Retelling the History of Black Music: Bert Williams, Godfather of the Black Stage and Studio

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes —

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries

To Thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

— Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask” (1895)

He stands out among a cast of black actors: he’s the only one in blackface, burnt cork darkening his facial features and contrasting against his exaggerated lips. Why is that?

Those expecting some sort of watermelon-eating, chicken-stealing, shuffling and jiving, massa-this and mammy-that caricature may be surprised to note that this performance bears no such trace. Sure, some of the dialogue screens of this early silent movie don’t make exclusive used of the King’s English (“Gentlemen,” our lead pretends to read from a paper, “dis pernicious habit ob gamblin’ must be squelched.”), but there really isn’t anything here that would make a modern-day, culturally sensitized audience squirm in discomfort.

He stands out also because he’s a gifted performer. Although he’d been a stage star for a good 20 years by the time this 11-minute featurette was made, he seems perfectly at home in front of the camera. His movements are crisp and exact, his comic bits executed with perfect timing. When the gentlemen’s club president demands that he pay up his dues, he makes us feel the reluctance of parting with his last dollar. When a round of poker gets going after a popular swell hits town, our hero commands our attention with presence and clear, sharp gestures, relishing in the cards he’s surreptitiously fed by one of his cohorts. When the cops break up the game and haul the players away, he’s so undone he faints, and gets deposited into the police vehicle stiff as a board.

The movie concludes with our hero in custody, still in his slightly worn topcoat and suit, recreating a bit that had been popular in the performer’s actual stage act a few years back. He pantomimes all the players and movements in a poker game, from the dealer shuffling the deck and distributing the cards, to pondering the possibilities of his hand, to genially giving the other players the additional cards they request, to becoming quite concerned when the opponent to his right asks for only one card.

Since the routine had been in his repertoire for a while, it’s not surprising that he executes it with such practiced skill and precision. But let’s remember that he’s still in blackface, that most controversial and vilified mode of performance for more than 150 years now, yet there’s not a single trace of buffoonery in his act. In fact, we end up sympathizing with the character.

The film is A Natural Born Gambler, produced by Biograph in 1916. The star is Bert Williams, known throughout the world as one of the comic geniuses of the era. He only made a handful of movies in his fleeting career; this well-preserved two-reeler seems to be the only such footage of a Williams performance available on YouTube, and presumably anywhere else outside of a film archive. Although his musical recordings are readily available, Natural Born Gambler is pretty much the only visual evidence of his brilliance as a performer. It only scratches at his enormous impact.

Williams was the first black crossover star of the 20th century. He made his name performing in exclusively black ventures, then became the first black performer to be featured in a mainstream vehicle. He chose to perform exclusively in blackface, a medium many blacks found (and still find) demeaning, but Williams, if A Natural Born Gambler is any evidence, always invested his characters with full dignity, and strove to bring out the universal strains of humor in the situations he depicted.

He was a well-read, studious performer, who helped put the lie to the notion that blacks had some sort of natural instinct for making merry on stage. He endured countless racist indignities from the society at large and, in many cases, from his fellow performers. Yet he never let them define him or his work, and aimed ever higher throughout his career. He was, literally, a trouper to the very end. He died before the world had heard of Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith, but his impact on American culture and entertainment continues to resonate.

Camille F. Forbes’ new biography Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star (Basic Civitas, 2008) aims to bring Williams back to life, and into context, for our time. We find that Williams was the first to experience many of the themes sounded throughout the history of blacks in entertainment, struggles and achievements we more readily associate with more recent performers like Sidney Poitier and Nat King Cole. Every black person who’s ever had aspirations of moving the crowd, it would seem, from hoofers to rappers, owes Bert Williams an enormous debt.

Egbert Austin Williams’ destiny was the stage. Born in the Bahamas in 1874, his family moved to America when he was ten, eventually settling in Riverside, California. Williams left school at 16 to hit the road as a medicine show barker, and never looked back. He landed in San Francisco in the early 1890s; his first break there was with Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrels.

The minstrel show, which had been all the rage in American entertainment for 50 years by then, was a performance revue of song, dance, monologue and comic sketch. It generally featured white performers representing black characters – make that presumed archetypes such as the carefree Jim Crow (yes, minstrelsy is where that moniker came from) singing songs and wheeling about, or the citified dandy Zip Coon – by darkening their faces with burnt cork and singing and speaking in an exaggerated black dialect.

Blackface became so popular that troupes would hype themselves as being more believably black than the others (the adjective “Ethiopian” was often used in a troupe’s name to denote “authentic” blackness), and even honest-to-God black minstrels had to blacken up. The Mastodon Minstrels gig was Williams’ first experience with blackface; after a disastrous first night, he vowed to never blacken up for the stage again.

Around this time, Williams hooked up with George Walker, a black Kansan with a similar wanderlust for the stage. They gigged around California for a bit as the Walker and Williams duo, working their way eastward through Denver and Chicago. At an engagement in Detroit, Williams blacked up again just to see what would happen. What happened was a life-changing epiphany: he discovered that being in blackface allowed him to play a character, instead of defining him as a person. Williams, a proud and thoughtful man off stage, began developing the on-stage persona of a put-upon everyman who just so happened to have really, really dark skin. The character became a hit, and the duo switched its billing to Williams and Walker.

They landed in New York City in 1896, just in time for the first period of major black cultural activity there (no, not the Harlem Renaissance; that wouldn’t come for another 20-odd years). This was the moment when blacks first made inroads on the vaudeville stage as performers and songwriters, as formal minstrelsy (but not necessarily some of its more demeaning depictions of blackness) faded from vogue. Granted, the musical style of the moment wasn’t necessarily the most flattering. Coon songs, catchy ditties set to a ragtime beat, traded on the worst of black stereotypes, telling stories of razor-toting, chicken-eating darkies; the genre’s breakthrough hit was “All Coons Look Alike to Me”. which was actually written and recorded by a black man, Ernest Hogan (who spent much of the rest of his career backpedaling from that achievement). For their first gig in the Big Apple, the duo dusted off a tune Williams debuted at that fateful Detroit engagement, “Oh! I Don’t Know, You’re Not So Warm!” The show ran only a week, but Williams and Walker were proclaimed a hit, and off they went.

They started blowing up on the nascent vaudeville circuit, performing musical and comic routines as “Two Real Coons”, without pandering to the most egregious racial stereotypes and caricatures. Their original songs sold well as sheet music, and they even picked up some side money doing an advertising photo shoot for a tobacco company. That proved to be fortuitous beyond the immediate cash and exposure.

One of the women on the shoot, Ada Overton, had just split from the Black Patti Troubadours, a popular touring ensemble, and had vowed to leave the stage for good. Walker convinced her to join the duo on their NYC gigs, and she relented (they would soon marry, and she would re-spell her name as Aida). Second, the photo depicted two black couples dancing up a citified storm, and Williams and Walker’s manager encouraged them to recreate the scene in their live act.

Thus did the cakewalk, a high-steppin’, hand-wavin’, jolly promenade of a dance, become a black vaudeville staple, with Williams and Walker its most famous proponents (and Mrs. Aida Overton Walker its most famous teacher). But the cakewalk also played close to the still-prevailing stereotypes of happy darkies mugging for white audiences; Williams would walk this balancing line throughout his performing career.

Williams and the Walkers found themselves at the center of a burgeoning black musical theater scene at the turn of the century. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook collaborated on the musicals Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk and, starring Williams and Walker, Senegambian Carnival (1898). Performers Bob Cole and Billy Johnson made some hay with the hit A Trip to Coontown; Cole would go on to form a more significant partnership with the brothers J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Billy; the Johnson brothers would also write “Lift Every Voice and Sing”). The aforementioned Hogan starred in Clorindy, and broke ground as an independent-minded artist and entrepreneur. Black talent gravitated to New York City for opportunities to work and perform, and the growing cadre of black actors, musicians, and songwriters formed a tight, nurturing community.

Several groundbreaking productions starring Williams and Walker emerged from that community. The breakthrough hit was Sons of Ham (1900), which ran for two seasons. It was followed by In Dahomey, which toured for six months in late 1902 before becoming the first black musical on Broadway in 1903. Two months after opening on Broadway, the production toured to England, and gave a command performance for King Edward VII.

By now, their styles were patented. Walker portrayed variations on the smart-talking schemer, while Williams developed an Everyman character, Jonah Man, as the prism for his musical numbers and comic bits. Williams continued to perform in blackface – the only member of the ensemble to do so. Far from reducing Williams’ performance to caricature (as if his innate personal dignity and awareness would let that happen), the makeup allowed him to create an archetype that would go on to influence generations of American stars. Some of Williams’ artistic choices would be problematic for some of his black audience, but at the height of the duo’s popularity, Williams was winning acclaim as a top-notch comic performer.

An extension of the Jonah Man character became the vehicle for Williams’ signature song. In 1906, he recorded “Nobody,” a wry lament co-written by Williams and Alex Rogers (Williams and Walker had been recording their compositions since 1901). Williams’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery intoned the hard times and bad luck of the classic down-and-outer:

When life seems full of clouds and painAnd I am full of nothin’, and pain,
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain? Hmmm?
When winter comes with snow and sleet
And me with hunger and cold feet
Who says here’s 25 cents, go ahead get something to eat?

The song was quickly added to the current musical Abyssinia, and was marketed heavily by Columbia (even though it was labeled a coon song, a branding the lyrics didn’t merit). Williams performed the song at virtually every show for the rest of his life, and recorded a remake ten years later to satisfy audience demand.

Throughout the decade, Walker emerged as the partner more business-minded and outspoken about the state of black entertainment, with Williams taking on a less vocal profile. Everything changed one night late 1908, after Walker collapsed on stage after suffering a stroke. He gave his last performance in 1909 (and died in 1911), leaving Williams to carry on as a solo performer.

And carry on he did. He began his career as a solo vaudevillian in 1909, and starred in the musical Mr. Lode of Koal later that year. But despite Williams’ fame as a performer, he was not immune from racial indignities at the hands of white audiences, critics and performers. He persevered, crossing over from the black musical theater world to the mainstream exposure of Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1910. The Follies were well on their way to becoming an A-list destination for vaudeville performers; Williams became the first black performer to join the revue. While a major boon for his career, joining the Follies lineup meant Williams had to contend with consternation from the black community that he’d, in essence, strayed too far from his roots.

Williams starred in several incarnations of the Follies throughout the 1910s, achieving star billing and influencing young performers Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. He continued to record, and made a handful of short films. He also became more forthcoming about his craft and his industry, picking up where Walker had left off.

He took great pains to note that he was a studied performer, and that any talent blacks displayed for the performing arts was the result of practice and devotion to those arts, not of some racially-specific predilection. Still, he was often treated like a second-class citizen, or worse: when Actor’s Equity struck the Follies in 1919, the union did not bother to inform Williams; he found out when he showed up to an empty theater.

For all his musical and comedy achievements, Williams always longed to do a serious theater role. Such opportunities were almost unheard of for blacks at the time, but Charles Gilpin’s 1920 success on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones encouraged Williams to pursue a dramatic vehicle in earnest. He was the driving force behind Under the Bamboo Moon a 1921 production in which he attempted to transcend the parameters of his audience’s long-held expectations. But the show never made it out of the tryout phase on the road. Williams became sick while the show was in Chicago, and was unable to complete a performance in Detroit. He died of pneumonia in March 1922, arguably one of the most famous black people in America.

Praise for Williams overflowed. More than 5,000 attended his funeral in Harlem, and a book of laudatory essays was published. To the end, he was a lightning rod in the black community for his decision to perform exclusively in blackface throughout his entire career, and for the images of black people represented by his roles. But despite white critics who had their own grapples with the issues raised by Williams’ body of work, most serious post-mortems of his career recognized his singular accomplishments as a performer, accomplishments made all the more remarkable by the racial hurdles he had to contend with in the process. Fields eulogized him as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

One might think, for all he did and when he did it, that Williams would be on some sort of Mt. Rushmore of black culture, along with the likes of Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. But that’s hardly been the case. First, his day came long, long ago, and there aren’t too many documents of his work that have been kept available down through the decades (Archeophone, the music label specializing in reviving pre-1920 pop music, has a three-volume set of Williams’ complete recordings).

Second, there’s been relatively little attention paid within recent mass-market black cultural history products to his turn-of-the-century epoch, as compared to the Harlem Renaissance, which has generated dozens of biographies, readers and analyses. Most crucially, later generations came to see his (or anyone’s) choice to perform in blackface as a negation of racial pride, an unwelcome throwback to a time of rampant degradation, antithetical to the notion of black social advancement.

Forbes’ book applies clear-headed research and fresh interpretation to her case for why Williams still matters. She builds upon the basic chronological framework laid out by Eric Ledell Smith in his 1992 Williams bio (Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian, McFarland) with copious context setting about Williams’ life and times. Her explorations of the burgeoning black entertainment industry, the influence of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and other tangents help explain the various dynamics of the black culture in which Williams operated. In the virtual absence of performance recordings, Forbes relies on newspaper accounts, reviews and show business histories to capture the essence of Williams’ art.

To the extent that a reader can recognize the present in the distant past, Forbes’ book is full of revelations. Issues black artists and entertainers have been wrestling with for the better part of a century become been-there-done-that after considering Williams’ career. People nowadays think highly of Queen Latifah and Will Smith for parlaying music stardom into acting stardom, but Williams had conquered both arenas 80 years earlier. Anyone who thinks that black show business entrepreneurship started with Russell Simmons, or even Berry Gordy, would learn much from Forbes’ introduction to the hard-working, optimistic spirit that drove black musical theater back then. That there’s a legion of bloggers and talk-show pundits holding court on the hot black pop stars of the moment, isn’t entirely new either: even back then, there were plenty of entertainment critics, black and white alike, writing informed and impassioned reports and analyses – and wrong-headed missives too – about Williams’ art.

On a more profound level, Introducing Bert Williams provokes new insight into questions about images and representation. Williams and Walker attempted to work against minstrelsy stereotypes, and succeeded in some respects; black performers ever since have strained to expand their parameters from a similarly narrow range of archetypes. Williams’ move to the Follies started a conversation about representing blackness within a mainstream context that has continued through virtually every crossover moment in black American life, from actors in limiting film roles in the ’30s, to Bill Cosby on both I Spy in the 60’s and The Cosby Show in the ’80s, to even Flavor of Love and Barack Obama’s run for the White House.

Both Williams and Walker asserted the role of skill, education and development of their craft; it would be generations before black entertainers would be respected for the work they put in to build their chops. For many voices in Williams’ time, the central question of black entertainment’s value was if it advanced the interests of the race; fast forward to our ongoing debate over the effect of rap music on black youth and society.

And then there’s the whole blackface thing. It’s almost as sensitive a black cultural tripwire as the word “nigger”. For many, there’s just no getting around equating performing in blackface with the distasteful connotations of white performers pretending to be real-live darkies, cavorting about in exaggerated send-ups of how everyday black folk allegedly act (or black performers taking on such characterizations, with or without the cork). Robert Downey, Jr. managed not to attract too much heat for his role in this summer’s Tropic Thunder, playing a character playing in blackface that clearly wasn’t meant to represent an “authentic” black person, but it’s quite a different story when drag performer Chuck Knipp dons the burnt cork and wig to become Shirley Q. Liquor, ig’nant and proud of it. Forbes helps us understand how Williams strove to stand up for universal dignity (and maintain his own) while wearing a mask that, to this day, retains a singular power to make black people anxious, if not angry.

It seems counter-intuitive that a performer this gifted, influential and historically significant would need to be “introduced” to anyone (the book’s title parallels that of the 1999 Halle Berry film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, another reclamation of a long-forgotten, misunderstood black star). But such is the case for the tradition of black show business: it predates even the advent of radio, and its few surviving artifacts are rarely viewed in public. Further, there’s never really been a moment in the 86 years since his death when Bert Williams came back in vogue. His era is too distant from ours, both chronologically and culturally, for an obvious connection to be forged. But if one can say there’d be no Usher without Michael Jackson, and no Jackson without Sammy Davis Jr., then it’s not at all a stretch to say that without Bert Williams and his fellow pioneering black performers, the last 100 years of black entertainment in America would look awfully different. Forbes’ bio reaffirms Williams as a star both in his time, and for all time.

In the process, Forbes also opens a door into a vibrant world of black cultural enterprise, a sub-world hardly acknowledged in modern accounts of black entertainment, complete with strivers, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and straight-up hustlers on their post-Reconstruction, pre-NAACP grind. Essentially, they helped gave birth to what we know today as modern black pop culture. A full 100 years ago and more, when newspapers were the only mass media and sound recording and film were still novel technologies, Williams and other black folks were already taking it to the stage.

Recommended reading:

Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, Robert C. Toll (1974) – A sturdy introduction to the minstrel era, and its major players.

Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott (1993) – An oft-cited dissection of the ties between race, class, identity and performance. Bob Dylan, it is widely held, “borrowed” the book’s title for his 2001 cd.

Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, W.T. Lhamon (1998) – One of the first works to connect modern black pop, specifically Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, to its antecedents in black dance and performance.

Just before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York 1890 to 1915, Thomas L. Riis (1989) – Brief sketches of turn-of-the-century black performers, plus reproduced scores and extensive analysis of the music in the major productions.

Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America, Karen Sotiropolous (2006) – An in-depth evocation of the A-list of millennial black talent, and the various worlds they navigated.

Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, John Strausbaugh (2006) – A modern history of blackface and its offshoots, from minstrelsy to misguided frat parties.

Next: The Black Pop Explosion of the 1920s