Black History Month got off to a good start for lovers of acoustic sound when Vulture named “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” this week. There in pole position was “Nobody” by Bert Williams from 1906. The compilers note that they weren’t looking for “one-liners” necessarily, as much as for “a discrete moment of comedy.” They contend that Bert’s performance of “Nobody” gains its power from the tension between its upbeat musicality and its mournful lyrics. It seems a stretch to call the music “upbeat”—it’s fairly doleful throughout—but we’ll grant that the chorus has a certain whimsical flavor that adds irony to Bert’s lament. Of course, the biggest musical joke in the piece lies in the trombone swoops that imitate human wailing.
The label for the 1906 recording of Nobody (Archeophone Records Collection)
Vulture got it right by saying it’s the self-deprecation of the unfortunate loser that makes “Nobody” so funny. The fact that a black man would give comedic voice to his trials and tribulations, the indignities and put-upons suffered at the hands of others really was revolutionary. Williams was the highest paid African American (well, Caribbean by birth, actually) in show business and had more leeway in what he did on stage than others who looked like him. When he spoke-sang the words of “Nobody”—when he made those irresistible mugging faces and did his shuffling dance—he worked his way with laughter into the hearts of white Americans who may not have thought much about social equality. Lots of other people recorded the song—from Arthur Collins to Johnny Cash—and those versions aren’t as funny as Bert’s.
Darrell Baker, in character as Fagin (Darrell Baker, via Facebook)
Last week we lost one of our best friends and staunchest supporters, Darrell Baker. In between the last e-mails we exchanged a few weeks ago and our plan to call him this weekend for his 69th birthday, pancreatic cancer intervened, and now he’s gone in a flash.
Darrell’s great early musical loves were Harry Lauder, Al Jolson, and Bert Williams. It was because of Bert that we first “met”—as people do nowadays, by e-mail—back in late 2001. He enthusiastically offered his assistance (and records) in putting together our CD volumes of Bert Williams’ records. Over time Darrell became a trusted consultant, helping us with selecting records for projects, loaning us items from his collection, reviewing our writing, connecting us with other collectors, and even helping us pitch our restorations correctly. He was funny and irreverent and kept us honest.
Tonight we’re attending a screening of Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Logan Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Chicago. Filmed in 1913 but never released, the film was thought lost by the few who even knew of its existence, and it has taken decades to identify and put together the version now before us.
Seven unidentified reels of silent footage had sat in storage at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art (MoMA) since the museum’s first curator, Iris Barry, had obtained them in 1939 from Biograph in a hoard of 900 negatives—saved from sure destruction, as the company was just then going out of business. Rushes from the hoard were printed on safety film stock in the 1970s, and restoration began in the 1980s. Someone noticed the existence of a film portraying middle-class pleasures being enjoyed by an all-black cast—including legendary vaudeville star Bert Williams. The only reference to the film in print that has been found is a 1914 obituary of a crew member; fortunately, it’s a match.
A still from Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Courtesy of MoMA)
MoMA’s curatorial team began assembling the film in 2004. They’ve taken the rushes (or what are often called “dailies,” the raw, unedited footage) and put them together, including some multiple takes, into a rough narrative. We get to see not only the genius of Williams and his acting peers from the Harlem arts circle of the early 1910s, but also—because of the rough nature of the product—the mechanics of early film-making, the subtleties of direction and acting, the humor and rapport among the cast members. Besides that, the subject matter—African-Americans depicted enjoying life carefree, independently, and intimately, with only a few stereotypes imposed on them—is a stunning revelation for its time. MoMA speculates that the film was never released because of the impact that D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had both on race relations in America and characterizations of blacks in the cinema. That film “poisoned the well for progressive filmmakers,” reasons Ashley Clark, in an article that provides a good overview of the project. In a way, the historical record has been corrected, as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry added Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day to its list last year.