Thursday, June 14, 2012

May Irwin, Queen of Ragtime

“Time was when ‘coon songs,’ whether of the old plantation variety or the modern ragtime kind, were written by white men, but a great change has come about in the last few years, says a writer in the New York Sun. The negro composer has now almost a monopoly of ragtime and is reaching out into more classical work, and there hasn’t been  a musical play in the last three years which hasn’t contained one or more songs of Negroes.”The Colored American, September 10, 1904

September 17, 1895. A new 3-act farce-comedy, ‘The Widow Jones,’ starring buxom-figured Canadian born comedienne May Irwin, has just opened at the Bijou Theatre in New York. The highlight of the show is her incendiary performance of a coon song called ‘The New Bully’ in which a “colored gentleman” is going down the alley armed with axe and razor to wipe out his rival. She was accompanied by Ned Weyburn, in blackface, playing ragtime piano. 
Have yo’ heard about dat bully dat’s just come to town?
He’s round among de niggers, a-layin’ their bodies down.
I’m a-lookin’ for dat bully and he must be found.
I’m a Tennessee nigger and I don’t allow
No red-eyed river roustabout with me to make a row.
I’m lookin’ for dat bully and I’ll make him bow.
When I walk dat levee round, round, round, round,
When I walk that levee round, round, round, round,
When I walk that levee round,
I’m a-lookin’ for that bully an’ he must be found

“The ‘New Bully’ was a knockout overnight. Coon-shouting, as translated into Caucasian, was born and we were not to hear the end of it until a more slender age would introduce the jazz-baby. Your coon-shouter was a lusty, rounded lady. She was all curves. Her voice was a wild, raucous yell, and perfect intonation was her least concern.” 
— Issaac Goldberg, in: Tin Pan Alley, a Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket, 1930

A clear and startlingly unexpurgated recording of ‘The New Bully’ by May Irwin can be heard HERE (Warning: not for the faint of heart).

May Irwin admitted a lack of training. “I just took a deep breath and let her go,” she told one reporter. May Irwin did not (as far as I know) perform in blackface but another white performer, San Francisco born Josephine Gassman, donned black greasepaint and was known as a “coon-singer second to none.” Gassman had hits with ‘Mammy’s Little Pumpkin Colored Coons,’ ‘Take me Back Babe,’ and ‘Get Your Money’s Worth.’

“During a visit to Chicago Miss Gassman picked up a couple of little pickaninnies (*known as ‘Picks’ in the trade) and used them as a feature in her act. The little boy, Freddie, who is four years old, has the champion bandy legs of the country, and it always made the audience yell when he simply walked across the stage. the children appeared at every performance with Miss Gassman up until the Friday last, when they were stopped by the Gerry Society, much to her regret. Almost every night when the children came on money was thrown on the stage, the amount on one occasion being over $7.” — March 5, 1898, Dramatic Mirror

May was already famous, her name emblazoned “in incandescent lights and on twenty-four sheet billboards,” for singing songs like ‘After the Ball’ and George M. Cohan’s ‘Hot Tamale Alley.’ ‘After the Ball’ was written by Charles K. Harris and first performed by W.C. Handy at the Chicago World’s Fair. 
In 1896, along with comedian John Rice, May Irwin made a 50 foot kinetoscope reel for Edison, ‘The Kiss,’ that was viewed widely from America to St. Petersburg to Japan.

The ‘True Story of the New Bully’ was revealed in the Elmira Gazette on April 18, 1906. In this version May Irwin was slumming in San Francisco with some New York friends when, in the American ‘Moulin Rouge,’ she chanced upon a “chanteuse with decided Parisian habiliments” singing the salacious song with an American accent. Before leaving Irwin had closed a deal with the Negro composer, who was the piano accompaniment to the singer. A copy was obtained and the manuscript mailed to New York for a lyric rewrite.

Marcuse wrote that ‘The New Bully,’ along with ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De Ay,’ and ‘Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ (50,000 copies of sheet music sold), came out of Babe Connor’s black brothel in Saint Louis in 1893. W. C. Handy saw it as a negro folk melody popular on the St. Louis docks. The original bawdy “unspeakable” lyrics were changed by the white song-pluggers of Tin Pan Alley. In a letter to the New York Post, dated December 7, 1926, John P. Wilson claimed to be the author. Wilson was house librettist at the Tivoli Theatre in San Francisco in the 1890’s. One day sports-writer Charles E. Trevathan entered the music room accompanied by a “little Negro.” The Negro had a tune with a few lines of words. 

“Joseph Hirschback took down the tune, which was ‘Maid of Athens’ with a touch of jazz.” 

May Irwin as a Baby
Wilson finished the first verse and wrote a song in story form which was first sung by comedian Ferris Hartman in the character of ‘Man Friday’ in Wilson’s extravaganza of ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Trevathan passed the song to May Irwin in New York. Despite its crude origin the song survived in the repertoire of black and white, look it up on YouTube for proof. It has been recorded by The Memphis Jug Band, Peter Stampfel, Jerry Reed, Leadbelly, Etta BakerEarl Johnson and his Clodhoppers and Dixie Michelle.

The first recorded coon song. ‘Little Liza Loves You,’ was sung by white performer Len Spencer in 1891. Many of his song hits were duets with his partner Ada Jones. The next two hits were performed by black performer George Washington Johnson. ‘The Laughing Song’ and ‘The Whistling Coon,’ both charted at number one the same year, 1891.Unless the dates are wrong the earliest known recording of ‘The New Bully’ was by J.W. Myers (HERE) made in 1896 on an Edison cylinder. The earliest known May Irwin recording of the song was in 1897, also for Edison. 

May Irwin was born Ada May Campbell at Whitby, Ontario on June 27, 1862, and lived three years in  in Toronto, where “they don’t read Sunday papers,” singing in the Episcopal Church choir. She  started her career at the young age 13 after her father failed in business. She began her stage career in February 1875 at the Adelphi Theatre in Buffalo, singing duets with her sister Flora. Subsequently she joined Tony Pastor’s company then Augustin Daly’s. She was married twice, the second time to her manager Kurt Eisfeldt. Her first hit was ‘After the Ball,’ followed by ‘Hear Dem Bells,’ ‘Essence of Old Virginia,’ ‘Mr. Johnson, Turn me Loose,’ ‘The Frog Song,’ ‘I ain’t Gwine to Work no More,’ ‘Teaching McFadden to Dance,’ and ‘When you Ain’t Got no Money you Needn’t Come Around.’ In 1897 she was interviewed by the New York Dramatic Mirror and said

“As you know I have made my greatest successes with negro songs. Perhaps the reason is that I like to sing them. It is no effort at all for me to pour out a rollicking negro melody that has ring and snap. Last year I thought ‘The New Bully’ was the greatest song of its kind in the world, but now I think that ‘Crappy Dan’ draws the line a little finer still. I am very fond of the colored people too. George William, come in here, I want to see you.”

There was a patter of small feet in the hall, and a colored gentleman about three feet high, in a bib and a tucker, stepped into the room. “This is George William. Shake hands with the gentleman George William.” George William rolled his eyes and extended his hand, gravely. Then he turned abruptly on his heel and went out. “He’s my youngest,” laughed Miss Irwin, “and I am quite proud of him.”

During the Great War President Woodrow Wilson named her “Secretary of Laughter” in his unofficial cabinet. A widely distributed Irwin quote was “An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.”

Coon songs were taken up by Caucasian and Negro song-writers. Black performers, however, like Ernest Hogan and Sam Lucas, were restricted to singing ragtime and coon songs written in dialect. One rare exception was black composer Gussie L. Davis, who went from writing and singing coon songs (‘Ain’t I Your Honey Boy no Mo’?) to writing ballads like ‘The Baggage Coach Ahead, a weeper which has been preserved by country and western singers into modern times. One writer, Lester A. Walton, recalled in 1934 that

“Neither the public daily press nor managers were as liberal toward Negro entertainment twenty years ago as today. Messrs. Walker, Cole and Hogan who transacted the business for their respective organizations, were constantly involved in arguments over financial matters, also about “what the public will or will not stand for from a colored show,” the size and personnel of company.”

Poster for 'The Widow Jones, 1895
The father of ragtime was the negro minstrel. May Irwin told author Lewis Clinton Strang that the way to learn to sing rag-time was to “catch a negro and study him.” 

“By keeping everlastingly at it, I finally discovered that the rag-time was obtained, not by the voice, but by the instrument. With the Negroes it had been the result of the use of the ‘thumb-string’ on the banjo, by thrumming which was produced the effect of a weird chant.”

Irwin made millions from performing and real estate and built herself a dream home called Irwin Castle on 16 acres in the Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River. The house contained a pool, billiard room, bowling alley, and seven pianos used by the hostess to entertain her many celebrated guests. 

May Irwin died of bronchial pneumonia in her apartment at the Park Crescent Hotel in New York, October 22, 1938.


The Colored American (“the Monarch of Negro Newspapers” 1893-1904) The Colored American was an illustrated 12 page weekly ‘Afro-American’ Republican newspaper published in Washington, D.C. by Edward Elder Cooper, founder of the first illustrated negro newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman (1884-1927)

— John Strausbaugh, Black Like You; Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, New York: Penguin group, 2006

— E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, Before There Was “Gangsta” Rap There Was “Bully Rag:” Some Thoughts Inspired by Frank Merriwell’s Return to Yale, in: Dime Novel Round-Up, Vol. 79, No. 4, August 2010

— Isaac Goldberg, Tin Pan Alley, a Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket, New York: The John Day Company, 1930

— Maxwell F. Marcuse, Tin Pan Alley in Gaslight, a Saga of the Songs That Made The Gay Nineties Gay, Watkins Glen, N.Y.: Century House, 1959

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