Article MT193 - from Musical Traditions No 11, Late 1993

America's Blue Yodel


Jimmie Rodgers
A coon named Billy Boardler
Was an end man and a yod'ler,
In a black faced minstrel troupe,
            he was a dream ...

Say can't he chirp some tenor,
Yes, that rag-time op'ra tenor,
Oh he sho' can sing,
            his breathing power's fine ...

His Yode'lin' is marvelous
            and grand ...,
I love to hear you yod'lin' Mister
            Yod'lin' man.

(From Mister Yodelin' Man, words and music by Chris Smith, 1911.)
In the black South African coming-of-age novel Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost, author Dugmore Boetie drew from his late 1930s childhood to describe a young apprentice thief who lived with an adopted street-father in a tunnel or storm sewer in old Sophiatown.  Their subterranean lair harboured an array of stolen goods, including a gramophone and some 78s, one of which put the boy in a trance:
The voice in the record belonged to Jimmy Rodgers.  He was singing a song called Waiting for the Train with guitar accompaniment.  The first time I heard that record, it took me like a drunkard takes to drink.  I didn't want anything to go wrong.  Not while I was listening to that record.
Such was the magnetic power of Jimmie Rodgers' late 1920s commercial recordings.  What made them so irresistible was Jimmie's 'blue yodel'.  Within months of their release in the States, Jimmie's records were available in South Africa, and by 1932 a black South African singer named William Mseleku had 'recorded some songs directly modeled on Rodgers's 'Blue Yodel' series'.1. Veit Erimann, African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991 ), p.94.1  During the 1940s, similar-sounding yodels began to surface on recordings by traditional black South African mbube choirs.  An example is preserved on Ladysmith Black Mambazo's 1974 album Isitimela, which means 'a train'.  The liner notes claim that when leader Joseph Shabalala 'comes out on solo with a voice like that of the Western cowboys he reaches a very high note of performance'.

Singer catalogue (South Africa) c.1937.This claim echoes the sentiment expressed in a newspaper review of an African-American vaudeville quartet that appeared in a Chicago theatre in 1918: 'Alien's Cheyenne Minstrels, a western serenade quartette, one a female, who yodeled nicely, in a cowboy, mountainside scene, with sunset, was a good offering'.2. Sylvester Russell, 'Chicago Notes', Indianapolis Freeman, 2 March 1918.2 African-American entertainers did not exclude themselves from the popular Western motif.  Musical dramas and comedy skits with Western themes were staples of early black vaudeville, and, as such, were obvious precursors of the all-black cast Western movies of the 1940s, which featured smooth crooners like Herb Jeffries and Dusty Brooks.

Joseph Shabalala traces his yodel to a rural South African folk tradition: 'That thing began from when the old ladies do that thing we call 'ululation'.  And then the young ladies, they used to call each other like that'.3. Doug Seroff interview with Joseph Shabalala, 3 March 1990.3  Shabalala was surprised to discover how closely some of his work resembles that of Rebert Harris, whose 'gospel yodel' distinguishes vintage recordings by the famous Soul Stirrers.  Harris traces his yodeling style to the rural Texas environment of his childhood.4. Tony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound - Good News and Bad Times (New York. Simon and Schuster, 1971), p.111.4  Aaron Neville, the contemporary New Orleans crooner, traces his yodeling style to gospel music and to 'cowboy singers on the radio.  I grew up on the The Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, with yodeling and stuff.5. Macon Fry, 'Aaron Neville', Wavelength (May 1985), p.22.5

Scholars generally maintain that Jimmie Rodgers invented the blue yodel, that he 'was the first singer clearly to establish the yodel as an echo and comment on the blues'.6. Robert Coltman, 'Roots of the Country Yodel: Notes Toward a Life History', John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly (Summer 1972).6  The search for roots of blue yodeling has concentrated primarily on African-American folksinging traditions and on Jimmy Rodgers' early association with black 'gandy dancers' and railroad men.  However, there is the possibility that Jimmie was at least as much influenced by black vaudeville yodelers and by 78s.  Carrie Rodgers, Jimmie's second wife and first biographer, said he was 'fascinated by shows and show people.'  He 'haunted the show lots and stage entrances of theaters ...  As long as he could possibly scare up a dollar that wasn't busy he would spend it for shows - any kind - (and) for phonograph records.'  He 'bought phonograph records by the ton,' and 'toward the betterment of his own brand of music-making, he would play those records over and over.'7. Mrs Jimmie (Carrie) Rodgers, My Husband Jimmie Rodgers (1935; Country Music Foundation reprint, Nashville, 1975), pp.31, 56-7.7

Tommy Johnson - from a 1928 Victor catalogue.According to the popular theory, Jimmie synthesized Swiss Alpine yodelling with 'black falsetto', a folkmusical inspiration with roots in Africa.  Late 1920s recordings by bluesman Tommy Johnson are cited as representative of 'black falsetto':

Johnson's refrain derives mainly from the Afro-American field holler tradition, while Rodgers's refrain displays an obvious debt to Swiss yodeling style ... Rodgers probably owes his refrain less to black music than he does the occasional falsetto which he employs on words in his blues stanzas.  This is a common technique among black folksingers and one that is undoubtedly indigenous to their music, since it can also be heard in some recordings of African tribal music.  Rodgers probably picked up the technique from black musicians when learning the blues and somehow associated it with Swiss yodeling, with which he also must have been familiar.  Thus was born the 'blue yodel' in white folkmusic.8. David Evans, 'Black Musicians Remember Jimmie Rodgers', Old Time Music, VII (Winter, 1972/3), p.13.8
Earlier examples of 'black falsetto', equal in strength and vitality to Tommy Johnson's, are preserved on blues songs recorded by black vocal quartets.  Consider the Gulf Coast Quartet's 1923 recording of Happy Blues (Columbia 14012) and the Norfolk Jazz Quartet's 1921 recordings of Wang Wang Blues (Okeh 8022) and Southern Jack (Okeh 4318), a popular railroad blues that shares imagery with later Jimmie Rodgers recordings.

Franz Reilhofer's Alpine Yodellers, Chicago, c.1906. (Courtesy State History Society of Wisconsin).In addition to 'black falsetto', African-American vocal quartets made distinctive use of the Swiss Alpine yodel.  This can be heard in the calliope imitation, a humorous onomatopoeic device that dates from the 1880s, at least.  In 1889, while touring with the Georgia Minstrels, the Excelsior Quartette 'delighted' audiences with their 'imitation of Barnum's Steam Organ'.9. 'The Stage', Indianapolis Freeman, 22 March 1890.9  The calliope effect was achieved through a well-pronounced yodel.  Two recorded examples, both from 1924, survive: Calliope Song by the Seven Musical Magpies (Victor 19544) and Barnum's Steam Calliope by the Sunset Four (Paramount 12241).  On both, the yodeled calliope imitation is preceded by a barber-shopped verse of J K 'Fritz' Emmett's popular yodeling vehicle from 1879, Cuckoo Song.

Abbe Niles, who had occasion to comment on Jimmie Rodgers' 'Blue Yodel' 78s at the time of their initial release, saw nothing unique in the amalgam of yodeling and blues singing that they offered.  As much an expert on the blues as anyone was in 1928 - he had written the introduction to W C Handy's 1926 Blues: An Anthology - Niles was impressed by how distinctively black Jimmie's Blue Yodel recordings sounded, yodeling and all.

This came out in Niles' enlightening record-review column, 'Ballads, Songs and Snatches', which appeared in 1928 and early 1929 issues of The Bookman, a mainstream literary journal.  Niles advised his readers to flesh out their Paul Whiteman collections with hillbilly, ethnic and all manner of 'Race' 78s, including blues and blues-related songs by the likes of Alberta Hunter, Rabbit Brown, Peg Leg Howell, the 'magnificent' Bessie Smith, Cannon's Jug Stompers and Washington Phillips:

'Listening to race records is nearly the only way for white people to share the Negroes' pleasures without bothering the Negroes'.
To Niles' ear, Jimnrie Rodgers was a 'White man gone black'.  In his July 1928 column, Niles recommended Jimmie's first 'engaging, melodious and bloodthirsty 'Blue Yodel' '.  In his September 1928 column, under the heading 'White man singing black songs', Niles endorsed Jimmie's Blue Yodel - No.  II.  He went on to acknowledge that Jimmie's first 'Blue Yodel' had 'started the whole epidemic of yodelling blues that now rages - though Clarence Williams wrote a good one five years ago.'

Niles was referring to Yodeling Blues, copyrighted by the Clarence Williams Music Publishing Company on 31 March 1923, and commercially recorded twice that same year.  SaraMartin and EvaTaylor - Clarence's wife - recorded it on 4 May 1923 (Okeh 8067).  The label credits 'Piano Accomp.  by Clarence Williams' and 'Yodel Cornet Obligate by Thomas Morris*.  Between twelve-bar blues verses about losing a man, the singers warble a distinct, if slightly inane, "yodel-odel-odel, de-yodel-odel-odel".0n 14 June 1923, Bessie Smith recorded adarker version of Yodeling Blues (ColumbiaA3939).  On both of these recordings the yodeling is more implied than realized.  Still, the 'blue yodel' syntax is in place; the yodel is expressed as 'an echo and comment on the blues':

I'm gonna yodel my blues away, I said,
            my blues away,
I'm gonna yodel, yodel my blues away,
            yeee-hoo,
I'm gonna yodel 'til things come back
            my way.
Among the most forgotten, least-appreciated phenomena in America's musical history, African-American yodelers were essential to the acculturation of Swiss Alpine yodeling in American song.  The Americanization of the Alpine yodel, including its African-American adaptation, gained initial momentumciroz 1840 with the wave of indigenous' singing family' and minstrel troupe quartets that cued on the success of the Tyrolese Rainer Family.  Touring the Eastern states from 1839to 1843, the Rainers performed simple, mixed-voice arrangements of Tyrolese folksongs, with yodeling.10. Hans Nathan, 'The Tyrolese Family Rainer and The Vogue of Singing Mountain-Troupes in Europe and America'. The Musical Quarterly, XXXII (1961).10

America's most popular nineteenth-century singing family, the Hutchinsons, made regular use of yodeling.  Quick to parody the singing-family idea, minstrel show quartets took up yodeling as 'tyrolesian business'.  An 1853 program for Christy's Minstrels announces their burlesque of the Hutchinson Family singing 'We Come from the Hills with Tyrolean Echo'.11. New York Clipper, 4 May 1872.11  Christy's Minstrels were still burlesquing the Hutchinsons when they performed in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1862.12. New York Clipper, 18 October 1863.12

Charles Anderson (Indianapolis Freeman, 29 December, 1917).The most enduring vehicle for American yodelers has been S A Emery's 1869 lullaby, Sleep, Baby, Sleep.  Between the late 1890s, when the first cyclinder recordings of it were made, and 1927, when Jimmie Rodgers chose it for his debut recording, Sleep, Baby, Sleep was recorded a dozen times or more.  In 1923 it was recorded by an African-American yodeler named Charles Anderson.  Students of Jimmie Rodgers are aware of this.  Tony Russell mentioned it in his book, Blacks Whites and Blues (1970), and Robert Coltman referred to it in a footnote to his JEMFQ article, 'Roots of the Country Yodel' (1972).  Not mentioned, however, is the fact that Anderson's total record output - eight sides from 1923 and 1924 - is a near even mixture of yodels and blues songs.  Apparently, since Anderson was not a folksinger, he was dismissed as an oddity, an isolated example, not part of the racial-cultural interaction in which the blue yodel was formed.

Documentation in the Indianapolis Freeman, a nationally distributed weekly newspaper that catered to black entertainers, reveals that Charles Anderson was one of several black yodelers who performed extensively in front of black and white audiences during the first two decades of this century.  Those decades were marked by a proliferation of independant black vaudeville theaters.  In the fresh, uninhibited environment provided by these theatres, coon songs of the previous era gave way to more honest African-American musical expressions, including the 'new phase of ragtime' which came to be known as 'blues'.

Ragtime-cum-blues songs like Going Where the Weather Suits My Clothes, Elgin Movements, I Ain 't Got Nobody and He's In the Jailhouse Now - one of Jimmie Rodgers' blue yodel classics - were original products of this environment.  A report to the Freeman from Gibson's New Theater, Philadelphia, in October 1919 said, 'Marshall and Davis ...  who also sing and dance to the African 'KAZOON', find favor when they sing 'He's In the Jail House Now', and play on the slide trombone.'

By 1920 a certain Kid Thomas - not the New Orleans trumpeter - had made 'the jailhouse song' his speciality.  Thomas was an eccentric vocalist; when he sang In the Right Church, But the Wrong Pew at Chicago's famous Pekin Theater back in 1908, he and the cornet player 'got hooked up in such a complicated way that it was hard to tell which was which'.  In February 1920, at the Washington Theater, Indianapolis, Thomas created a 'near riot' with 'his now famous song, 'He's in the Jail House Now'.  Later that year he sang it 'with the addition of a new verse'.

Charles Anderson and his yodeling contemporaries were among the first wave of singers to take on the 'new-style' songs.  While preserving the great ballads and yodel songs of yore, they continually devised new yodels and absorbed the latest ragtime-cum-blues songs.  Selected Indianapolis Freeman references to Anderson and other black Southern vaudeville yodelers - particularly Monroe Tabor and Beulah Henderson - bring out the previously unexplored commercial side of 'black yodeling' and show precisely how, during the decade 1910 to 1920, black professional yodelers brought blues and yodeling into intimate juxtaposition.

Monroe Tabor

If Jimmie Rodgers was the 'Singing Brakeman', Monroe Tabor was the 'Yodeling Bell Boy'.  Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he turns up in the Freeman on 1 June 1907 as a new tenor soloist and qu artet singer with the Dandy Dixie Minstrels, who considered him a 'rare find' with the tonal 'quality of a Troy'.  Fellow Birmingham native Henry Troy was internationally famous for his sweet rendition of Tom Lemonier's barbershop ballad, Just One Word of Consolation.

The Dandy Dixies comprised a major road show, a 'New Ebony Sunburst of Modern Minstrelsy', formed in 1906 under the white proprietorship of Voelckel & Nolan, who also owned the Black Patti Troubadours.  In typical road-show fashion, they played grueling successions of one-nighters, six nights a week, on a year-round basis.  During Tabor's first four months with them, the Dandy Dixies played from Duluth, Minnesota, to New Orleans, Louisiana.  They were in Kansas in November 1907, when he was first identified as a yodeler:

'The Dixie Rangers Quartette receives three and four encores nightly.  Our ballad singers (and quartet members) are Hayward Wooton, Monroe Tabor, The Alabama Yodeler, Jakie Smith, the small man with the big voice, and Tom Seldon, baritone.
When the Dandy Dixies played BimumghaminJanuary 1908, Tabor stayed behind to spend time with his family at 4118 Second Avenue He took another Birmingham sabbatical in April, but was back with the troupe in Kingston, New York, that summer, when a 'well-known critic' reported:
Monroe Tabor sang A Tear, a Kiss, a Smile.  Mr Tabor is a new tenor with a good voice, which suffers only from a lack of training.  The Dixie Ranger Quartette was another hit, and made good in all its selections.  While there was not quite enough comedy and ragtime, the Yoodle [sic] song, Sleep, Baby, Sleep, was greatly in atonement and showed Monroe Tabor to be unexcelled as a yoodler.
When Billy Kersands, 'the dean of genuine Negro minstrels', Joined the Dandy Dixies at Chattanooga in September 1908, Tabor was 'singing Dear Dixie with great success'.  When they played Dallas in November, the quartet sang Every Star Falls In Love With Its Mate and When the Swallows Build Their Nests, Sweet Mane.  In the latter, 'the high tenor notes of one of the singers, mingling with a deep bass that seemed to roll up from somewhere beneath the stage, brought howls of approval from the galleries and a dignified encore from the pit'.  Later that month.  Tabor was'using a new yodle, which causes he and the Dixie Ranger Quartette to be called in the floodlights repeatedly'.

In April 1909 Tabor closed with the Dandy Dixies and went to work at the Exchange Garden Theater in Jacksonville, Florida, where he became 'the hit of the season singing No One Knows.' In addition, the team of 'Trice and Tabor, soprano and eccentric tenor', sang 'the latest out of today, Al H Wilson's lullaby Just to Be With You, and Down in New England.' Another song he made 'quite a hit' with was Girl of My Dreams.

In July 1909 Tabor left the Garden with Richards and Pnngle's Georgia Minstrels.  When high-toned critic Sylvester Russell reviewed their August appearance at Bell' s Opera House, Benton Harbor, Michigan, he noted:

The ballad When I Dream in the Gloaming of You, by Monroe Tabor, a young man with a tenor voice infinitely sweet, in a measure whose lower notes are uncertain in tonal carriage.  His soft singing is entirely of falsetto, truly an indication of a great singing organ.  But as Mr Tabor never expects to be an opera singer we can excuse his lack of technic [sic] and his falsetto, which serves him well in yodle songs of the sweetest and best his race has produced since the days of Mr Price [Prof T H Price, referred to in African-American press reports of 1890s as 'the Black Emmett'], and to which he bowed amidst the deafening applause which greeted him.
As their 'iconoclasstic tenor and yeodler', Tabor stayed three months with the famous Georgia Minstrels In October 1909, when they played the Prince Theater, Houston, the mainstream Post remarked, 'The 'yodle' rendered by Monroe Tabor was simply grand'.  As they moved into the Texas Panhandle, Tabor closed out with the troupe, returned to Jacksonville, took up residence at 409 West Orange Street, and resumed work at the Exchange Garden Theater Correspondence from the Garden on 6 November said, 'Monroe Tabor, our soloist, who is said to be the only black A L Wilson, is singing this week 'Intryrol Yodel'.'

A report from the Garden on 22 January 1910 said Tabor was also singing 'that beautiful ballad Love Thoughts'.  After that, news from the Garden dried up, and Tabor disappeared from the Freeman for a year.  When he surfaced again, it was under the scrutiny of Northern theatre critics.  In February 1911 Sylvester Russell reported from the Grand Theater, Chicago 'Monroe Tabor, the tenor and yodler, formerly of Richard and Pringles' Georgia Minstrels, made his first appearance at this house, and won instant favor'.  On 25 February an article on 'Acts New To Indianapolis' noted:

This young man has an odd act.  It is peculiarly adapted as an 'opener'.  It is a straight singing act, yet Mr Tabor puts so much soul and expression in his work that it at once springs into popular favor with his audiences.  His songs are all of them of a specially selected nature, chosen, as it were, to suit a voice great in forcefulness, tone and sweetness.  His neat costume, that of a bellboy, seems to lend an air of niftiness to all he does, both convincing and entertaining Tabor, as I have said, is yet a young man, and has a very brilliant career before him.  His singing is of a kind and style sure to win for him recognition among the managers.  It was hard for the audience to determine which of the songs he rendered was the best.  Judging from the applause, however, I am inclined to think that his yodel of Wilson's Lullaby was best received.  The other two songs in the act were I Love the Name of Mary and Tabor's Yodel, the latter being an original composition.  Unlike most colored singers, Tabor has a distinctiveness of articulation making himself heard in all parts of the house.
In the fall of 1911 Tabor turned up on the West Coast: 'Monroe Tabor, the Yodelin Bell Boy, at the Richmond theater, San Francisco, Cal, week of October 2nd.  He is one of the big hits of the coast'.  Then, in February 1912, he 'joined hands with Fred P Greene in an act entitled 'The Red Cap and the Bell Boy', a pianologue'.  In earlier days, Fred Green was a house pianist at Chicago's legendary Monogram Theater.  From there he had branched out as a dialect comedian and become famous for his portrayal of 'the rag-picking Jew'.

Tabor and Green remained partners through 1920, at least.  Often appearing on 'big-time' white theatre circuits, they offered everything 'from grand opera to ragtime'.  While later Freeman references are largely confined to route listings, their Chicago appearances brought occasional comments from Sylvester Russell.  At the Grand Theater in January 1917, 'Fred Greene kept the house in convulsions of laughter and Monroe Tabor yodeled as only J K Emmett Sr, of yore could do'.  At the Avenue Theater in December 1917, 'When My Ship Comes Sailing Home was a fine tenor solo by Tabor, who has no superiors as a yodeler'.

Beulah Henderson

Beulah Henderson, née Washington, was the first vaudevillian known to offer a combination of yodel songs and blues, or, at least, up-to-date ragtime songs incorporating the language and spirit of blues.  Her advertisements in the Freeman claimed she was 'America's Only Colored Lady Yodeler'.  She was born and raised in New Orleans, where she appeared at the New Globe Museum in 1905 singing My Fairy Coon in a stock company headed by Billy Henderson.

Billy Henderson was a 'popular comedian' from Atlanta who had moved to New Orleans in 1901 to open a restaurant.  By 1906 he and Beulah had formed a song-and-dance team and struck out for theatres along the Gulf Coast.  In December 1906, correspondence from Jacksonville's Exchange Garden Theater revealed:

Mr William H Henderson, of the team of Henderson and Washington, will wed his partner, Miss Beaulah Washington, on Sunday evening, December 9th, at the Lincoln Park, Jacksonville, Fla.  It will be one of the grandest weddings that has ever taken place before a public audience.
Appearing in Southern theatres and parks over the next four years, Beulah Henderson crossed paths with blues pioneers like Ed Peate and Butler 'String Beans' May, as well as with yodeler Monroe Tabor.  By 1910 she had established herself as a premier 'coon shouter'.  Correspondence fromLagman's Theater, Mobile, Alabama, in August 1910 said, 'Beulah Henderson as a 'coon shouter', has gained the distinction of being the greatest that has ever set foot on the soil of Mobile County.  She is at present singing such great successes as The Grizzly Bear, Stop That Rag and other great hits'.

In October 1910, when Billy and Beulah made their Northern debut at the Grand Theater, Chicago, critic Carey B Lewis noted they 'dance and sing, the numbers being Stop that Scorching the Hand [sic] and Sleep Baby Sleep.  When they were held over the following week, Lewis found them 'bristling with fun in black-face, singing successfully, Lone in Dixie, Stop that Rag, Stop Scorching that Ham and Are You On.'

From the Grand, Billy and Beulah dropped down to the Belmont Theater, Pensacola, Florida, and 'knocked 'em a 'twister'.'  Also on the bill, as a team act were Ma Rainey and Laura Smith.  On closing night the Hendersons joined Laura Smith and others for a 'genuine Italian macaroni supper' prepared by a chef named Aleck Alaska, then played whist 'until the 'wee sma' hours in the morning'.  Next day they left for Lagman's Theater, where Billy organized a new stock company that included 'coon shouter' Alberta Smiley and future blues recording artist Mattie Dorsey.

The Jolly Hendersons (Indianapolis Freeman, 4 Novenmber 1911).When Billy and Beulah played the Houston Theater, Louisville, Kentucky, in February 1911, they were billed as 'The Jolly Hendersons'.  Credited as 'one of our foremost colored producers', Billy staged some original musical comedies, including The Cowboy of the West and A Texas Ranger, while Beulah sang Lullaby.

At this point in her career, Beulah's coon shouting was preempted by her yodeling.  A May 1911 report from the Gaither Theater, Cincinnati, said, 'Miss Henderson ...  sings Sleep, Baby, Sleep, a very old song'.  At the New Crown Garden Theater, Indianapolis, in October 1911 manager Tim Owsley noted:

The Jolly Hendersons offered a clean, bright and snappy act of singing, talking and dancing.  Each song rendered by the jolly pair won for them an encore.  Mr Henderson is a real clever light comedian, while his partner, Miss Henderson , is just as clever as a singing and talking soubrette.  In fact she is one of the first lady yodlers that we have had the pleasure of hearing.
Billy and Beulah Henderson posted this advertisement in the Freeman in May 1913:

The Classy Colored Comedy Pair
THE JOLLY HENDERSONS
featuring
Beulah Henderson
America's only Colored Lady "Yodler"

In June 1913, while Billy went on tour with the Billy King Stock Company, Beulah went home to New Orleans.  She stayed at her mother's house, 2417 Bradish Street, and made a few solo appearances at E D Lee's Lee Theater.  When she joined her husband with Billy King's Stock Company at the Lyric Theater, Kansas City, in July, she was billed as 'America's greatest yodeler', and she was 'repeatedly encored, singing her famous 'Yoodle' song'.

After Kansas City, news from the Billy King Stock Company fell off, and when Billy Henderson surfaced again on 17 August 1915, he was managing the Hippodrome Theater in Richmond, Virginia.  Meanwhile, Beulah hadreturned to New Orleans and was working the Storyville cabarets.  A note on 25 July 1914 said 'Bessie Edington, Beulah Henderson, Lena Leggett, Arthur Winn, and the peerless Walter (Nooky) Johnson still hold their own and some one else's at the Manhattan cabaret'.  Another note in late July informed that 'Miss Beulah Henderson and Lena Leggins are holding out at Pete Lalas, Customhouse and Marais.  They are doing good work and drawing large crowds'.

During the first week of September 1914 Beulah appeared at the Star Theater, Shreveport, Louisiana, with a New Orleans-based stock company headed by irrepressible entrepreneur and all-round vaudevillian William Benbow, who described her as 'America's foremost (Col.) yoddler'.  As the manager of Storyville's infamous Poodle Dog Cabaret in January 1915, Benbow reported that Beulah was 'still entertaining for the first class cabaret'.  He said she was ' ...  pleasing as usual'.  On that note, news of 'America's Only Colored Lady Yodeler' gives out.

Charles Anderson

Like Monroe Tabor, Charles Anderson was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the Snow Hill community.  He and Tabor's shared nativity and continued presence in Birmingham, their mutual association with quartets and quartet singers, and their common affinity for Sleep, Baby, Sleep, certainly help to explain why the only three black traditional quartets who recorded versions of Sleep, Baby, Sleep during the late 1920s - the Golden Leaf Quartet, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers and the Famous Blue Jay Singers - were all from Birmingham.  The possibility of Jimmie Rodgers having precipitated this provincial phenomenon now seems remote.

Charles Anderson - Yodler of Note (Indianapolis Freeman, 18 October, 1919).It was Charles Anderson's destiny to become a 'Yodeler Blues Singer'.  In January 1909 he turned up as a 'clever young rising comedian' doing an 'old woman monologue' at the Lyric Theater in Memphis.  One year later he surfaced as an 'illustrated songster' at the Royal Theater, also in Memphis, 'singing In the Good Old USA.'  Still at the Royal a couple of weeks later, he was 'doing nicely', though 'suffering from his new $100 cork leg'.  By the end of the month he was' much improved', and still 'cleaning up with those illustrated songs'.

Over the next two years, Anderson plied the Southern vaudeville stages in company with some of the era's most important blues singers.  In March 1911 he appeared at the American Theater in Jackson, Mississippi, on a bill with Bessie Smith.  Wayne 'Buzzin' Burton, who became Bessie's partner, reported from Birmingham in December 1911:

Despite the cold weather we are on top.  Leroy White is staging the shows ...  Bessie Smith gets the hands singing Southern Gal.  Lula Smith makes a decided hit with Ocean [sic] Roll.  Mr Charles Anderson, our able straight man, scores heavily in It's All Gone Now.  Rastus Buckner ...  has them screaming singing Alexander's Band.  Wayne Burton ...  is singing Plant a Watermelon on My Grave.
When Anderson made his Northern debut at the Monogram Theater in August 1912, Sylvester Russell mentioned only that he was 'a newcomer'.  That fall, working his way down the East Coast on S H Dudley's pioneer black theatre circuit, he was 'still making high C'.  In the spring of 1913 Anderson played the thriving cluster of theatres around his hometown, taking in North Birmingham, Bessemer, Ensley and Peats Cliff.  'All these houses are street car jumps,' he reported 'Plenty of work here.  This is the greatest show town in the South for its size'.

By the summer of 1913, Anderson had his trademark concoction of blues and yodels together.  When he played the Booker T Washington Theater in St Louis that August, he got his first in-depth review in the Freeman:

The Male Mockingbird, Charles Anderson, the man with the golden voice, is some character singer, imitator, and impersonator.  As an imitator, Anderson has the best on the market skinned, his violin imitation intermezzo went big, and was one of the best imitations of a musical instrument heard in this neck of the woods for many moons.  Sleep Baby Sleep, a lullaby sung in costume of an old nurse went big.  The yodeling in this song was excellent.  Baby Seals Blues, as rendered by Anderson, was worth going to hear.  After a quick change, Anderson reappeared as the polished gentleman and sang When the Cuckoo Sings, instantly winning the hearts of the audience with his perfect yodehng, causing said audience to cheer like mad for more.
Baby Seals Blues, the first blues title to appear in Anderson's repertoire, predates WC Handy's Memphis Blues as the first published blues composition.13. Abbe Niles, in his introduction to W C Handy, ed , Blues: An Anthology (2nd edn. 1949), p 18.13  The song is not about young aquatic mammals.  Subtitled 'Sing em - they sound good to me', it was named for its composer, H Franklin 'Baby' Seals, the pioneer blues singer-pianist from Mobile, Alabama:
Honey, baby, mamma do she double do
          love you,
I love you baby, don't care what you do,
Oh sing em, sing em, sing them blues,
Cause they cert'ly sound good to me.
Anderson went from St Louis to the New Crown Garden Theater, Indianapolis, where he repeated his blues and yodehng act.  It was the act that would carry him through the decade and into the recording studio:
Charles Anderson does a splendid colored mammy.  Everyone likes this creation of his.  This kind of portrayal of character does not give offense.  This mammy is just a mammy not particularly old, not particularly ugly and lame, as some are.  She does things that are amusing and witty, as many real mammies do.

She gets the blues.  Then she puts on Baby Seals' well-known song, making a tremendous hit.  The part including the song makes for the best character of the kind seen here.  When responding to encore, Anderson appears in full dress suit.

As a yodler, he is among the best in the country.  Perhaps none will ever equal the great Fritz K Emmett, but he greatly reminds one of the eminent yodler of years ago.  He sang one of Emmett's songs.  He won applause by holding a note sixty seconds, a difficult defeat [sic] and pleasing enough because accompanied by a pretty waltz movement by the orchestra.

Following the successful presentation of his yodehng, blues-singing 'mammy' character in St Louis and Indianapolis, Sylvester Russell pronounced Anderson a 'Great Singer':
Among the few picked singers in vaudeville who shine by national [sic] talent and instinct is one Charles Anderson, whom I have styled 'The Human Violin'.  His imitation of a violin playing Mascagni's 'Intermezzo' from the opera, at once attracted critics who know, on his first visit to Chicago.  His voice is a natural organ of alto material, which ranges high and pure and loud in altissimo, and he possesses both temperament and magnetism.  As a lullaby gag-love singer, and especially as a yodeler, he probably has no equal, and his protean character work is convincing.  In fact he is a wonder in a new sphere of vocal discovery.
Anderson spent the remainder of 1913 in Canada and Northern Michigan.  At the Unique Theater, Detroit, he was '...  well received in his song The Blues, and his old woman makeup is a riot'.  The New Year found him working his way down the East Coast again on S H Dudley's time.  A report from Dudley's bijou Theater, Durham, North Carolina, on 21 February 1914 said, 'He stops the show with his crow Jane act'.  'Crow Jane', the ugly, old, half-mad, fright-wig caricature, female counterpart to 'Jim Crow', was carried into the modem era by Morris Mabley.  Apparently Anderson's 'crow jane' was somewhat less pungent than most.

Back in Birmingham in March 1914, Anderson reportedly bought a house for his mother 'out of one year's work on the stage'.  He spent the entire spring and summer of 1914 in Birmingham, and correspondence on 25 July said he was 'still mananging the big tented theatre at 22 Good Avenue'.

On a bill with Butler May at the Grand Theater, Chicago, in October 1914, Anderson '...  introduced Handy's St Louis Blues', which had just come off the press in September.  In her lively autobiography, His Eye Is On The Sparrow, Ethel Waters claimed to have been the 'first woman - and the second person - ever to sing' W C Handy's most famous song professionally.  She said she was inspired to feature it after hearing it sung by 'Charles Anderson, a very good female impersonator'.  The song became a staple of Anderson's repertoire, and it is among the unissued titles from his last recording session, in 1928.

In Washington DC at the Howard Theater in February 1915, Anderson fetched a glowing review:

Charles Anderson, a double-voiced singer of unusual quality ...  proved to be one of the strongest attractions the house has had in his line for a long tune.  His imitation of a violin is true to life.  His rendition of J K Emmett's famous "Cuckoo" song, in which he holds one note sixty seconds or more, was fine and brought back more tender memories to the old-timers who had heard Emmett himself carol forth this tuneful melody twenty five years ago, when the great singer was in his palmy days.  The Lullaby was given by Anderson with telling effect, and the yodeling was all that could be asked for.  He impersonates both female and male characters.

In closing, the Howard Theater correspondent noted, 'It is a curious coincidence that Mr Anderson's teacher and inspiring genius was Haywood S Wooten, formerly of Indianapolis, who was a member of the old 'Silver-toned Quartette' of that city in the '80s'.  The same Haywood S Wooten was with Monroe Tabor in the Dixie Rangers Quartette in 1907, singing Sleep, Baby, Sleep.

From the Howard Theater, Anderson went to Gibson's New Standard Theater, Philadelphia, where his 'cooing and yodling songs ...  kept the audience at fever heat'.  When he hit the Monogram in April 1915, Sylvester Russell said 'the mammy character actor and yodeler, who imitates a violin, also made a hit singing in double voice.  His St Louis Blues was Southern perfection that others can't approach.'

In September 1915, after touring the Northeast with a white stock company, Anderson played the Crown Garden Theater, Indianapolis, on a bill with Perry Bradford.  'In responding to encores, he gave a very fine rendition of the blues - St Louis Blues and The Weary Blues.  The latter was probably Coleman L Minor's Weary Way Blues.  Correspondence from Minor himself confirmed that 'Chas.  Anderson, the great singer, is singing Coleman L Minor's Weary Way Blues.' Like Anderson, Minor was 'known to Indianapolis theatergoers', and when he and an unnamed female partner had played the Crown Garden back in April 1915, the partner sang a 'pretty Yoddle song, done in good style, and with good voice'.

Any plans that Anderson and Minor may have had to establish a singer-songwriter relationship were undoubtedly squashed by Minor's open letter to the Freeman on 18 November 1916:

Coleman L Minor, the author of If Luck Don't Change, There'll Be Some Stealing Done, I Ain't Got Nobody and Minor's Blues which are sung by Charlie Anderson and he has taken the liberty to print and sell without permission.  Would like to say to the world, white or black, don't be surprised if some one pulls you off the stage while singing any of my songs without a written permit with my signature.  You know who you are.  Nuff Sed.
Meanwhile, in March 1916, Anderson signed on with the Six Musical Millers, and when they played Louisville, Kentucky's Olio Theater in mid-April, he made 'a big hit with his 'Yodle' and the 'Blues'.'  Next week at the Monogram he was 'repeatedly recalled with a whistling echo'.  By June he had closed with the Musical Millers and returned to solo work.  His July appearances in Indianapolis got good press:
Charles Anderson is a stand-out performer being blessed with a high range musical voice, which seems to know no limitations.  If he chooses to sing a pure soprano without a hint of male tone he can do so.  Not only does he register high and clear, he makes the little quips, turns, trills and runs that high class women soprano singers make.  He still gives a reminder of the renowned Fritz Emmett, yodeler, singing his great song, yodeling high and beautifully.  Then his prolonged note, like a bird poised on its wing, flying without a flutter.  Anderson calls the blues, a phase of ragtime, grand opera.  If it were grand opera, then he were its Caruso.  Perhaps he leads the procession in that kind of singing.  Last Saturday night he put the house in motion like a boat at sea, when he put over his own blues creation.
What may have originated as a joke - that ragtime was 'Colored Folk's Opera' - was legitimized by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers.  Joplin's comic ragtime opera Treemonisha was a logical extension, and practical application, of Antonin Dvorak's famous pronouncement - that the musical inventions of slavery comprised America's only original folk music, and that any attempt to create an honest American classical music would have to build on those inventions.  W C Handy reflected this sensibility in his' arty' blues compositions.

Charles Anderson was neither first nor last to refer to 'Colored Folk's Opera' in the Freeman.  In October 1910, at Ford Dabney's theater in Washington D C, 'Princess Rajah, styled 'the German-African song bird' ', closed her act 'with a humorous rendition of 'colored people's grand opera' - 'ragtime'.'  A report from Whitney's Smart Set in April 1917claimed, ' 'The Weary Blues', sung by Moana and others, passed right on to opera - regular opera - having the touch of one of Wagner's compositions.  It was the very height of blues singing'.  An October 1917 report from Wooden's Bon Tons said, 'Miss Ethalene Jordan in songs delineation deserves much credit for her rendition of popular and classy numbers and remember, she sings the colored folks opera too (The Blues)'.

Charles Anderson - 'The Yodler' (Indianapolis Freeman, 2 October, 1915).On 5 August 1916 a note in the Freeman announced, 'Charles Anderson, the well-known yodler and blues singer, thinks of organizing the Indianapolis Follies'.  One week later Anderson and his new troupe 'made their getaway for Pittsburgh and other eastern points'.  A review of their show at the Star Theater, Pittsburgh, said:

Miss Edna Pervine and Charles Anderson with the "Blues" are screaming them each night ...  Miss Alice Evans sings Circus Day in Dixie ...  Mr Otis Huntley, the blackface comedian, sings the song If You Got A Little Bit Hang On To It Because It's Hard to Find a Little Bit More.  Then came ...  Mr John Berry, the greatest Colored female impersonator of today.
The Indianapolis Follies was supposed to stay out until Thanksgiving, but by early November Anderson was back down South, touring solo.  At the Queen Theater, Chattanooga, in the first week of December, he was 'singing one of his own conceptions, the Worry Blues.  Nufsed'.  Also on the bill were Jimmie Cox, author of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, and a certain Miss Pettiford, who sang If You Don't Want Me, Please Don't Dog Me Around.

When Anderson appeared at the Washington Theater, Indianapolis, in February 1917 a reporter commented summarily:

He opens with a fine character stunt, an old mammy.  As a yodeler he is very well known, being, perhaps, the best colored performer in this line of work.  His opera, the blues, wins as usual.
In August 1917 Anderson was 'going big' in Sirmia, Ontario Province, Canada, 'singing Baby Seal's Blues.'  A month later he was down in Kentucky with Thomas B Littlejohn's Minstrels, under canvas.  In October he returned to Chicago as a member of the 'colored contingent' of the White Slave Company.  When he appeared in a solo act at the Monogram in November, Sylvester Russell proclaimed him a 'Singing Star': His 'falsetto soprano invisible, before entering, was a novel deception.  His violin imitation and his 'Blues' songs which now excell the renditions of other singers made a hit'.

Closing out the year at the Washington Theater, Indianapolis, Anderson got a strong review from 'Billy Laurens' [sic. Billie McLaunn], composer of Blind Man Blues:

Charles Anderson is one of those players that are designated as standard.  He comes back frequently, repeating his work, never failing to be appreciated He has a marvelous voice, running the total gamut of human capacity - nearly.  Not only is his range great - his voice is musical.  He was heard behind the curtains in his offering, singing the well known If I Forget then follows Why Should I Care.  Both are well sung, the last one being a particularly good rendition - a splendid sentimental song well sung.  Some Sweet Day is also well sung.  His range of voice permits him to do a good violin imitation.  He won with his yodeling as he always does.
As 1918 dawned, Anderson was working a brief stint with the Whitman Sisters, singing 'Alberta Whitman's composition Little Daddy.'  At the Crescent Theater, Pittsburgh, in the spring of 1918:
Charles Anderson, the 'Yodeler Blues' singer, was a scream from start to finish.  His act is a winner and what you call a show stopper.  His Jelly Roll Blues sung in his own way, just clocked the show.
By June 1918 the' 'Yodeler Blues' singer' was down in Georgia.  He spent the summer with Littlejohn' s Minstrels, as he had done the year before, and by October he was back up North in the theaters.  While that '$100 cork leg' of his must have kept him out of World War I, a note on 5 July 1919 said he was 'working in and around different camps through Virginia'.  In October 1919 he turned up at the Washington Theater, Indianapolis, singing / Am Sorry I Made You Cry, along with his ' 'Yoddle' song' and'his rendition of The Blues for Home,' which received 'ringing applause'.

Anderson spent the remainder of 1919 and the early months of 1920 in Northern Theaters.  At the Monogram, Sylvester Russell commented, 'Charles Anderson, whose voice is still sweet and wonderful in falsetto and yodle numbers, had a nice number, I Know What it Means to be Lonesome, and he made a hit'.  That spring, Anderson made his annual tour down the East Coast on S H Dudley time, then joined Littlejohn's Minstrels in 'the bluegrass state'.  As the troupe's interlocutor and 'human mocking bird', he sang ' Sleep Baby, Sleep with the greatest success'.  He also had a 'narrow escape' that summer:

Little John's Shows were caught in a flood at Carlyle, Ky, Friday night, August 27th, nothing being left of the midway but part of the Merry-go-round, Ferris Wheel and the Ariel Swing.  The rest of the show being completely washed away ...  Charles Anderson, the Yodeler, was rescued from drowning by Elmer Wheeler.
He survived to record eight sides for the Okeh label in 1923 and 1924, which gave summary account of his vaudeville repertoire during the previous decade.  Five of the recorded songs are yodels - Sleep, Baby, Sleep, Comic Yodle Song (which talks about meeting a woman with big feet, and is, perhaps, his own original composition).  Yodel Song - Coo Coo (J K Emmett's Cuckoo Song, adapted for Anderson's famous 60-second sustained soprano note), Laughing Yodel and Roll On Silver Moon, a sentimental ballad, also recorded by mainstream yodelers like George P Watson and Frank Kamplam, and reminiscent of Jimmie Rodgers' various Southern ballad recordings.

His other three sides are blues songs, among them Baby Seals Blues, released as Sing 'Em Blues.  In the years before Race recordings were finally allowed to flourish, Baby Seals Blues was sung by a wide variety of entertainers, and played by countless pit orchestras and circus-annex bands.  Strangely, Anderson's 1923 recording of it, with Eddie Heywood's piano accompaniment, is the only one known.  While no pronounced yodeling is heard on it, Anderson's moaned chorus makes fine art of the 'black falsetto'.  Soaring imperceptibly from his natural tenor to dizzy heights of soprano, he leaves no doubt about what it means to be 'double-voiced'.  Sadly, Anderson's other two recorded blues titles, Walkin' Blues and Dirty Mistreating Blues, remain untraced.

While some of the blue yodels heard on late 1920s Race recordings - those by the Mississippi Sheiks, for example - probably do owe something to Jimmie Rodgers' phenomenal success, others - like Billie Young's When They Get Lovin' They's Gone (accompanied by Jelly Roll Morton on Victor 23339,1930), Lottie Kimbrough and Winston Holmes' Lost Lover Blues (Gennett 6607, 1928), and Clint Jones' Mississippi Woman Blues and Blue Valley Blues (Okeh 8587, 1928) - seem more deeply connected to these precedent recordings by Charles Anderson, and to the venerable line of African-American yodelers they represent.  There is no reason to doubt that Jimmie Rodgers, who could not resist a show, was exposed to and influenced by the black yodeler-blues singer tradition.  Its practitioners were thoroughly entrenched in minstrelsy and vaudeville, and accessible to all races of people.  Perhaps Jimmie even saw Charles Anderson himself perform, or heard some of Anderson's crystalline blues and yodeling 78s, before rising to immortality on his own great 'Blue Yodel' recordings.  At any rate, the Freeman references strongly suggest that Charles Anderson and his generation of black professional yodelers had introduced the blue yodel in African-American entertainment before Jimmie Rodgers recorded.

Acknowledgements

All contemporaneous references to Monroe Tabor, Beulah Henderson and Charles Anderson and their activities, 1907-1920, as well as contemporaneous references to In the Jail House Now and to 'Colored Folks' Opera', are drawn from the authors' review of the Indianapolis Freeman, 1907-1920.  Thanks to Nolan Porterfield for a critical reading of the manuscript.

Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff - 1993

References


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