Introduction: Beyond Modernism

Love For Sale (1930)

Love for sale,
Appetising young love for sale.
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who's prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

Let the poets pipe of love
In their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I've been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love.

Love for sale.
Appetising young love for sale.
If you want to buy my wares.
Follow me and climb the stairs
Love for sale.
Love for sale.
 
Cole Porter — A early instrumental recording by Sam Wooding and his Orchestra is available at the Red Hot Jazz Archive. You will need RealAudio to play it. Uncounted jazz musicians have followed Wooding and recorded the song. A search of All Music Guide turned up over 750 versions with artists ranging from Cannonball Adderly to Teddy Wilson.

Is "Love For Sale," a song about prostitution from "The New Yorkers" of 1930, art? I will argue that it is and that it exemplifies a characteristic sort of art of the first half of the twentieth century which we can call "demotic." In so arguing I am offering a variation and extension of the thesis advanced by Gilbert Seldes in Seven Lively Arts (1923). In writing appreciatiatively of jazz, comic strips, silent comedies, and other popular arts of his time, Seldes proved well ahead of his time. All will now concede his acumen in hailing Charlie Chaplin as a genius and in discussing the sophistication of jazz when most contemporaries, including W.E.B. DuBois and several other black intellectuals, dismissed it as "primitive." Being right about these matters creates a presumption in favor of Seldes' central insight: What made these endeavors lively, their links to everyday experience and to a mass audience, also defined them as exemplifying a specific type of art.

Popular Culture students aside, scholars pay Seldes little heed. William B. Scott's and Peter M. Rutkoff's New York Modern: The Arts and the City (1999), for example, does quote Seldes on jazz but does not contain a single reference to Cole Porter. Or to Irving Berlin. Ruth St. Denis rates eleven, Fred Astaire none. Shuffle Along is briefly discussed but Show Boat is not. George Gershwin's popular songs and musical comedies do not receive mention although his compositions for the concert hall and Porgy and Bess are briefly discussed. Charles Ives, in contrast, is treated at some length and hailed for bridging "the gap between art and vernacular music by combining avant-garde forms with popular expressions to democratize and modernize American music." (p.41) Jerome Kern, who also goes unmentioned, had a different view of who bridged that gap. “To my mind, there are phrases in Berlin’s music as noble and mighty as any clause in the works of the Masters, from Beethoven and Wagner on down. Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Seldes was such a fan of Berlin, he compiled a catalogue of his published songs for Seven Lively Arts.

Yet Scott and Rutkoff are not simply wrong. If one makes the routine scholarly assumption that serious American music proceeds out of the European symphonic tradition, then it makes sense to describe Ives as bridging "the gap between art and vernacular music" rather than Irving Berlin or George Gershwin. Scholars, that is, take as a given that the vernacular cannot itself be art and, therefore, that the bridge can only be built from art to it. Hence, no Cole Porter in New York Modern.

Post WWI art = modernism. Non-modernists need not apply. Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, and other African Americans are exceptions to this rule of exclusion, in part for reasons of political correctness and in part because they had a deep and well-documented influence upon modernists, as demonstrated by Ives' interest in Joplin's rags. Scott and Rutkoff's chapter on "New York Modern in Harlem" includes a lengthy, well-informed, and highly interesting discussion of jazz. But it is unconnected to the rest of the book. As the authors note, jazz did not define itself in terms of European musical traditions. "Modern Art," in contrast, arose out of, and/or in opposition to, nineteenth-century European art. Jazz is an anomaly — it is modern and artistic but not modernist, at least until after World War II.

Jazz, originally jass, took its name from an African-American slang term for sexual intercourse which itself probably originated in New Orleans brothels. One theory is that it was short for "jasmine," an inexpensive perfume favored by whores. Whatever the origin of the term, early jazz titles give some idea of their creators' efforts to express the experiences of black people: "Struttin' With Some Barbeque" written by Lil Harden Armstrong and recorded by her and husband Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five; "Gut Bucket Blues" written by Louis Armstrong and also recorded by the Hot Five; "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" written by Duke Ellington and trumpheter Bubber Miley and recorded by Ellington's orchestra under the name of the Washingtonians. This last helped give rise to Ellington's so-called "jungle" sound.

Lyrics described unfaithful lovers ("St. Louis Blues" in a 1925 recording by Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong on cornet), the pleasures of dancing ("Cake-Walking Babies Back Home" written by Clarence Williams and recorded by his Hot Five), the pain of color prejudice within the black community ("What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?" written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf for "Connie's Hot Chocolates" and recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra). [All of these links are to the Red Hot Jazz Archive.]

Jazz was unmistakenly demotic in its early years. And it was frequently misperceived as "primitive" by friend and foe alike. But Duke Ellington was not "the greatest living master of jungle music," even though that is how his white manager Irving Mills introduced him to Cotton Club audiences. His 1927 recording of "Black and Tan Fantasy" (written with Bubber Miley) opens and closes with a paraphrase of Chopin's "Funeral March" from the Second Piano Sonata. The Cotton Club with its all-white clientele, Old South decor, dark-skinned waiters, and light-skinned chorus girls was itself a fantasy in black and tan. Describing it in dirge-like musical terms was an act of artistic courage as was the use of Chopin in so-called "jungle" music.

Duke Ellington receives a respectful several pages in New York Modern during the course of which the authors echo Ralph Ellison's judgment that "'while primarily a creative composer, he was seen [by contemporaries] mainly in his role as entertainer.'" (p. 162) Scott and Rutkoff, like Ellison, privilege the "composer." Ellington was so brilliant, runs this notion, that he could write important music despite the necessity of keeping a mass audience amused. This ignores Ellington's own view. Entertaining was not something he did so he could afford to compose. For decades after his royalty income would have enabled him to devote himself full time to composition, he continued to tour. In fact, he sometimes had to subsidize the orchestra out of his royalties. Why didn't he forsake the road? Because, he insisted, music only exists when it is being played.

Playing was not a private act. The listeners might be other musicians, at "cutting contests" or rehearsals. They might be a "hip" crowd, as with audiences at jazz festivals. Or they might be dancers in a hotel in Fargo, North Dakota on a weekday evening in 1940. No matter, Ellington did not distinguish between creative work and performance. The performance was as much a creative moment as the composing. The idea was to reach people. This might mean that they got up and danced. Or they walked home humming. Or they understood something about their own, or someone else's experience.

In noting this, I do not wish to disparage New York Modern, a deeply researched and beautifully written study. It is an indispensable resource. What I wish to do instead is to call attention to a different sort of modern art, one Gilbert Seldes called lively. Although he distinguished between great art and popular or lively art, and acknowledged the superiority of the great, Seldes insisted upon the validity of the latter. ". . . except in a period when the major arts flourish with exceptional vigour, the lively arts are likely to be the most intelligent phenomena of their day." (P. 349) Further,

. . . we must have arts which, we feel, are for ourselves alone, which no one before us could have cared for so much, which no one after us will wholly understand. . . . We require, for nourishment, something fresh and transient. It is this which makes jazz so much the characteristic art of our time and Jolson a more typical figure than Chaplin, who also [with Picasso] is outside of time. (P. 348) 

Modernist and Demotic Art: Some Initial Differences

During the first half of the twentieth century Modernism and the Demotic largely defined art in the United States. Although they inevitably influenced each other, they drew upon very different impulses, arose in markedly different contexts, and measured artistic achievement in altogether different ways. A preliminary and partial listing of these differences includes:

Seldes wrote at a time, the early 1920s, when there was an explosion of creativity in the demotic arts. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and several other makers of silent comedies consciously set about creating a popular art. Chaplin's "Little Tramp" was an Everyman as were the characters played by Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In film after film they portrayed the "little guy" wrestling with the challenges of ordinary life — trying to land a job, trying to win the girl, trying desparately to succeed and to impress. Arrayed against them were villains, larger than they, stronger, richer, and, often, handsomer. Arrayed against them too was the force of circumstance. Bad luck dogged them. Yet they never lost heart.

Movies had an immediate relation to their audiences. A Van Gough could go entirely unrecognized for his entire career only to be acclaimed a genius later. A film maker had to produce hits. If the audience did not flock to see the pictures, the studio "moguls" would hire someone else. This, in fact, happened to Keaton. Several of his films, now considered masterpieces, flopped. It spelled the end of his creative independence.

Comic strip artists were equally dependent upon immediate acceptance by a mass audience. Their work appeared in daily and Sunday papers precisely because people bought one paper rather than another for the "funnies." To lose touch with the audience was to evaporate. Strips that succeeded did so because they connected with the imaginations of the readers. Seldes' own favorite, George Herriman, creator of "Krazy Kat," did not have the broadest appeal among comics artists.

George McManus' "Bringing Up Father" ran in far more papers. It told the story of Jiggs, a bricklayer who struck it rich but who still enjoyed his old amusements, and of his wife Maggie who was determined that they would now move only in "high society." McManus' sympathies were clearly on Jiggs' side of this struggle, even though Maggie won most of the encounters between them. The strip's demotic impulse is clear in its highly accessible visual style, unlike the surrealistic "Krazy Kat"; in its satiric treatment of "putting on the dog," as social pretensions like Maggie's were called at the time; and in its enormous popularity. [For additional examples along with a sketch of the strip's overall run, see the Holloway Pages.]

Billy DeBeck's "Barney Google" strip also achieved great popularity. Barney was a lover of sporting events, especially horse racing, with a disapproving wife who, according to the hit song composed about the strip, was "three times his size." The real love of his life, however, was "Spark Plug," a race horse so slow that, as an exasperated Barney once said, he "wouldn't even make a good pot of glue." [Click on the image for the song's lyrics and to hear an instrumental version. A contemporary recording by the "Georgians" is at the Red Hot Jazz Archives. Don Markstein's discussion of the strip is very helpful.] "Moon Mullins," a strip detailing the misadventures of a sometime prizefighter and his younger brother Kayo, began as a rival to "Barney Google," although its creator Frank Willard once assaulted George McManus for allegedly stealing ideas which he then used in "Bringing Up Father." Like Jiggs and Maggie, Moon (short for "Moonshine") was Irish-American. So was the "Yellow Kid," the hero of what is usually considered the first comic strip. "The Katzenjammer Kids" were German immigrants. Strips often offered views of contemporary America through ethnic perspectives.

Unquestionably popular, were "Bringing Up Father," "Mutt and Jeff," and "Barney Google" art? Comic strips were purposefully ephemeral. In Seldes' definition, they were lively. They were of and for their time, art that contemporaries alone could fully appreciate, art that was fresh and unpretensious. Their ephemeral quality was part of their appeal.

Jazz too had a large audience, but it was not so dependent upon mass acceptance. Musicians and composers did not have to have a succession of hits in order to work. And the proliferation of radio stations and of record companies in the twenties meant that jazz artists could find publics large enough to pay the bills even if they were a small fraction of the millions who flocked to see Chaplin's latest film or turned to the comics every morning to see what was happening with Maggie and Jiggs.

Modernist and Demotic Art: Some Further Differences

Modernist and Demotic Efforts to Create a Visual Vocabulary for the Times

Joseph Stella, "Voice of the City of New York Interpreted," 1920-22, a five-panel work. From the left: The Battery (The Port); The Great White Way Leaving the Subway; The Prow (The Skyscrapers); Broadway; The Brooklyn Bridge

Stella's vision of New York is one of the most celebrated modernist works of the 1920s. It captured the sheer overwhelming vastness of the modern metropolis, the sensory overload residents and visitors had to cope with and, in "The Brooklyn Bridge" particularly, the beauty of its built environment. It is not a work for the masses, however. More accessible than his 1913-14 "Battle of Lights, Coney Island," it nonetheless eschews literal representation, especially in "The Great White Way Leaving the Subway" and "Broadway" in which geometrical shapes and color replace buildings and lights. Stella, like Ives and Williams, drew material from the demotic life about him but distanced himself from that life by employing techniques associated with the avant-garde. [At right is a poster showing the New York skyline in 1931, after the completion of the Chrysler Building and before the completion of the Empire State Building.]

Demotic artists did not turn to the city for inspiration as routinely as did their modernist counterparts. Norman Rockwell, easily the most popular of them, portrayed small town life and family scenes in most of his work. Illustrators of pulp magazines, monthlies which contained a complete novel for only a dime, often used urban backdrops but rarely portrayed cityscapes. The Shadow, which began in 1931 and which may have been the most popular of all the pulps, affords an example. So too with The Spider, another long running pulp series, and with Spicy Detective, a series successful enough to spin off Spicy Western and several other magazines. Drawn for male customers, the pulps featured large-breasted women in torn dresses, evil-looking villains, often of foreign origin, and intrepid heroes. There was rarely a skyscraper in sight. The Epson Photo Gallery has compiled a large number of albums with literally thousands of pulp covers.

Illustrators working for ad agencies, on the other hand, often used skyscrapers, bridges, and other aspects of city life, especially when the theme of the advertisement was the future.

Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 27, 1926, p. 70 and Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 2, 1926, p. 44

Up to the Minute Merchandising and Manufacturing Methods Enable Certain-teed to give Extra Value in All its Products. Unhampered by precedent - but tempered by the experiences of many productive years, Certain-teed, today, is in a stronger position to serve you than ever before.

So read the text from the January 2nd ad for Certain-teed building products. A giant figure pushes time ahead while beneath him planes and a zeppelin soar past skyscrapers, derricks, and an oil well. The ad for February 27th contrasted the past, shown as a horse-drawn covered wagon, with the future. Another giantic figure pushes open the doors to the future, an enormous city lit by a golden sky.

Untitled illustration for "Trend to What and Where" in Everybody's Business by Floyd W. Parsons, May 12, 1932, p. 3. Woodcut courtesy of Norton Company, Worcester, Mass.

This also contrasted past and future. The camel driver and charioteer evoke the one while the speeding train, race car, airplanes, and the zeppelin all imply the other. Again, the beams of light streaming down suggest all is right with this new world. Here the force impelling the rapid forward movement is the abrasive wheel, used to cut machine tools and parts. Norton Company was the world's largest manufacturer of abrasives. The smokestacks in the distance represent the giant kilns used in making the wheels.

Bernarr Macfadden advertised his magazines, which included True Stories, True Detective, and a number of body building and physical culture titles, using similar imagery in Advertising Age, Dec. 21, 1926, p. 29.The Chrysler Building defines the New York skyline as an ocean liner and a speeding passenger train intersect and an airplane and a zeppelin move across the sky. Yet again, golden rays illumine the new day linked to an outlined United States on the globe.

Macfadden's ad combined almost as much visual complexity as Stuart Davis's ""Abstract Vision of New York: A Building, A Derby Hat, A Tiger's Head, and Other Symbols." Its symbolism is more accessible, as befits an ad, and it is preoccupied with speed as well as giantism. Motion, as we can see, was as common a theme in demotic depictions of the city as the future. So was the facile association of that future with progress. This notion runs through much of the modernist art dealing with the city as well, but Stella and Davis and their colleagues also suggested a sense of bewilderment and of alienation. Their cityscapes are vast, impersonal. There are no human figures. Edward Hopper, another modernist who often painted urban scenes, did include people but highlighted their lack of connection with each other. None used the cliché of a golden sky or a sunrise to suggest serenity.

Can we compare Davis, Stella, or Hopper with the anonymous artist who drew "Not Yesterday, But Today ! . . Tomorrow!"? Or the equally unknown artist who created the Certain-teed images? We can, provided we keep Seldes' definition of "lively" art in mind. All sought a visual language for their times, but the demotic artists worked within the commercial constraints dictated by the role of advertising in the new consumer culture of the era. According to James Montgomery Flagg, a highly successful illustrator who sold his first picture in 1890 at age twelve and continued producing through World War II and beyond, "the difference between the [illustrator and the modern artist] is that the former knows how to draw, eats three square meals a day and can pay for them." Illustrators had to get across a specific message to specific groups. And, like other demotic artists, commercial success was a precondition for them to continue working. If Certain-teed did not sell roofing tiles and other products or if Macfadden did not sell magazine advertising, the artists would have to look for other work.

Further, the visual language they developed had to work in tandem with the written copy. "Not Yesterday . . ." had to complement "Paced Ahead of Changing Times, this Editorial Technique proves its Fundamental Vitality . . . . MacFadden . . . did much to foster liberality by creating a new Editorial Technique. . . The Times have simply caught up with this dynamic Technique." The Certain-teed ad showing the giant pushing time ahead had to complement "Up to the Minute Merchandising and Manufacturing Methods Enable Certain-teed to give Extra Value in All its Products. Unhampered by precedent - but tempered by the experiences of many productive years, Certain-teed, today, is in a stronger position to serve you than ever before."

"Modern Dance" and Popular Dancing

Nothing illustrates the role of the demotic in art in shaping the popular imagination better than the contrast between Fred and Adele Astaire and Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. In 1933 Ruth St. Denis wrote of "the dance of the future":

The dance of the future will no longer be concerned with meaningless dexterities of the body.... Remembering that man is indeed the microcosm, the universe in miniature, the Divine Dance of the future should be able to convey with its slightest gestures some significance of the universe.... As we rise higher in the understanding of ourselves, the national and racial dissonances will be forgotten in the universal rhythms of Truth and Love. We shall sense our unity with all peoples who are moving to that exalted rhythm. — Wisdom Comes Dancing: Selected Writings of Ruth St. Denis on Dance, Spirituality and the Body (PeaceWorks Publications, 2001)

In the 1910s Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn took up the banner of Isadora Duncan and set out to create a modern dance free of the "meaningless dexterity" characteristic of classical ballet. St. Denis chose mythic figures from a variety of cultures and interpreted their stories through dance. Like Duncan, St. Denis achieved a measure of public attention and the patronage of some rich admirers. Martha Graham, a student of St. Denis and Shawn and a dancer in their Denishawn troupe, carried on "Miss Ruth's" ideas.Unlike many other modernist artists, St. Denis and Shawn did not dream of creating an "American" dance. Their dream was considerably vaster, a universal, timeless dance, a "divine dance," as St. Denis put it.

The actual dances themselves, however, had specific cultural roots. Some lay in vaudeville. St. Denis started out, while only thirteen, as a "skirt dancer," i.e., a performer whose steps lifted her skirts enough to titillate male audiences with glimpses of thigh. Producer David Belasco discovered her and changed her name from Ruthie Denis to Ruth St. Denis and featured her, and her legs, in his own productions. Shawn also had a vaudeville background, doing an act modelled upon that of Vernon and Irene Castle. Shawn was noted for the tango. Other roots lay in St. Denis' admiration for Sarah Bernhardt who had starred in several productions as Cleopatra. And, of course, there was Isadora Duncan and the fascinating idea that one could interpret profound truths by allowing one's intuitions to direct one's movements. Gauzy costumes and bare limbs helped.

St. Denis brought her ideas, prior to her meeting with Shawn, to vaudeville but with limited success. She fared better with New York society ladies for whom she gave private performances and organized lessons. This played itself out after several years and St. Denis returned to vaudeville where she met Shawn and Denishawn was born. The characteristic combination of exoticism and hints of eroticism of their collaboration drew enough interest for the troupe to carry on for several decades over the course of which St. Denis and Shawn trained numerous dancers ranging from Graham and Doris Humphrey to Louise Brooks.

  "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" by Irving Berlin

I just got an invitation through the mails:
"Your presence requested this evening, it's formal
A top hat, a white tie and tails"
Nothing now could take the wind out of my sails
Because I'm invited to step out this evening
With top hat, white tie and tails

I'm puttin' on my top hat
Tyin' up my white tie
Brushin' off my tails
I'm dudin' up my shirt front
Puttin' in the shirt studs
Polishin' my nails

I'm steppin' out, my dear
To breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class
And I trust that you'll excuse my dust when I step on the gas
For I'll be there
Puttin' down my top hat
Mussin' up my white tie
Dancin' in my tails

Like St. Denis and Shawn, Fred Astaire started in vaudeville, in 1905 at age six with his sister Adele who was seven. After a successful career as a child act, the Astaires made the transition to adult roles, opening on Broadway in "The Nine O'Clock Revue" (later renamed "Over the Top") in 1917. By the early 1920s they were major stars on the New York and London stages and, in 1924, opened in George and Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" in which Fred introduced both the title tune and "Fascinatin' Rhythmn." After long runs on Broadway and the West End of London, the Astaires starred in another Gershwin show, "Funny Face" in 1927. In this show Astaire did a solo number, "High Hat," in which he first wore the formal evening clothes that would become a trademark. In 1931 Fred and Adele did their last Broadway show together, another hit, "The Band Wagon." She left the theatre to marry into the British aristocracy, and Fred starred in one last Broadway show, "The Gay Divorcee" by Cole Porter, before turning to the movies. In that show he introduced "Night and Day" which Frank Sinatra called the finest American song of the twentieth century.

St. Denis and Shawn sought inspiration in ancient mythologies; the Astaires followed the lead of Vernon and Irene Castle, basing their act on the popular music and the popular steps of the day including tap. When they moved on to musicals, they developed a new kind of "number" by fusing dance and song. Dancing, for the Astaires, was not a road to wisdom. It was show business. Yet, when theatregoers went home from "The Gay Divorcee" humming "Night and Day," they saw Fred Astaire dancing in their minds' eye and heard him singing in their minds' ear. This was unquestionably the effect of art of a very high order but one St. Denis and Shawn would not recognize as remotely like their own.

A Demotic Sense of "Class"

Astaire personified grace in the popular mind. He also defined "class."


" - that atmosphere of elegance and refinement - those necessary little appointments, noticed but not discussed, which contribute so much to the comfort and well-being of guests and family. ScotTissue has made a place for itself in well-conducted homes. It is the choice of discriminating women everywhere because of its hygienic purity and safety . . . ." Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 11, 1926, p. 186

" - those charming creatures who are the outstanding personalities in any gathering - are drawn unerringly to the new Arch Preserver Shoes. For in them alone are coupled the advance style mores that forecast the authentic trends of Paris and New York modes, and the unbounded comfort that is essential today in a smart shoe for active women . . . ." Delineator, March 1929, p. 3.

Class in this sense was about knowing how to act and what to prize (and purchase). It required a measure of affluence but not vast wealth. And it emphatically did not require a privileged background. The demotic arbiters of class — Mencken, Ross, Astaire, Berlin — for the most part came from working class or lower middle class backgrounds. Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald aside, they had not attended Ivy League schools. Class as used in this demotic sense was an achievement.

Fitzgerald turned this notion upon its head in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby (originally Gatz) rose from a working class start to become one of the toasts of New York society, via largely unspecified but illegal dealings. However, his quest to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan ended tragically. The novel was not a success when first published, perhaps because it so directly challenged the dream that anyone could achieve class.

More in step with the times were Berlin's lyrics, particularly the lines "I'm steppin' out, my dear/To breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class." The use of "reeks" injects a note of self-parody thats sets up ". . . I'll be there/Puttin' down my top hat/Mussin' up my white tie/Dancin' in my tails." The goal was not to win Daisy's heart, a prize scarcely worth Gatsby's devotion according to the novel's narrator. Nor was it Maggie's misguided attempts to become part of the "Four Hundred" in George McManus' "BringingUp Father." The goal was to enjoy yourself. Consider the revised lyrics to Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz":

Have you seen the well-to-do
Up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and narrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

Now, if you're blue
And you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where fashion sits
Puttin' on the Ritz

Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin' on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let's mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or "umberellas"
In their mitts
Puttin' on the Ritz

Tips his hat just like an English chappie
To a lady with a wealthy pappy
Very snappy

You'll declare it's simply topping
To be there and hear them swapping
Smart tidbits
Puttin' on the Ritz

Who was "puttin' on the Ritz"? Clearly the folks who did not live on Park Ave. and devotees of fashion both were. And, of course, the fellow trying to charm the "lady with a wealthy pappy." But so were Rockefellers who walked "with sticks or 'umberellas' in their mitts." As with "reeks" in "Top Hat," "mitts" strikes the demotic note. It was fine to get all "duded up." But, and this was an Astaire characteristic par excellence, you should not take yourself too seriously. After all, the goal was to "look like Gary Cooper," a movie star.

The Comic Impulse in Demotic Art

Most comedy, however, is very much of its time. When Fanny Brice, pictured at left in a portrait by Ziegfeld photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston, sang

the audience immediately understood the status owning a piano conferred in working-class families and thus the tragi-comic situation of "Second Hand Rose from Second Avenue."

Even Jakie Cohen,
He's the man I adore,
He had the nerve to tell me
He's been married before!

Comic strips aimed at timeliness as well. So did monologuists like Will Rogers. His quip — "I don't belong to an organized political party; I'm a Democrat." — tickled the audience of his day, but would not mean much to an audience of today.

Comedy was a major demotic art. Irving Berlin started his career by writing parodies of popular songs. And, from "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" to "Doin' What Comes Naturally," continued to write comic songs throughout his career. In the former, written for the WWI revue "Yap, Yap Yapank" and performed by Berlin himself in the rewritten WWII version, "This is the Army," he promises

Someday I'm going to murder the bugler.
Someday, they're going to find him dead.
I'll amputate his reveille
And step upon it heavily
And spend the rest of my life in bed.

Audiences empathized with the draftee longing for an extra hour or two of sleep and with his wish to put an end to the bugle call that interrupted his slumbers. They also appreciated the wit of describing the longed for homicide as amputating his reveille and rhyming that with step upon it heavily. Berlin varies this at the end of the song by dropping "I'll amputate his reveille" and substituting:

And then I'll find that other pup,
The one that wakes the bugler up,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.

As with so many demotic lyricists, Berlin routinely fused the literal — I'm going to murder the bugler — with the fanciful — I'll amputate his reveille. The joke lay in the juxtaposition. Berlin wrote the music for "Animal Crackers," the Marx Brothers' Broadway success of 1925. George F. Kaufman wrote the book which featured jokes such as Groucho describing a reward as "chickenfeed, a poultry thousand dollars." Kaufman later went on to share a Pulitizer Prize with George and Ira Gershwin for the musical parody of presidential politics, "Of Thee I Sing." And he continued to write for the Marx Brothers. In "Animal Crackers" Groucho complains to Chico about the exorbitant fee he and his orchestra are receiving. Chico attempts to explain by mentioning the time for rehearsal.

Groucho: Well, how much do you charge without rehearsal?
Chico: You could never afford it!

All of this, like the celebrated "Why a Duck" routine, was silliness but silliness of a very high order.

Conside radio. At right are Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who launched "Amos 'n Andy" in March 1928 over what became, in part because of their success, the NBC radio network. The show was a sensation, at least with white listeners. Some of this arose out of Gosden's and Correll's use of racial stereotypes. But, like the Little Tramp, Amos and Andy were Everyman. Amos was hard working, sensible, and reliable. He was a family man. Andy was a ladies' man who dreamed of striking it rich. Listeners heard echoes of themselves in the two.

Comedy quickly became a staple of radio programming. Gosden and Correll wrote their own material. Not so Jack Benny who helped initiate the practice of hiring a stable of writers to come up with the material needed week in and week out. Further, Benny perfected a collaborative approach to comedy. There had been comedy teams all along, like Gallagher and Sheen, in which the comics traded jokes. Here is an example, drawn from a poster in Lindy's restaurant in New York City:

Customer: Waiter! These oysters are very small.
Waiter: Yes sir.
Customer: And they don't seem to be very fresh either.
Waiter: Then lucky for you they're small.

Benny helped create a different style of comedic exchange as members of his troupe developed characters over a period of years. Every week listeners tuned in to hear the repartee between Jack and Rochester, his black valet and chauffeur, or between Jack and Phil Harris, his hard-drinking band leader, or between Jack and a host of other "regulars." These exploited a familiar set of jokes. Rochester's success with the ladies and Jack's failures, Jack's vanity about his blue eyes, Jack's compulsive miserliness, the frustration of Jack's violin teacher with Jack's tin ear were all set pieces used in show after show. Rather than becoming stale, the comedy built as the audience came to know the characters. People tuned in to hear Jack lose patience again with Rochester or hit yet another sour note. There was an art to this. But, by definition, it was not a serious art.

Of "Show Boat" and "Saints": A Conclusion

Much of what characterizes demotic art came together in "Show Boat," the 1927 show which, theatre historians agree, redefined musical theatre. "Show Boat" is most famous for demonstrating that a musical could take on themes like racism, miscegenation, and "passing." In doing so, it fused music and story so that the songs were not interludes but directly advanced the plot as when Julie, "the prettiest leading lady on the river" and a mulatto passing as white, sings "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine," a song "only colored folks" ever sang. "Show Boat" also set out to celebrate American popular song and popular entertainment from the 1880s through the 1920s.

Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy mirror Maggie and Jiggs in that she aspires to a height of respectability he finds both silly and oppressive. Their daughter Magnolia is scarcely removed from girlhood and hopelessly smitten with the charming but unreliable Gaylord Ravenal. Julie, her best friend and confidante, has troubles of her own once a crew member discovers the truth of her racial background and threatens to reveal her secret unless she sleeps with him. In all of this, one is firmly in the world of the potboiler. Yet the first words the audience hear are a protest against racial injustice. And the first act rises to a climax with the terrifying scene of Julie and her husband having to confront a Mississippi sheriff. They escape the charge of miscegenation when Cap'n Andy and others swear that the husband too has "black ["nigger" in the original 1927 version] blood in him." This is followed immediately by Magnolia trying to go off with Julie and Joe, her husband, and by Cap'n Andy saying that her desire to be with her friend, no matter what her race, proved she was a "damn fine girl."

Julie and Joe's departure sets the stage for Magnolia, much against her mother's wishes, to replace Julie as leading lady and for Magnolia's romance with the new "juvenile lead," Gaylord. Julie confides now in Joe, the black servant and husband of the cook. What should she do? Ravenal is so handsome but also a "riverboat gambler." "Better ask de river," he tells her before launching into "Old Man River" which brings down the curtain on Act One. The rest of the musical never quite reaches the heights achieved in that first act, perhaps because if "Night and Day" is not the finest song of the twentieth century, then "Old Man River" is.

"Show Boat" is a demotic masterpiece. The book came from a popular novel of the day. The music drew directly on the vernacular styles of the preceeding half century. And Kern and Hammerstein aimed directly at commercial success. They wanted a "hit" and got one. Indeed "Show Boat" continues to be performed regularly in revival, the demotic equivalent to the operatic repetoire. Kerns and Hammerstein also wanted to condemn racism, to make their white audience identify with African Americans and acknowledge their common humanity.

Contrast their work with "Four Saints in Three Acts," the most successful modernist opera. The libretto and, presumably, the misleading title (there are four acts), was by Gertrude Stein who said of it:

A saint a real saint never does anything, a martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing, and so I wanted to have Four Saints who did nothing and I wrote the Four Saints in Three Acts and they did nothing and that was everything. Generally speaking anybody is more interesting doing nothing than doing anything.

Two of her saints, Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila, were real; their companions, Saint Settlement and Saint Chavez, were products entirely of her imagination. The imaginary saints did indeed do nothing. But her real saints, in reality if not in the opera, did quite a good deal. Virgil Thomson wrote the music. He said of the opera:

It was early in 1927 that Gertrude Stein and I conceived the idea of writing an opera together. Naturally the theme had to be one that interested us both. "Something from the lives of the saints" was my proposal. She then chose two Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola. The fact that these two, historically, never knew each other did not seem to either of us an inconvenience.

Miss Stein loved these saints because they were Spanish. I liked them for being powerful and saints. She had traveled a great deal in Spain, loved its landscape and its people; I had been brought up in Missouri among Southern Baptists and spent my youth as a church organist. So we made together, Gertrude Stein and I, an opera about the Spanish landscape and about the religious life. She gave me the libretto of "Four Saints in Three Acts" in June of 1927, and I completed the music in July of the following year. In 1934, it was produced in Hartford, Connecticut (and also in New York and Chicago) by a group entitled the "The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music."

That production made theatrical history, not only through Florine Stettheimer's cellophane scenery and the choreography stage movements of Frederick Ashton and John Houseman, but also through running 60 performances in one year, at that time something of a record in the United States for a contemporary opera composed in English. It was also novel that an all-Negro cast should be received so warmly in a work that had nothing whatever to do with Negro life. I had chosen them purely for beauty of voice, clarity of enunciation and fine carriage. Their surprise gift to the production was their understanding of its obscurities, [they] moved in on it, adopted it.

As Thomson made clear, the use of an all-Negro cast necessarily made a comment about contemporary racial attitudes. But, the opera itself had nothing to do with race and has usually been presented with all-white casts.

"Four Saints in Three Acts," despite the presence of Frederick Ashton, soon to become the leading ballet choreographer of the day, and director John Houseman, abjured production values — no elaborate sets, no gorgeous costumes, no chorus. In all of this it adopted a classic modernist stance vis a vis the art of the preceeding century. "Saints" was as unlike the grand opera of Verdi (as in "The Sicillian Vespers," for example) as Stein and Thomson could make it. Stein's contribution, lyrics that might make sense if only some words were left out, was especially important. Here is an example of her way with words: "No one chain is it not chain is it, chained to not to life chained to not to snow chained to chained to go and and gone."

"Show Boat" was grand opera in everything but the name. It had the sets, the costumes, the chorus, the dancers. It had raucous comedy and high tragedy. Above all, it had arias ("Old Man River"), choral works ("Misery's Comin'"), and love duets ("Only Make Believe"). As befitted a popular work, the words made sense.

You an' me, we sweat an' strain,
Body all achin' an' racked wid pain -
Tote dat barge!
Lif' dat bale!
Git a little drunk,
An' you land in jail...

And, unlike "Saints," it inspired a host of other major works starting with "Porgy and Bess" and including "Carousel" and "West Side Story."

Seldes' verdict clearly held for his own time: ". . . except in a period when the major arts flourish with exceptional vigour, the lively arts are likely to be the most intelligent phenomena of their day." (P. 349) These demotic arts are also exceptionally helpful ways of gaining insight into that day.

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