Stories about 22 December, 1927 (4/8)
Now, let’s return to 1927 and have a look at the music and dance of that time. It doesn’t take much looking to discover gold.
Of course such silly dances required music to go with them. By 1927 records and record players were a widespread and popular item in New Zealand homes, and if you fancied a little Christmas shopping in 1927 then what better way to celebrate the season than with a Columbia record from Pinny’s on Willis Street. Here is an advertisement from The Evening Post of 22 December, 1927.
Who doesn’t like a good organ medley? Columbia records 9139 looks like a great purchase for a conservative Aunty or Uncle. Or how about something for the children? Perhaps a campfire sing-song by the Scouts and Vernon Lee, although a Gramophone review is not promising:
The Camp-Fire Sing Song performed by Vernon Lee and Caterham School Scouts (Col. 9235, 12in., 4s. 6c1.) was no doubt recorded for a purpose and is a success, but not indispensable to most of us.
Perhaps some Layton and Johnstone instead.
Or how about something to dance to, something like the Black Bottom?
The dance craze of 1927 was the Black Bottom. Here are the instructions:
- Hop down front then Doodle back
- Mooch to your left then Mooch to the right
- Hands on your hips and do the Mess Around
- Break a Leg until you’re near the ground
- Now that’s the Old Black Bottom Dance
Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. Still, I think it would be safer to see a demonstration just to clarify the terms “doodle”, “mess around” and “break a leg” before we embark on a series of indecent acts ending in hospital.
As with most aspects of jazz and rock’n’roll this was originally a dance from the southern black community in the USA. I imagine the original might have been a little wilder than the white version of 1927 although some of those sliding moves, and foot flicks look a lot like they were borrowed back again by MJ and Usher many decades later. In case we think that the Black Bottom is just a bit of fun, the dance critic for The Evening Post (April, 1928) is here to tell us differently.
The jungle. The negro. Vulgarity. I suppose that what they’re saying is that this dance and others like it are a bit “saucy” and a bit “physical”. Jazz as a whole swept on to the popular scene in the 1920s as a style of music with a set of new dances (and as an ubiquitous adjective for anything cool) that was shocking and new precisely because it wasn’t the sedate and measured pace of the foxtrot and the waltz. To the ear brought up on the waltz this new jazz sound was pretty riotous stuff, and the dancing that went with a positive public health menace.
This led to a type of injury referred to as the “Charleston Knee.” Further “research” was clearly needed:
Which leads me to believe that not much has changed about trendy research funding, or about how the establishment deals with any new youth trend it doesn’t like; it’s either physically bad for you, morally bad for you, or both.
Strangely all of this brings us to the hottest record of Christmas 1927: Two Black Crows by Moran and Mack. So popular were these guys that their catch phrases (“Why bring that up?”) entered the vernacular for a time.
Actually, there are a couple of lines in this that made me
laugh smile. “The doctor told me to take one pill three times a day, but you can’t do that.” True.
There is a problem, however. The problem is that this is what Mack and Moran looked like:
Which puts us in an unfortunate place in American history. After teaching a topic about Back Civil Rights in the USA for many years it became quite hard to swallow this record once I realised it came out of the black face, vaudeville tradition. It was the tradition that gave us the character Jim Crow, which somehow became the term used to describe all the racist laws applied in the USA to the black community. In fact two drawling, black crows became quite a popular feature of cartoons and even made it into the movie Dumbo.
Listening to Moran and Mack is complicated. In New Zealand I imagine the whole black face thing was lost on us, and it was treated as a comedy record featuring two country bumpkins at a railway station. Still, it would have become clear later on because there were Moran and Mack movies. From this distance of both time and place it is easy to think that this record isn’t really very racist because it doesn’t make racial jokes, but the whole routine is a racist joke. Black people, the routine goes, are dumb. They might say things that are funny and unintentionally clever, but any cleverness is unintentional: the dumb black – the routine goes – doesn’t realise they are being clever but we do.
Here are Moran and Mack in a much later film (you gotta love the lady at the start with her planetary breasts):
Which, in a curious way, brings me back to Layton and Johnstone who, I was surprised to discover, were black. Surprised because they sound so white. Apparently this duo were based in England and very popular until one of them got involved in a divorce case which was a sufficient scandal in of itself to be a career-ender.
Race seems a complicated thing in an age where recordings were not accompanied by videos, or the possibility of TV appearances, and so you ended up with a few white people putting on black face and selling records, and a few black people sounding white and selling records. Awfully complicated really.
Best just to hit the dance floor and doodle back.