Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Black (Race) Markers In Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents comments about Black* (race) markers in Irving Berlin's 1911 composition "Alexander's Ragtime Band". In the context of this post, by "Black (race) markers" or "code for Black people" I mean songs by White lyricists or other non-Black lyricists which by their title, lyrics, and/or grammar signal that the songs are about Black Americans. Those Black (race) markers include Black vernacular, references to aspects of Black life & culture, use of what is (or what was) considered to be Black grammar, and/or the use of what are (or were) considered to be "Black" names (personal names which are/were associated with Black people).

In and of itself, the use of a particular genre of music that is (or was) considered to be a genre of "Black music" -in this case Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" - is another way in which that composer, and others, used/use Black (race) code or markers for their [and in their] compositions.

*"Black" here refers to African Americans.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, sociological, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

(Irving Berlin)

Come on and hear, come on and hear,
It's the best band in the land.
They can play a bugle call like you never heard before,
So natural that you wanna go to war,
That's just the bestest band what am,
Honey lamb.
Come on along, come on along,
Let me take you by the hand
Up to the man, up to the man
Who's the leader of the band.
And if you care to hear the "Swanee River"
Played in ragtime,
Come on and hear, come on and hear,
Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Verse Two:
Oh ma honey, oh ma honey,
There's a fiddle with notes that screeches
Like a chicken, like a chicken,
And the clarinet is a colored pet;
Come and listen, come and listen
To a classical band what's peaches
Come now, somehow,
Better hurry along!


From "Alexander's Ragtime Band" at One Hundred by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner
"March 18, 2011 will be the one hundredth anniversary of Irving Berlin's hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band." The song's immediate and enduring popularity are now legendary...

Piano rags and the songs called ragtime feature a rhythmic pattern of an accented weak beat, along with a regular short-long-short pattern of notes. Both had their roots in the cakewalk popular in the late nineteenth century. Generally, in the early twentieth century the term "ragtime" covered a wide range of "songs and pieces for instrumental ensembles, particularly marching or concert bands."

One simple definition of "ragtime" was music that "has to do with the Negro."10 Music having "to do with the Negro" is another aspect of how "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was perceived by contemporaries. One genre of popular song in the early twentieth century was the "coon song," a term fortunately now lost.11 Songs dealing with various ethnicities – in particular Irish, Asians, Jews, Negroes, all usually in a derogatory fashion – were common currency in that era. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" has been considered by many to be a coon song, and arguments have been made that 1911 audiences perceived it as such.

"Alexander, Don't You Love Your Baby No More?"

Lawrence Bergreen gives a short history of the name "Alexander" as an ethnic marker (as opposed to the villainous connection made by Woollcott). "The idea behind the song derived from a long line of 'Alexander' songs instigated by Harry Von Tilzer in 1902, and he, in turn, had borrowed the Alexander character from a popular turn-of-the-century minstrel act, Montgomery and Stone. The two white entertainers, who performed in blackface, were sure to get a laugh whenever they started calling each other 'Alexander,' a name their audiences considered too grand for a black man."12
…By Bergreen's definition, audiences in 1911 automatically understood that "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was a coon song by simple virtue of the name Alexander in the title. Berlin had already used that name as a racial marker, in keeping with that cultural norm, when he wrote "Alexander and His Clarinet" in May, 1910, a song clearly about a black protagonist. As Bergreen explains it, "When Berlin and Snyder sat down to write a raunchy 'coon' number entitled 'Alexander and His Clarinet,' they were describing, with the help of numerous double entendres, yet another highly sexed 'coon”"...
I consider that entire article to be a very interesting read. Were it not for the limitations imposed by this blog format & the fair market guidelines (which I hope that I've not exceeded), I would have quoted more of that article. Note, for example, that Irving Berlin & other composers - presumably with Berlin's permission, capitolized on the tremendous popularity of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and composed a number of other "Alexander" songs. Two examples of those songs are "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band to France" and "Alexander’s Band Is Back In Dixieland".
"The opening lines establish the African-American context:
Oh ma honey . . . ain't you goin' to the leaderman, the ragged meter man
If you care to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime

The new style included new ways of playing traditional instruments as well:
There's a fiddle with notes that screeches

Like a chicken

And the clarinet is a colored pet"

1. The use of the genre name "Ragtime" [Read comments in the Ben & Brad article whose link is above.]

2. The purposeful use of the name "Alexander"
From the Ben & Brad article quoted above "The two white entertainers, who performed in blackface, were sure to get a laugh whenever they started calling each other 'Alexander,' a name their audiences considered too grand for a black man."

Prior to reading that article by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner, I wasn't aware that the name "Alexander" was once considered to be a Black marker. That quote connects the name "Alexander" to the "Zip Coon" trope. The minstrel characteer "Zip Coon" is a Black dandy who was considered laughable because he unsuccessfully tried to imitate "his betters" (meaning White middle class & upper class men) by putting on citified airs. Click for a pancocojams post about Zip Coon.

3. The use of the colloquial "wanna" instead of "want to" in the line "So natural that you wanna go to war"

4 & 5. The use of African American Vernacular English grammar & African American Vernacular English phrasing in the line "That's just the bestest band what am, Honey lamb.

6. The use of the phrase "ma [my] honey

7. The repetition of "ma honey" and other phrases...
It's not just the use of certain phrases, but also the repetition of those phrases in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" which mark those phrases as referring to and being spoken by Black people. The repeated words in that song are "Oh ma honey, oh ma honey", "Come on and hear, come on and hear", "Come on along", "come on along", "Up to the man, up to the man", "Like a chicken, like a chicken" and "Come and listen, come and listen".

Besides being a rhythmic device, it seems to me that the use of repeateed phrases served to reinforce the belittling perceptions that many White folks of that time had about Black people - that they (we) were so simple minded that we needed to repeat what we said.

8. The reference to the song "Swanee River"
This song envokes Southern culture, and Southern culture envokes Black folks. The addition that "Swanee River" was "Played in ragtime", reinforces that Black marker.

9. Using "country" terms and comparisons: "There's a fiddle with notes that screeches Like a chicken, like a chicken,

10. Referring to "the clarinet" as a "colored pet" [Note that "Colored people" was a referent for Black Americans. A "colored pet" can be an oblique way of saying a favorite musical instrument of Colored people.]

11. The use of African American Vernacular English grammar in the line "To a classical band what's peaches". [meaning "that preaches"; that has as much intensity as a Black sermon.]

12. The use of the internal rhyme "Come now, somehow"

13. The use of the colloquial phrase "Better hurry along!"
The reference to the bugle call being "so natural" may also be a Black marker in that some White folks considered/consider Black artistic expertise to be the result of natural talent alone and not talent plus skill that comes from wood shedding (diligent practicing).

FEATURED VIDEO: Alice Faye sings Alexander's Ragtime Band

joehb123, Uploaded on Jan 13, 2012
Check out the shoes she is wearing !!!!!!

Movie by Fox is Alexander's Ragtime Band
and music is by Irving Berlin.

RELATED LINKS "Alexander's Back From Dixie"
This link leads to a drawing of Black drum major marching in front of a large Black brass band which is parading down an American street.

** "Folklore: Pickaninny in closet"
Hat tip to MorwenEdhelwen1 for providing a link in one of her comments in that discussion thread to the above mentioned article by Benjamin Sears & Bradford Conner about Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band".

Thanks to the composer of this featured song. Thanks also to those who are quoted in this post, thanks to those performers who appeared in the video and thanks to the publisher of the featured video.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. 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.

  2. Thank you. Nice piece, I am writing about another Berlin song and pulled this up. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome. And thanks for your comment.

      I appreciate it.

  3. Yes, I may use your definition of Alexander for my class, if so I will credit you!

    1. Noelle Lorraine Williams, you have my permission to quote excerpts of post and credit me at this site address.

      Thanks again!

  4. Thank you! Can't wait to explore your blog more later thus week. Peace.

    1. Noelle Lorraine Williams, thanks for your comment.

      I hope that you find other articles on pancocojams that interest you.