as a dancer in Vaudeville and on Broadway in the 1920’s and 30’s. She began her career at age fifteen as a dancer in the corps de ballet of George White’s Scandals of 1926. She was the youngest performer in the show. George White called her “Baby”, and made sure she found employment in between editions of Scandals. In the summer of 1926, he found employment for her dancing in a tiny revue called Americana. Featured in the same show was a small dark-haired unknown singer named Helen Morgan. She had one number: “Nobody Wants Me”. One night in the audience of Americana, Jerome Kern -who was at the time adapted Edna Ferber’s novel Showboat into a musical – and listened to Helen Morgan sing, and he knew he had found his “Julie”, for what was to the be the original production of Showboat in 1927. Helen Morgan became one of the most important singers of the 1920’s. Beloved in cabaret circles, she is the original “Torch Singer”, and possessed a legendary power in performance. Her tiny voice quieted the raucous speakeasies where she gained renown – both before and after the success of Showboat. She made many recordings, and I have spent many hours curled up next to my record player bathing in the sound of that small, plaintive, heartbreaking soprano singing Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Why Was I Born”.
I found the sheet music for “Nobody Wants Me” in the archives of the New York City Public Library. Luckily, it turned out to be a good song – An important song, too, for me. There is a line in the song: “never had a yaller boy to kiss me...” What was that word? Yaller? I had no idea what it meant. Of course, I discovered that “yaller” (yellow) was an antiquated term used to describe a light-skinned black person. That word led to the beginning of my education about this aspect of history: The role of color, and shades of color, in theater and in everyday life in the United States in the 1920’s. Helen Morgan was singing about being a lonely fair-skinned black woman. The artistry of Helen Morgan cannot be questioned, but the truth is that a true visibly mixed-race woman would not have been allowed to play the part – a featured role onstage with white performers. Helen Morgan was a dark-haired white woman, and so she was “acceptable” in the role.
What is the impact of the artistic loss suffered by this country because of its racist rejection of people of color as legitimate mainstream artists? We won’t ever really know.
Thankfully, the film and recording work of many Black musicians of the 20’s and 30’s exist today. How lucky we are to know the work of Paul Robeson, Alberta Hunter, Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Elisabeth Welch, Louis Armstrong, and Mabel Mercer, to name just a few. But, how saddening it is to think about how much talent went by unfostered and unrecorded.
Ruth Etting was one of the greatest and most popular artists of the 1920’s and 30’s. “More Than You Know” was a hit for Ruth before Judy Garland made her own wonderful recording. A beautiful blond, Ruth was managed by her husband-a Chicago gangster named Moe “The Gimp” Snyder.
Moe was truly a thug, and he strong-armed Ruth into marriage and then producers into giving her a shot on Broadway. Her first big break came in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. She brought down the house with “Shaking the Blues Away”. Here is an instance where I felt that I couldn’t sing certain words from the original lyric. Irving Berlin wrote about “darkies” and “voodoos”, and while I adore the song and its spirit and rhythm, the idea of singing those words didn’t feel right. So, I substitute the words “everybody” and “people”. The word “yaller” bears a first-person significance in the song “Nobody Wants Me”, which is a different case, and that word should not be changed, in my opinion.
1928 brought Whoopee, with Eddie Cantor, for Ruth. Her only number “Love Me or Leave Me”, a last-minute insert to be sung “in one” during a scene change, again brought down the house.
Another performer who rose to fame through Florenz Ziegfeld’s Broadway productions was Fanny Brice. She absolutely defied the classic image of what a “Ziegfeld Girl” should be: She was unique in all ways. She was not conventionally beautiful, but she had incredible chutzpah and star quality. She also possessed a comedic and dramatic flair that enabled her to convincingly carry off two dramatically different songs in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921: The comedic Lower-East-Side girl’s “Second Hand Rose”, and the abused, weary, dependent woman’s “My Man.”
Marilyn Miller was the first huge Broadway star of the 1920’s. She was a beautiful singer/dancer/actress, and her enormous fame began with her own enormous Ziegfeld-produced star vehicle, Sally, in 1920. Sally was a revue, as all musicals were before the groundbreaking Showboat, so all sorts of silly numbers were featured. However, there is one song from Sally which is so lyrically simple, so pure of thought, so musically beautiful, and so comforting, it’s like a soft, shining light that can penetrate any darkness – if you look in its direction: “Look For the Silver Lining.”
I am proud to be a Cabaret singer. Through what other artistic venue could I possibly find the satisfaction of first learning the history behind such a rich musical world, and then try my own hand at invoking that knowledge through my own vocal instrument – however green it may be? For me, the beauty of cabaret is that it affords the listener an hour or so to get lost in another place; to enter the skin of a person or of a time long passed. It’s the intimacy of a cabaret which allows that, I think. It’s not too unlike being curled up next to a record player for its playing time – except that you get to dress up.