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1921. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake: "Love Will Find a Way"
1920 saw Black American performers finally allowed to speak in their own voice on record, not an assumed one or through a minstrel mediary; and 1921 was the year that the same thing happened, in an even more unlikely fashion, on (actually off-off-) Broadway. Just like “Crazy Blues,” Shuffle Along saw the respectable tenth cringe at its low-down humor and sexy swing, and later generations would reject the blacked-up comedians who enacted the ribbon-thin plot, but attendance records were hardly broken over some slapstick: as with all good shows, catchy melodies sold tickets. Sissle had sung with Jim Europe, and Blake had ragged up and down the coast, and their score, jaunty or rowdy or plaintive as necessary, made Shuffle Along the first jazz musical. But this, the lovers’ duet, is more besides: the first true Black American love song, unblemished by minstrelsy.

On first listen, granted, it sounds hidebound and stuffy. Noble Sissle's finickily enunciated, vibrato-heavy longueurs, and Eubie Blake's starchy parlor piano playing both evoke a world gone beyond all recall, as far as modern pop listening goes. The song is hopelessly dicty, middle-class, sentimental, hopelessly — to use a word universally understood in its implications if contested in its direct meaning — white.

That is by design. And it is a triumph, although one that might not be appreciable by a generation of radicals for whom "bougie" is ever only an epithet, never an aspiration. It represents one of the great victories of the twentieth century over the nineteenth on the earlier century's own ground. To understand that victory, we have to understand the nineteenth-century roots of popular music in the United States.

Those roots are two-fold, although they are watered by a single originating fount: the minstrel show. Both the Coon song (which is mockery of projected African-American predilections and behavior as pop) and the parlor song (which is the unrestrained exercise of presumptively white sentimentality as pop) were initially popularized in minstrelsy: live entertainments in which white performers smeared gunk onto their faces in order to ostensibly imitate but to in fact denigrate Blackness as something other than human. The cornerstone of both traditions is Stephen Foster, who wrote rollicking minstrel songs like "Camptown Races" and  "Oh, Susanna," stately parlor songs like "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Beautiful Dreamer," and noxious songs that combine both minstrelsy and sentiment like "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Folks at Home," in which the bathos is attributed to freed slaves longing to be back on the plantation, where (not to get too far ahead of myself) the living is easy.

Both traditions evolved in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the impact of Black performers adopting minstrelsy as the only avenue of performance open to them and out-minstreling the minstrels at their own racist game meant that Coon songs got more mean-spirited and inflammatory; as the slave state of the Confederacy gave way to the terror state ruled by the KKK, the pervasive imagery of grinning, happy-go-lucky darkies gave way to more violent, predatory, and somehow also more imbecilic representations of Black humanity. Some of that will have made its way into the previous years of Just One Song More; some of it is still to come. (Minstrelsy is the longest continuous entertainment tradition in the United States.)

At the same time, the parlor song tradition was changing. Influenced by the fast-paced, breezily light touch of the New York stage, by immigrant communities who had less of a perceived stake in the sentimental traditions of American whiteness (largely because they had their own sentimental traditions; they were certainly willing to buy into American whiteness), and by a certain facile cynicism which was becoming a default mood of the increasingly mechanized and interconnected everyday life in the twentieth century, love songs became less saccharine, the Victorian cult of motherhood faded, and a witty lyric became as important, or more so, than expressing the deathless truth of a romantic heart. The leap from Victor Herbert to Jerome Kern is so radical that to then move from Kern to Gershwin is but a step.

But it's important to remember that, beyond the sentimentalized songs about slaves missing the plantation, there was a deep divide between the Coon song and the parlor song, and Black performers were only allowed to perform Coonery. They could choose the register in which to perform it — Bert Williams was a genius at smuggling real existential protest into I'm-a-poor-simpleton songs — but they could not abstain from Coon song, except by refusing to participate in popular music at all. (Even spirituals, the closest thing to an allowable Black folk art of the era, reified stereotypical mispronunciations, like "hebben" for heaven, which were decades out of date if they had ever been Black vernacular at all.) Even when the great novelist, historian, poet, and NAACP activist James Weldon Johnson partnered with his brother J. Rosamund Johnson and Bob Cole to form a songwriting team in the early nineteen-oughts, they were only able to sand the most sickening edges off of Coon song: their enduring hit "Under the Bamboo Tree" remains patronizing guff, part of a system of exploitation even though Black songwriters getting paid is an unambiguous good.

Things changed in the teens, however. Outright Coon songs became less fashionable, as blues songs, or faux-blues songs, and jass songs (not to mention racialized dances like tangos, maxixes, hulas, and turkey trots) began to present more "authentic" — but, depending on who was doing the writing and the singing, often no less patronizing — portraits of Black folkways. Parlor song had been almost entirely eclipsed by theatrical (and merely Tin Pan Alley) love songs by the end of the War too.  (Meanwhile, the old Coon and parlor-song traditions, no longer selling in the major markets, left the city limits, turned feral, and became one of the strains that shaped country music.)

Shuffle Along did many things, and a full accounting of its achievements are beyond even the scope of this expansive Patreon essay, but its quietest, least-remarked revolution at the time was giving a deracinated love song — "Love Will Find a Way," as simple, unadorned, and cleverly though not showily rhymed as any in its class by Kern, Irving Berlin, or their peers — to the hero and heroine of the show, which they sang simply and tenderly to each other, and at the end of which they kissed. Black people — non-caricatured, non-Coonified Black people — expressing romantic emotion and sexual desire on stage was a revolution. Every expansion of the language of Black American love song since, from swing to Motown to funk to "I Feel Love" to "No Scrubs," rests on the hard-fought, immensely fortunate work of Sissle and Blake.