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The African-American Origins of the Broadway Musical

I highly recommend listening to this week’s 1619 Podcast: The Birth Of American Music which is part of the New York Times brilliant 1619 Project. Journalist Wesley Morris @Wesley Morris does an amazing job of outlining how significantly American popular music has been influenced by African-American musical forms that were born out of slavery. I only wish that he had also had the time to relate how the music of Broadway – "the Showtune" – originated in much the same way.

African-American songwriters were much more active and influential during the birth years of the musical than they are usually acknowledged or given credit for. At the same moment that Irish-Americans Harrigan & Hart, and German-Jews Webber & Fields were transforming their hit Vaudeville acts and personas into proto-musical comedies, top African-American vaudevillians Williams & Walker were doing pretty much the same thing just a few blocks away.

In fact, the earliest years of the musical can be seen as a lively conversation and vibrant competition between Irish, Jewish and African-American writers and performers -- each influenced and inspired by their rivals. Some of these nearly forgotten African-American songwriters include Will Marion Cook & Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jesse A. Ship & Alex Rogers, Bob Cole and brothers James and J. Rosamond Johnson. All of them created multiple hit musicals employing African-American stories and characters and large casts of black performers during the first decade of the 20th Century.

The significance of their work and many others will no doubt be demonstrated this week at NY’s York Theatre Company when historian/performer Ben West opens his documentary musical “45 MINUTES FROM COONTOWN”.

Much has been written about how Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and pretty every other songwriter of the day were captivated by African-American song forms and incorporated similar rhythms and harmonies into their own compositions. The admiration and influence went in both directions.

When the great Eubie Blake was composing the score for what would become the 1921 smash hit SHUFFLE ALONG he composed a sweeping waltz melody in the style of one of his idols, Irish-American songwriter Victor Herbert. However, at some point it was decided that they really didn’t have a spot for a waltz in the show. Like most songwriters Blake was loath to throw a away a good tune, so he revamped the song into 4/4 time and with addition of a jazzy lyric by Noble Sissle the song became not just the show’s thrilling first act finale, but also the chart topping hit, and enduring jazz standard, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”. If you sing it in waltz time you can still hear the echoes of Victor Herbert.

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