Edited by Azizi Powell
This is Part I of a two part series on the Jazz classic "Darktown Strutters Ball".
Part I provides information & comments about the meaning of the words in the title "Darktown Strutters Ball". It also provides a sound file & lyrics of that early Jazz classic, and information about the song's composer, Shelton Brooks.
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/ella-fitzgerald-darktown-strutters-ball.html for Part II of this series. Part II showcases a 1936 example of "Darktown Strutters Ball" that was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb band. That post also includes other two brief excerpts of biographies of Shelton Brooks as well as a bonus video of Shelton Brooks singing one of his other compositions.
The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to Shelton Brooks for his musical legacy and thanks to the other performers who are featured in sound files that are showcased in this post. Thanks also to the publisher of this featured soundfile and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
WHAT THE WORDS "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS' BALL REALLY MEAN
In the now classic 1917 song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", "darktown" is a referent for a section of Chicago where Black people lived.
In my opinion, in the context of the Jazz song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", the word "darktown" isn't racist, but a similar word "darkie" is. That said, some use of the word "darktown" is racist.
Read this comment posted by Marjorie Searl (September 12, 2011) in http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/ as a response to a question about "Is the song "Darktown Strutters' Ball" racist:
"It’s interesting and horrifying to google “Darktown” and see how many horribly racist images come up. Currier & Ives did a whole series called the “Darktown” series and it is a challenge for museums to deal with this material, although it is part of the art historical record."... http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/
It seems likely to me that the phrase "Darktown" may have been informally given to that section of Chicago as a statement of fact. And there's nothing wrong with being dark. In contrast the word "darkie" was probably coined by White people as a referent to Black people. "Darkie" has blackface minstrel origins. Unlike the word "darktown" in the song "Darktown Strutters' Ball", the word "darkie" evokes offensive stereotypes of Black people who speak in exaggerated dialects. Contrast that with the lack of dialect in the "Darktown Strutters' Ball" song and the images of Black people in that song who are wearing formal, fashionable clothing and taking a taxi to arrive at the an elite ball.
That said, I believe that nowadays it would be socially inappropriate to refer to a neighborhood or neighborhoods where Black people live as "darktown" or refer to other neighborhoods using color referents. Read additonal comments that I wrote about the word "darktown" in the pancocojams post on Blind Willie McTell - "Georgia Rag http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/blind-willie-mctell-georgia-rag-sound.html
In the 1917 Jazz song "Darktown Strutters' Ball" the word "strutters" is an equivalent term for "dancers". After studying the original lyrics to that song, it seems clear to me that that word doesn't refer to a particular dance called the "Strut" that was done at that ball. Instead, the dancers competed for a prize (or prizes) by "dancing out both of their shoes" doing "the two step", "the classic buck and wing", the wooden clog", "Walkin The Dog", and probably other African American originated social dances. (The 1936 version that Ella Fitzgerald sung included the lyrics "Shim sham wins them all" meaning dancing the "Shim Sham" (the Shimmy) would win the dance competition for that couple.)
That said, it's interesting to read comments on a discussion thread of word reference forum about the meaning of "strutters" in the "Darktown Strutters Ball" song. Here's the first commeent in that discussion and one response:
blue baron, 17th July 2009 [Native language:Dutch]
"'Darktown Strutters' Ball.' is one of the earliest traditional jazz songs to become a standard. The words and music, by Shelton Brooks, were inspired by a ball at the 1915 Pacific-Panama Exposition in San Francisco.
What is the meaning of "strutter" in this title?"
Franzi (Native language:(San Francisco) English) 17th July 2009
"You're probably best off searching for books on jazz history. Google books has, for example, Jazz Dance by Marshall & Jean Stearns, which contains quotes like:
"He was a strutter in the cakewalk tradition and an eccentric dancer who employed legomania, a rhythmic twisting and turning of the legs."
There appear to be many, many jazz groups called "The [something] Strutters".
Here is a reference to the dance (which I suppose probably preceded the use of 'strutter' as a noun for a certain kind of person): "In November 1937, Dancing Times reported a new dance craze: 'Such steps as the Shag, the Flea Hop, the Strut, and the Walk are combined with the new Big Apple.'"
From the Online Etymology Dictionary: "To strut (one's) stuff is black slang, first recorded 1926, from strut as the name of a dance popular from c.1900. "
*This quote appears midway in the article and is excerpted from the response to the question "Why is New York called "The Big Apple". [Note that the Big Apple dance doesn't refer to New York City. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-big-apple-dance-secular-dance-that.html for a panococjams post on the Big Apple dance.]
Another commenter to that discussion,Eamnyc22, gave the definition of "to strut" as "to walk proudly or haughtily." That blogger also wrote that "If I had to guess, the original dance probably looked a lot more like what African-Americans today call "stepping" (the dancers are called "Steppers")"
I disagree with that analogy unless the commenter is referring to the "strolls" (also known as "party walks") that historically Black (African American) fraternity and sorority members do. (Visit this page of my cocojams cultural website to view videos of steppin' and strolls. "The Camel Walk" is a mid to late 20th century African American originated dance form that reminds me of fraternity/sorority strolls and thus may be similar to "The Strut" dance. That movement is called "riding" when it is performed by members of the Black fraternal order The Prince Hall Shriners. Visit this page of my zumalayah blog (a blog that I admit to neglecting) for this post on "rince Hall Shriners Riding (Doing The Camel Walk)" http://zumalayah.blogspot.com/2013/05/prince-hall-shriners-riding-doing-camel.html
But an even closer connection can be made between the 19th century Strut dance and the Cakewalk dance.
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/04/strut-miss-lizzie-information-lyrics.html for a pancocojams post on the song "Strut Miss Lizzie".
THE STORY BEHIND THE "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL" SONG
From http://www.harmonicdissidents.org/issue-3-columns/letters-issue-3/, posted by TheProf, January 11, 2012 [excerpt]
"The “Darktown Ball” was, in fact, a real event, but it did not start out as being for the higher classes. It was originated by the ladies of the evening in the Darktown area of Chicago. They decided to create the ball as their way of showing that, for at least 1 night per year, they were just as good as everyone else. It was by invitation only and, over time, became THE most sought after ticket. Even the Major of Chicago could not attend without an invitation.
The composer was Shelton Brooks, a black man who was celebrating the event and the fact that it had become such an important part of the city’s history..."
The word "ball" is still used to refer to a formal event where dancing is the main activity. Almost always balls include eating a catered meal, drinking alcoholic beverages, and being entertained by some performance act or acts. (Notice the reference to the "Baby Dolls" that is given in the original lyrics to this song. My guess is that the "Baby Dolls" were a group of young women who performed some kind of dance act on stage.)
SHOWCASE VIDEO: "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" The American Quartet 1918 (with lyrics)
Brent Abrahamson, Published on Jul 30, 2013
It's a Southbridge Old Time Radio Nostalgia Song.
"The Darktown Strutters' Ball" American Quartet 1918 (with lyrics)
Southbridge Old Time Radio is from Southbridge, Massachusetts.
“The American Quartet was a four-member vocal group that recorded for various companies in the United States between 1899 and 1925".
Those vocalists were Anglo-American.
"Darktown Strutters' Ball" begins at 1:44 in this sound file.
The words to that song are superimposed on the screen and are found below.
Here's my transcription of the radio host's introductory comments:
"This is Brent Abrahamson your host on Southbridge Old Time Radio.
As we look back at very old songs in our American history, we’re faced with a significant problem –How do we deal with ethnic songs, songs sung in dialect? It’s not a pleasant part of our music history to explore. Yet, it is one which we should not forget. Some recordings from the early 20th century were indeed filled with racial stereotypes. They were even known as “coon songs”. Some belong in the dust bin of history.
Smash hits such as the "Darktown Strutters Ball" may deserve special recognition. First of all the song was written by a Canadian, the Black composer Shelton Brooks. Second, it depicts an African American annual event in Chicago when people got all dressed up and let themselves go, refusing to play the second class citizen that society had assigned them to, at least for one night. It reflects an attitude that signaled determination to break the bonds. Finally, it’s a catchy tune. The American Quartet clearly had fun singing it. And, it’s been recorded, minus the dialect many times since. So with all that said, Here is the American Quartet 1918 with Dark Town Strutters Ball.
Transcription by Azizi Powell. Additions and corrections are welcome.
For the most part I agree with Brent Abrahamson's comments. To be clear, I don't consider the use of the word "darktown" in that song to be racist. However, Black composed songs about Black people can be offensive- Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me" is just one example.
Also, when Brent Abrahamson says that [Darktown Strutters Ball has "been recorded, minus the dialect many times", I think that by "dialect", he means African American vernacular words such as "highbrowns". That isn't what I think of when I hear or read the word "dialect".
THE LYRICS TO "DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL"
Words and Music by SHELTON BROOKS
Published 1917, by Will Rossiter
I've got some good news Honey,
An invitation to the Darktown Ball,
It's a very swell affair,
All the "highbrowns" will be there,
I'll wear my high silk hat, and a frocktail coat,
You wear your Paris gown. and your new silk shawl,
There ain't no douby about it babe,
We'll be the best dressed in the hall.
I'll be down to get you in a Taxi honey,
You better be ready about half past eight,
Now dearie don't be late,
I want to be there when the band starts playing.
Remember when we get there,Honey,
the two steps I'm goin' to have em all,
Goin' to dance out both my shoes:
When they play the "Jelly Roll Blues,"
Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutter's Ball.
We'll meet our hightoned neighbors,
an exhibition of the "Baby dolls,"
And each one will do their best,
Just to outclass all the rest,
And there'll be dancers from ev'ry foreign land,
The classie, buck and wing, and the wooden clog:
We'll winn that fifty dollar prize,
When we step out and "Walk the Dog."
Those same lyrics are also found on http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/c/chet_atkins/darktown_strutters_ball.html. That page also provides some explanations of some of those lyrics but doesn't give any explanations for the word "darktown" or "strutters".
One of the terms it does explain is "highbrown" -"Either light-skinned or well-to-do African-Americans. Compare with 'high-yellow" as a designation for persons of mixed race, and lighter complexion".
For what it's worth, I think that "highbrown" originally meant a light skinned Black person, but in the context of this record means a well-to-do Black person. Note that because of various reasons, until at least the mid 20th century, light skin color was generally considered a criteria of elitism for African Americans. I also think that the word "hightones" probably has the same meaning.
Another phrase that that site explains is "Walking the Dog" -
The composer of this song ["Darktown Strutters Ball"] Shelton Brooks also wrote a song and invented a dance known as Walkin' the Dog. The lyrics to the song describe how to do the dance"a song that Shelton Brooks wrote in 1916".
Click http://parlorsongs.com/content/w/walkinthedog-lyr.php for the lyrics to Shelton Brooks' Walkin' The Dog".
By the way, besides its title and the fact that the song is about a "new dance craze", and the song includes some dance instructions, Shelton Brooks's "Walkin The Dog" is nothing like the Rufus Thomas' 1963 song of the same name.
ADDENDUM - INFORMATION ABOUT SHELTON BROOKS
Here are links to two biographies of Shelton Brooks and brief excerpts from those websites.
"Shelton Brooks (May 4, 1886 – September 6, 1975) was a Canadian composer of popular music and jazz, who wrote some of the biggest hits of the first third of the 20th century"...
Brooks' works include Some of These Days, At the Darktown Strutters' Ball, I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone, Every Day, All Night Long, Somewhere in France, Swing That Thing, That Man of Mine, There'll Come A Time, and Walkin' the Dog."
"Shelton Brooks was born to Native American & Black parents in Amherstburg, Ontario, on May 4, 1886...
Along with W. C. Handy and William Grant Still, the dean of black classical composers, Brooks was honored in San Francisco at the ASCAP-sponsored Festival of American Music in 1940. He died in Los Angeles on September 6, 1975."
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