Saturday, November 09, 2013

NIGGAH LOVES HIS POSSUM - Collins and Harlan

You think the "Nigger/Niggah" debate is new? Nigga, please! It goes back over a hundred years. Check the sheet music (make that "white sheet" music) for the 1905 Paul Dresser tune"Niggah Loves his Possum." That spelling was used on Collins and Harlan's Victor single in 1908 (as well as an Edison Blue Amberol four-minute single). When it was re-recorded in 1922, the spelling changed to the more widely used"Nigger."

Offensive? Perhaps 20% of ethnic humor then, and now, is intended to be. We make fun of people that annoy us, and that includes rich people, Valley girls, and ethnics. Strangely enough, in the ethnic category, a lot of times we laugh with and impersonate the race…few were offended by "The Beverly Hillbillies," Carroll O'Connor didn't normally talk like Queens native Archie Bunker, and Amos and Andy (both on radio portrayed by whites and on TV portrayed by blacks) were beloved. Dean Martin and Johnny Carson continued their winking impressions of Kingfish dialect on into the 70's. The Wayans Brothers were in white drag for "White Chicks."

Back at the turn of the 20th Century, in both American vaudeville and the British Music Hall, a lot of performers appeared in blackface to sing heartfelt songs of suffering, or giddy tunes of joy. Why in the world did they choose to impersonate another race? Because they had empathy, and in some way, a strange desire to become black in order to emote without seeming corny, or joke without inhibition. That hasn't changed. Lord Buckley, the stand-up hipster of the 50's used Amos and Andy dialect when he brought whites on stage for his "puppet" routines, and re-told Bible stories in "Negro dialect," a "hipsomatic" way of attaining comic purity. White artists from Genya Ravan to Bonnie Raitt to Eric Clapton, Jagger and Dylan adopt black phrasing and music styles to get their messages across.

The most famous singer in the minstrel era was Al Jolson. Here's a guy blacking up to sing about the misery of being "Old Black Joe," and of his heart-rending love for "My Mammy." Huh? He also sang "Kol Nidre," but buyers didn't find Jewish suffering nearly as much fun as sad songs sung in blackface. Eddie Cantor was another who corked up, but considered himself anything but racist for doing so. Cantor was a good friend of the legendary Bert Williams, a light skinned (born in the Bahamas) black man who performed with his skin darkened with cork. This was not unusual at all…decades later, Pigmeat Markham was still "blacking up" while working the black vaudeville circuit, and his audience didn't object. Williams was one of the most highly paid stars of his era, but was treated poorly off stage. He told Cantor, "“It wouldn't be so bad, Eddie, if I didn't still hear the applause ringing in my ears."

At this point, Jolson movies and the Larry Parks bio are available on DVD, and while somewhat cringeworthy, weird blackface and dialect scenes in major movies aren't cut when broadcast. Film historians are now praising Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland and noting that Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry play with black stereotypes in just as broad a way. And yes, rappers who use "Niggah" or "Nigger" continue to enrage some and liberate others.

In the era of Collins and Harlan, there were definitely some intentionally insulting songs and monologues released on the major labels…not only in black dialect, but in any ethnic dialect. There were tasteless songs about Jews, Irish, Italians and Germans, and some of the buyers were…yes, Jews, Irish, Italians and Germans who laughed too, as a way of distancing themselves from those who hadn't assimilated. Verrrrrry complicated, this world of ethnic songs and humor.

As for "Niggah Loves his Possum," it's sort of right down the middle. It's a catchy, jolly tune, humanizing the "spooks" that many feared as dangerous. They portray these people as pretty simple in their basic needs: possum, alcohol and watermelon. Then again, all Flip Wilson's Geraldine wanted was a good man and some Ray Charles records. If Tyler Perry or somebody else in a blaxploitation comedy was seen righteously digging into some fried chicken, and guzzling from a huge bottle of Colt 45, who is to say that an all black audience wouldn't be roaring with laughter and recognizing a relative or friend?

Speaking of politically incorrectness, Arthur Collins (February 7 1864 - August 3, 1933 and Byron Harlan (August 29, 1861 – September 11, 1936) were often known as "The Half Ton Duo," because they were so obese. Fat fucks singing niggah-nigger songs? Yes, but these were more popularly called "Coon songs," as if that word's any improvement. They recorded "Lazy Spells Lazy," "My Bambazoo" and "In Monkey Land" and were an equal opportunity in insulting women and other ethnic groups with: "My Wife's Gone to the Country, Hurrah Hurrah," "It was the Dutch," "Night Time in Little Italy," and "My Brudda Sylvest."

The duo also sang plenty of ordinary tunes, and were the first (1911) to record Irving Berlin's rousing "Alexander's Ragtime Band." They were among the first to record a "jazz" or, as it was also known "jas" tune, including "That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland," recorded November 8 of 1916, and "I Want a Jazzy Kiss."

When a song became a hit, it was covered by plenty of competing artists, and in those wild days of limited copyright protection, the duo often re-recorded for other labels. Often they had to re-record because the master would wear out after a certain number of pressings. Collins and Harlan freelanced for Victor, Edison, Columbia, Emerson, Okeh, Gennett, Operaphone, Pathe and many others.

Show biz was tough even back then. Collins was the baritone, the self-proclaimed "strong man of the team," with his deep and powerful voice. He considered Harlan (who used his tenor voice to play women in some of the novelty songs) as sometimes just a harmonist. So…Collins would sometimes negotiate to get more money or special perks for himself from the record labels.

The team fell out of favor in the 1920's, and plenty of other performers became stars in the new medium of radio, including the famous "Happiness Boys" Jones and Hare. Collins, of Hempstead, Long Island, and Harlan, out in West Orange, New Jersey, were finally outsiders, treated in their last years as perhaps John Lennon would put it; like niggers of the world.



Old Grooves said...

Collins And Harlan were out of vogue by '23 or so, but they wanted to work in radio. It didn't work out and Collins (who saved his money) went to an orange grove in Florida and Harlan (who lost his in the crash) went to Orange, New Jersey. Despite Collins" superior attitude, Harlan was a very great comedian and more versatile as a singer than his partner.

Principal Gottlieb said...

The best old-timey song ever! Catchy & amusing!