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The Difference Bert Williams Makes

By W.T. Lhamon Jr.

At the onset of recorded sound, Bert Williams and his partner George Walker billed themselves as “Two Real Coons,” thus tossing up for grabs every term in the phrase but the word two. Right at the beginning they put the wink to the promise of recorded documentation. The reality they documented was not individual, not ethnic, but the power of performance protocols on every level of life and culture. Williams wore blackface and white lips, sometimes a ragged chicken suit, and always an enigmatic chortle. His darky business ripened the role’s full vocabulary on stage and record. He somehow remained urbane while strutting the cake walk and insisting that “Dancing am de poultry ob motion.” He stropped his razor, threw bones, drew cards and never played by Hoyle. But to what end? Just the way martens prey on porcupines by treeing the spiky creatures, gutting their soft bellies from below, eating their antagonists from the inside-out. Just so, Williams and Walker held open season on conceptual coons. Isolating the concept on stage with few props beyond minstrelsy’s pancake and cackle, lore grading toward spectacle, Williams and Walker eviscerated whatever “coon” resided in the imagination of their diverse audiences. It was an important and constant gambit for American pop.

Bert Williams sketched strategies for talking back, and for surviving too, to talk another day. A good example is “Borrow from Me” (1915), a performance from the middle of his career. Walker had died two years before. Their troupe disbanded and Williams’s theatrical career had shrunk back again to a solo act in vaudeville. Thus the character he projected was a consolidated precipitate of his performance experience. The scene he isolated in “Borrow from Me” used his characteristic confrontation with a manager – who might also be an officer, Pullman car customer, or a mother-in-law – proposing some outrageous scheme. You can hear him on the Archeophone disk as if he were still as alive as his strategy remains necessary.

Williams begins quietly, speaking:

I met a manager here on the streets yesterday. Said, “I’ve got a great part for you to play and I am so sure you can get a minute right away – I want you to just listen and see how sweet this sounds. I’m gonna take out in a day or so Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You know it’s a marvelous show. My cast is most complete, you know, but I thought I’d like to have you play the bleedhound.” I said, “well

Here Williams slides slightly out of speech toward melody and rhythm. He starts to sound like he’s versifying…

Bring me the Czar of Russia, just have him come on over here, ‘n’ blacken up to play Uncle Tom’s part. From Mark, the lawyer, I spect we better have Mr. Othello – provided, that is, we can find a brother who doesn’t come too dark. We have the Statute of Liberty to play Miss Eva and Rip Van Winkle playin’ Legree. Now if you can bring me for the cast them folks I’ve asked you to bring, then oh boy, the bleedhound part’s for me.”

It’s less an issue of material than emotional reparations that slams into the singer’s mind after hearing the manager’s offer. During the phrase, “I said, ‘well…’” emphasized above, one hears him recalling the demeaning slights managers have offered men like Williams. And then, while he is still grinding out the phrase, inchoate tactics of response start occurring to him. That’s the gestation of the song, not in the slights alone but in their cumulation and conversion. The song is about their interest compounding for him and for us. He is in their flow, but he is a sluice too, rechanneling the flow.

One may call Williams “the singer” here because that is his ultimate achievement. Nevertheless, he begins in shock and disarray, unable to sing, and that’s where the first passage quoted above leaves him. His answer (and confidence) build gradually through the performance. It moves through recitative to adequate response, gathering into a tune, as Williams forms and repeats conundrums in the chorus that management can never compensate:

Bring me the stone that David slew Golia’ with, And from the apple Adam ate bring me the core. Bring me a leaf from the very same tree That the dove carried a branch back to brother Noah; Bring me that lion that let Daniel live And that whale that swallowed Jonah in the sea Bring everything that I’m asking him to bring N, oh boy then he can borrow from me.

Much of what is satisfying in “Borrow from Me” stems from the singer’s realizing historical cognates of the manager’s initial slight and compressing them into lyric. Giving gravity to the manager’s offense and tuning it, “Borrow from Me” demonstrates the power of subaltern song.

Subaltern speech may be halting and self-defeating, as Gayatri Spivak has argued, but subaltern song is different. Although subaltern song does not achieve its aims immediately, it has momentum and cumulative flow. It survives speech and speakers. It gathers slights into memory. Crystallized in song, its echoes persist through repertoires down the eras, staying alive by cycling through all modes of performance (as a train of examples at the end of this essay will show).

There are songs beyond those one breaks into when happy, sad, or in love. Williams’s scheme demonstrates how song may ripen until it chants social feeling in a chorus. What’s most memorable about “Borrow from Me” are its quips. The Statue of Liberty playing Eva, the Czar doing a Tom turn, Rip with a whip; cultural inversions might contribute to fair play. But the statue will not condescend to Eva any more than history will deliver us from Daniel’s lion or Jonah’s whale. So “Borrow from Me” recognizes it will not distribute just desserts. Instead, it rehearses history and our reckoning processes from the viewpoint of the bleedhound. In playing with the stories that have slighted Bert Williams’s character, “Borrow from Me” does not transcend its conditions. It works through them.

Focusing more on street-corner face-offs than political abstractions, Williams’s songs and skits seem more insubordinate than resistant. Nevertheless, his performances illustrate the principle argued in different registers by Kenneth Burke and John Lennon: culture is equipment for living, a chair to sit on, alertly. Practiced daily down the years, alertness grows judgmental – which is to say, political. Whether Williams encouraged resistance is a question too simple to answer. His characters explicitly dodged the draft and practiced non-cooperation. Rather the important question to ask about Williams, as about other generative American pop performers is: How do their antics invert the dominant social signs they project? How might subaltern song organize liberatory values particularly when it wears blackface? Explicit nay-saying is less important here than the way much of the pop public understood that Williams’s whole performance said No (steadfastly, if not in thunder), even while his apparent accommodation with the protocols of his time snuck his message past the censors.

As a realist hatching schemes in a racist and regressive era, Williams mainly sought and tested strategies for survival. At issue in his work is whether such characters as his Brother Lowdown can reckon and change conditions in the close places where haves meet have-nots. That zone is Bert Williams’s beat. That’s where his slippery sureness shows that his public has been more likely to mull and complicate social generalizations than have either their governors or mandarin intellectuals who colluded during Williams’s decades to assemble theories of scientific racism. Williams’s publics could see the warping of their lives in his gestures. Through his songs, disparate cohorts of clerks and workers in many metropolitan regions consolidated themselves as one public and clarified their social conditions.

I will circle back to the difference the songs made by reviewing the differences the songs register. Oppression and racism, withering wives, the first world war’s draft and the meaning of Africa, managers and bosses: these frequent topics of black farce and song have been rendered sufficiently often that we can now focus on the creativity that fought to redefine them. Later in the century, Miles Davis distilled the point in his autobiography. Gil Evans pointed out to Davis that he ought to layer his own sound on top of compositions he was playing. Davis describes how Evans:

would come up and whisper… “Miles, now don’t let them play that music by themselves. You play something over them, put your sound in it, too.” Or, when I was playing with some white guys, “Put your sound over theirs,” meaning their white sound and feeling. He said this meaning put my shit on top so that the black thing would be on top.

Over, under, top, bottom, the history of American culture is the story of push coming to shove, of forces contending on an uneven field. Williams realized early the consequence of power’s play is unforeseen possibility – as when censoring black performance amplified its effect. This paradoxical American censorship involves the taboo against love plots in early black musicals. Aida Overton Walker (who performed with Williams in their musicals and was married to his partner, George Walker) repeatedly told interviewers about this prohibition. Jumbled plots in the Williams and Walker plays, Williams’s stuttering movement during their cake walk, and certainly the lyrics of Williams’s songs after In Dahomey (the first black musical to thrive on Broadway, 1903) all corroborate this gagging and the counter-creativity it spawned.

The taboo inevitably pushed black pop topics toward a politics of double entendre: say one thing, code another. This pressure extended the way censorship of drama in central London (following the Stage Licensing Act of 1737) had opened up burletta and farce as the modes in which audiences of working people understood themselves and ciphered their complaints. Blackface minstrelsy had come into being precisely as the American elaboration of London’s illegitimate theater. And Bert Williams’s use of blackface was his way of going explicit with the always-already coded “black” differences of gesture, rhythm, and dance. Blackface constituted Williams’s red nose and pig’s bladder. Blackface was an excessive signature that levered subtler gestures of low difference into consciousness.

Thus Bert William’s songs clarified the hypocrisies of power and rallied those who realized nobody had done nothing for them, no time – as in his 1906 recording of “Nobody.” This thoroughly cagey song, in which he describes himself as whittling on dynamite, ultimately resolves its naïve pretenses in its last two syllables, perhaps the most important couple of words he ever recorded:

Naah, ain’t never done nothin’ to no body Naah, ain’t never got nothin’ from no body, no time. Ohh, until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime, No-I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time I won’t.

This last line competes to be the calmest, clearest creed in all pop music – much easier to follow than “All you need is love.”


Bert Williams licensed himself by seeming not to be a revolutionary performer. There is no threshold instance in which his performances overturned either Western thought or song. Still, his acts sapped Atlantic creeds and affected their soundtrack. His straddle of speech and song pointed toward jazz poetry and hip hop. His comic sensibility cleared ground for Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Tom Lehrer. His abbreviated gestures evoked a public fondness that Charlie Chaplin also roused later. Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington both created sonic portraits of Bert Williams. Performers as different as Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, and Perry Como have covered Bert Williams – all drawing something of their own from Williams’s flow. Because of the traditions that Williams helped pump and regenerate, American music is still trying to resuscitate what he called the Jonah man tumbled deep at the bottom. As Jonah, Williams insisted his luck was bad, but he was instituting a pop reading of luck as fortune – meaning more than money. To be a Jonah man was to rehearse Old Testament suffering, its proverbs and angular humor. It was to join an ancient, ongoing understanding of how injustice works. This reiteration was a secret flow. The lyrics Williams tapped, and their way of coalescing a public, proved a tradition suppressed at the surface but tidal below. Tapping this flow replenished it.

Williams’s songs were way stations in cross-racial tides that began as eddies of performed gestures in American popular culture of the 1830s – before, below, and beside middle-class abolitionism. These anonymous affiliations started flowing from the mutualities of people dislocated in ports, working beside each other in mudsill labor, sharing blankets in flop houses, repudiating together their bosses and pre-ordained fates. A common argot stirred their mutual renunciative gestures. Songs and blackface skits gave them volume and persistent momentum. This seventy-five year history of mutual nay-saying reached one culmination in Bert Williams but he neither invented nor exhausted it. He is one of those volunteers, appearing above ground but seemingly nurtured from below, growing out of and documenting a musical rhizome that preceded, then mocked, and now augments our currently celebrated strains of blues. In its time, however, the tradition that gave us Bert Williams was hardly underground. Many would have said, did say, it was way too visible and public, too vulgar and transgressive – talking about phrenologist coons, dodging the draft, and giving wives away (“I’ll lend you anything I’ve got on earth, but my wife/And I’ll make you a present of her”). In brief, it was like a lot of pop that counts: both in your face, thus legendary, and infra dig, thus suppressed and inadequately documented.


“…the Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is reinterpreted for his own use.” Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression.”

Williams’s songs reorganized a public which had itself taken distinctive shape in the 1830s by mocking the diagnostic American prejudices. The discovery now of the recordings he made between 1901 and 1922 reminds us how very many strains were braided into performance traditions in that long moment Thomas Riis names “just before jazz.” During these years, critics devised categories that deemed jazz to be authentic virtuosity, decided blues were the unsullied black song, and sent pop ragtime to the trash heap.

My point is not to denigrate any of the forms we have come to know as jazz or blues. Rather, I want to agree when Marybeth Hamilton tells us we should excavate “entertainment blues – the music of black showbiz – as seriously as those forms which are presently more prestigious.” Black showbiz musics surfaced first. They were at least as popular as their successors. They survived the social violence and then the definitional struggles that still beset African-American expression on all sides. These musics together have floated Clarence Williams, Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and James Brown. Hip hop still rides their tides. Just before critics sifted a putative authentic blackness from the mixed traditions of ragtime and coon-songs, we see that Bert Williams integrated black and white cohorts who were attending to vaudeville, popular theater, and sound recordings. In the process, he increased everybody’s mutual awareness from a black standpoint. These performances were every bit as authentic as blues and jazz.

Authenticity is relative. The long dawning of that recognition is one more product of the era of technological reproduction. It changes authenticity from the aura of the moment of making, which Walter Benjamin sought, to the wide effectiveness of the reproduction, which Benjamin predicted and lamented. “Bert Williams” was an effectivity which technological reproduction enabled, lore inflected, talent achieved, and a broad public validated. Egbert Austin Williams, Bahamian-born and twice an emigrant to the U.S., assembled, wrapped, and recorded “Bert Williams” to show that many sorts of people were kin to his reality.

Heywood Broun reported that Williams “used no gesture which traveled more than six inches.” Bert Williams created his effectiveness with small gestures -- articulate vowels and restrained consonants, wry smiles askance and stumbling dances. Each curt move fitted Williams’s new positioning to a heavily-inscribed inheritance. Each move stuck his blackfaced self on top of that legacy. Just as Miles Davis would compose a distinctly black music partly through a deep interaction with the Gershwins and the white Canadian Gil Evans, so too Williams gleaned his off-beat timing his pauses (as he was still calling them), studying pantomime in Europe: syncopation with an Italian paternity! He emphasized his era’s massive movement from folk to poplore in the structures of his performances.


Williams worked with hailing gestures – other people’s and his own. Managers called to him and he had to dodge how they placed him. His own chortles turned greetings into withdrawal. His affirmations declared themselves negations – as in the phrase “yesSuh” in his song “Somebody.”

And the manager looked right straight at me, Said, hey now, here’s your opportunity Yessuh. Somebody’s got to go on ‘get them cats. Ah, YesSuh, Yes Sir! Somebody’s got to go I’m with you there… I said, yes sir, I ‘gree with you, Somebody else, yes sir, not me.

“Somebody” is central to a song cycle in which William’s public eavesdrops on elemental politics taking shape. Let’s call these songs the Nobody Cycle, after Williams’s signature song. Lyrics in this cycle face up to being caught in one’s own packaging. It gradually dawns on everyone that the conversation assesses lumpen life. After almost a decade of singing “Nobody” as his encore, Williams wrote and recorded “Everybody” (1915), “Somebody” (with James F. Hanley, 1919) and “You Can’t Trust Nobody” (1920). These songs seem to join what they cannot beat. They apparently elaborate abjection. But if that were all they did they would not have been so popular in their day or important still.

The Nobody cycle exactly refutes career moves that jazz and blues purists applaud in separating transcendent art from pop. This decoupling was of course the diagnostic practice during the years the Nobody cycle was churning, at the crossing into the Jazz Age. The argument still goes that art must disavow commodification every way it can, must avoid stereotypes, and must invent and improvise original patterns. But the Nobody cycle does something different. It takes on packaging as an increasing burden in technological eras, another confinement to illustrate and play against. So, too, with stereotypes: in the Nobody cycle they remain realities not to enjoy but to humanize. Williams renders stereotypes as flows falling like Niagara on downcast brothers who discover resources to refigure the signals and divert the flow. Thus the Nobody cycle shows originality as the reassembly of already ongoing practices rather than a bolt from a clear sky. All of which is to say that Bert Williams consolidated minstrel modes as opposed to inventing a new jazz aesthetic, at least as most critics defined it.

Bert Williams’s perspective allows re-conceiving the jazz/blues threshold as a littoral; a mixing zone that was transported through space and occupied an elastic era. This threshold does not displace New Orleans or Chicago, the Delta or Texas as spawning grounds for jazz and blues, but in augmenting site-specific histories it complicates them. It insists on the importance of the roads and the entrepreneurial activities connecting these cities. Not only an embarrassing vulgarity populated by coon songs, the pop littoral between 1890 and 1922 was also indispensable for the conception of American vernacular and vanguard art musics. It was not only a training ground and petri dish, but a zone of distinctive achievement.

Learning to hear and imagine this interzone as a creative place throws new light on the antimonies that collectors and critics used when they excluded it as a realm of commerce, not art. Restoring the spectrum makes their binary relative again. Analysts establishing the jazz threshold have typically redefined virtuosity away from the thorny accommodation Bert Williams achieved. Williams’s lyrics, laughs, and gestures hail authority from a lively perspective already in opposition. The modernist aesthetic downplayed these lyrics of the common world in order to elevate the gut bucket delivery of slide guitarists and such exceptional shouters as Mamie, Clara and Bessie Smith. The likes of Charlie Patton and the several Smiths signified uncommon virtuosities unavailable to the plebes buying the ragtime ideology of alert co-existence that Williams voiced. Jazz and blues critics depreciated modes which admitted that the deck was stacked and unlikely to change soon. That interzone which the emerging black musics avoided was precisely the street where Williams was so productively talking back to managers. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison would describe the coping strategy of the excluded middle as “running and dodging the forces of history rather than making a dominating stand.”

Is running and dodging enough? Surely not. Dignity demands the “dominating stand” that aims for surgical erasure of racist structures and attitudes. But standing up to oppression requires organizational stability that the emerging mobility cannot command. Thus, when direct action fails to clear governing foul play, then Americans of every hue have continually reactivated compromise performances that mock and dodge injustice even while they display it. In the motley lodes of ragtime that Bert Williams mined we have the objective correlative of lumpen consciousness. Its “running and dodging,” its capers and chortles, its refusal to be seated and know its place precisely access the public mind that demanded this music. The trick is to see how this relationship codes human trouble, not to scoff at its confusion or vulgarity.

It’s a dangerous world, facing down cumulative slights, being sent out to fight wars, dodging domestic violence with nobody coming to help, no time. It’s like whittling on dynamite. Managers call us out to fetch lost Bengal tigers they thought they owned. Subaltern songs demur. They figure out substitute strategies – songs that enter the fray so we can stay home unscratched, cats uncaught. Williams talked back from the deep turbulence where cultural flows tangle. He chocked slights into realizations of lumpen consciousness. His no meant no and so did his yes. He tamped bleedhounds into a mobility and showed how to mock managers’ missions safely. It all pumps through Bert Williams: somebody else will have to fetch those cats. Now the circumference of American musical performance is wider and its diameter denser. That’s the difference Williams makes.

From February, 2007