People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I
answer...most emphatically, "No." How do I know what I might be if
I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my
health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a
week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped
than I am. In fact, I have never been able to discover that there was
anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it
As a performer, [Bert Williams] was close to genius...Whatever sense of timing I have, I learned from him.
The funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.
Bert Williams (1874-1922)
The vibrant contributions of African-Americans to the history of our popular culture is a given in any discussion of American performing arts. The influence of people like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, "Fats" Waller, and Jelly-Roll Morton is widely documented and is acknowledged by anyone who has even a passing interest in American music and theater. It is important to note, however, that all of these performers came to prominence in the 1920s, a decade that saw the first public attempts by black artists to break away from traditional white perceptions of what black people should be and do on stage. This could be dangerous for black performers, both professionally and physically, and the great courage of these artists cannot be over-emphasized.
It is more problematic when we move backward to a time before the 1920s, when most African-American performers were trammeled by the long, complicated history of minstrelsy - the over-exaggerated, painfully stereotypical portrayals of black culture on the American stage, first by white performers in blackface, then by black performers. Gary Giddins, in his book Visions of Jazz, has described the strange, contradictory, and still lingering influences of minstrelsy on American popular culture:
Its images abound in contemporary life, from the indelible memory of Tim Moore's Kingfish [from "Amos and Andy"] to the caricatures of National Review. The Aunt Jemima-Uncle Ned darkies, solicitous of massa and scornful of the abolitionists who would wreck their joyful plantation life, were implanted in the American mind to such an extent that even black minstrels of the Reconstruction years were expected to enact the familiar stereotypes memorialized by minstrel composers like Stephen Foster. There was triple-edged irony here: minstrelsy provided unprecedented opportunity for gifted black performers...but only if they could adapt the ludicrous precepts of white "Ethiopian" imitators; the blacks were so good, so "authentic" that white minstrel troupes were soon put out of business; the minstrel show was then replaced by a new kind of entertainment nourished by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who had found their initial success by appropriating black styles like ragtime or the cakewalk.
As Americans attempted to break away from these painful, degrading stereotypes, it was natural (if unfair) that they turn their backs on performers in this genre. Watching a minstrel show became and still is embarrassing and distressing, both for black Americans whose ancestors had to suffer the stereotypes and for white Americans whose ancestors perpetrated and encouraged them. Sadly though, what often happened was a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and for a long time, one of the babies who went out the window was the spectacularly talented Bert Williams. In recent years, however, and most fortunately for us, his reputation has made a comeback, and he is now recognized as one of the most important 20th century performers, black or white, in vaudeville, music, and early film. In keeping with the irony Giddins speaks of, Williams did all of this in burnt-cork blackface, because he was "too light-skinned" for audiences. In other words, he was a black man made up like a white man playing a black man.
Williams is also important in that he was one of the first black performers to exercise some creative and financial control over his career, at least as far as he was able to during the time in which he lived. He was the first black performer to have a major recording career; he was the first black artist to be featured in the Ziegfeld Follies (when white cast members protested his hiring and threatened to quit, Flo Ziegfeld is said to have replied, "I can replace every one of you except him") and was its highest paid star for ten years; he was the first black actor to star in feature-length Hollywood films.
His first success nationally came in 1906, with the recording of "Nobody," the early-20th-century equivalent of a smash hit. There are echoes in this minstrel "coon song" (sorry, that's what they were called and marketed as) of elements of the blues: that recognition of and wry humor at life's unfairness and misfortune. Pay particular attention to Williams' delivery of the punch lines - his timing, as Eddie Cantor said, is impeccable.
In this clip from the 1915 Biograph movie, "A Natural-Born Gambler," we get a glimpse of Williams' stage persona and some understanding of his great popularity with audiences. Look past the blackface and you will see what his fellow-comedians called genius. Within seconds, Williams creates an alternate reality (and isn't that what performing is?) and the viewer has completely entered into this silent, pantomimed card game.
A sensitive man, Williams was aware of the painful contradictions of his life. He was a kind and thoughtful friend (when his first partner, George Walker, became terminally ill with end-stage syphillis, Williams supported him both financially and emotionally until Walker's death in 1905); a devoted family man who, with his wife of many years, raised two nieces as their own; an intelligent and analytical thinker who almost became an engineer; and an artist whose talent was limitless. He was all of these things, but he was trapped in a world that would acknowledge him only on its terms: white friends who couldn't be seen in public with him; a devoted audience whose devotion was conditional on his continued portrayal of excruciating stereotypes; colleagues who recognized his brilliance on stage but not his humanity off it. In a terrible and telling event, after starring in the Follies for several years, Williams arrived at the theater one evening to find the backstage empty. A stagehand finally told him that the performers had gotten together and decided to stage a walkout until Ziegfeld raised their salaries; nobody would perform that night. They knew it was important to show the Great Z a unified front. But they had neglected or forgotten or not bothered to tell Williams what was going on. Despite their recognition of his talent, despite years of performing together, Williams was still and always the outsider. Years later, Williams would almost be unable to tell this story because it was so painful to him.
Williams continued to perform on Broadway and to record novelty songs for Victor and Columbia. This one, "When the Moon Shines On the Moonshine" from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, laments the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and was enormously popular.
In February 1922, ill with pneumonia that was exacerbated by hypertension and lung problems, Williams collapsed on stage. The audience roared, thinking it was part of the act. After he'd been carried backstage to his dressing room, Williams joked that it was "a nice way to die. They were laughing when I made my exit." He never performed again. On March 4, at the age of 46, he died. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, after a funeral attended by over 5,000 people.
In recent years, there has been a turnaround in how many view Bert Williams.In early 2009, director and comedian Robert Townsend presented a documentary film at Sundance, "Why We Laugh," which traces the history of black comedy in America. In the brief clip below, contemporary black actors talk about the debt they feel to Bert Williams. Instead of seeing a man dehumanized by minstrelsy, we see him for what he truly was: an artist whose genius transcended attempts to degrade it into racist stereotypes.
Bert Williams' complete recordings have been collected and released on three CDs by Archeophone Records.
(Thanks again to Katy Evans-Bush, whose post on the English music hall inspired this one.)