Wednesday, December 6, 2017

NRR Project 41: 'Swanee,' Jolson, and the problem of blackface

‘Swanee’
Composer: George Gershwin
Lyricist: Irving Caesar
Performed by Al Jolson
Recorded: January 8, 1920
2:34

For decades, male entertainers in America had two things – a tuxedo and an Al Jolson impression. Anyone could get a laugh of recognition simply by going down on one knee and calling out “Mammy!” The World’s Greatest Entertainer was, for much of his career, precisely that.

Jolson was a performing marvel. At the time, vaudevillians and variety artists hid their hunger for audience approval under a veneer of stylish nonchalance. Compared to them, Jolson was a dynamo, a sweaty, energetic pulse of naked need. He had big, rubbery facial features and a resonant voice, both essential in being heard and seen in the farthest reaches of the cavernous, unamplified theaters of the day. He was one of the first to treat singing a song like he was acting out a three-minute playlet, to sing TO the audience, not just at it. His energy was an embrace that theatergoers felt obliged to return.

Jolson, the son of a rabbi, was born in Lithuania and migrated to America with his family at a young age. Motherless at age 14, he and his brother Harry began busking, singing in the streets for money. After 15 years on the road, Jolson finally opened a New York show as the lead in La Belle Paree in 1911. For then until his stage retirement in 1926, he was the number one theatrical attraction in the country.

He also worked in blackface. This was a holdover from the tradition of the American minstrel show, which had seen its heyday from the 1840s through the end of the 19th century. Although rapidly becoming an anachronism, the idea of a white man acting out the caricature of a black man was still strong in, and acceptable to, the general audience. Jolson excelled at “selling” songs, especially in wringing out all the pathos from sentimental ballads, especially those by Stephen Foster, which were written expressly for minstrelsy (“My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home”). Part of the license for acting out vulnerability and feeling onstage was, for many white performers of the era, came from adopting a concept of blackness that was inseparable from identifying it with childlike immaturity and a lack of emotional repression.


It’s painful now to see the incongruity of one ethnic minority mocking another to make itself acceptable to the mainstream -- A Jew playing a Negro for affluent white, largely Christian viewers. Jolson was not unconscious of the dilemma, and went out of his way throughout his career to befriend and stand up for black entertainers. Still, he made a fortune out of singlehandedly perpetuating a demeaning, stereotypical representation of blackness that otherwise might have died out much sooner.

At the edge of the Jazz Age, pop songs about the ‘dear old South’ were still big. The legacy of Foster and other sentimental balladeers was powerful, and the Victorian era was rife with maudlin nostalgia in vocal music. Odes to times past, the rural homestead, and the balms of motherhood filled the music racks of pianos across the land – particularly poignant in a time when the American population was moving rapidly from farms to cities.

“Swanee” is the archetype of that kind of song. Jolson had a hit two years earlier with the similar “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” and a year later would score again with “My Mammy,” but “Swanee” was his biggest hit, selling two million records and more than a million copies of the sheet music. Perhaps what distinguishes it is its composer – George Gershwin.

The 20-year-old Gershwin wrote it for a 1919 revue, after which it languished until Jolson heard Gershwin play it a party (some say at a bordello). Gershwin had already been working for five years in Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, one of many who would demonstrate and promote new pieces for performers and laymen alike. After the success of “Swanee,” his first and biggest hit, Gershwin would focus on composing for the stage and the concert hall for the rest of his short life.

The song is a perfect vehicle for Jolson’s style. Its lyrics are typically plaintive and yearning, but they are couched in a springy, energetic, propulsive melody utilizing percussive block chords. It is not played as much as it is stamped out on the keys. The opening phrases charge up the scale – “I’ve been away from you a long time/I never thought I’d miss you so”; the next are framed in melodramatic staccato –“Somehow I feel/Your love was real/Near you I long to be.”

For the chorus, the shift from minor to major key brightens the tone, the repetitive “Swanee, how I love ya, how I love ya” like a freight train chugging along. Gershwin makes a narrative out of the piece, again turning to stair-step phrasing – “I’d give the world – to – be/Among the folks – in – (and the payoff, in a falling phrase) D-I-X-I-E . . . “ It’s easy to remember, infectiously singable.

The bridge brings in quotations from earlier songs – the explicit “I love the old folks at home” phrase from Foster, but also in its use of a subtle musical paraphrase of “Listen to the Mockingbird,” an 1855 gem, which can easily be hummed along in harmony with “Swanee, Swanee/ I am coming back to Swanee.” (If remembered at all today, “Mockingbird” is as the opening theme music, in parodic form, for the Three Stooges shorts.)

By song’s end, it’s become a triumphal celebration of return, a glorious anticipation of trouble no more, almost a march. No wonder it was a hit. Despite its racist connotations, you can’t deny it’s a nifty piece of work.


Jolson gradually weaned himself away from blackface, but not before performing in it in the first sound feature film, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, and again and again in special appearances in film and on radio.

At his memorial shrine at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles, a bronze statue of Jolson shows him on one knee, hands spread, just as he posed on stage at the end of belting his crowd-pleasing songs. You can’t tell if he’s wearing blackface or not.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: William Jennings Bryan recreates his 1896 'Cross of Gold' speech.