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JR

Jody Rosen

Jody Rosen is the music critic for Slate, the author of White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, and the compiler of Jewface, an anthology of early 20th century Jewish novelty recordings.

 

Abstract:

"'Darktown Strutters' Ball': Shelton Brooks' Chocolate City"

When the songwriter Shelton Brooks published “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” in 1917, it was an instant hit—a dancehall rave-up for a transitional musical moment, when ragtime began cross-pollinating with the blues to turn into that bracing new style, jazz. Today, “Darktown” is a standard, familiar from hundreds of recordings by everyone from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Ella Fitzgerald to Chet Atkins to The Platters. It is also a landmark: the first black-authored hit song about black urban America.

This paper will offer a guided tour of Shelton Brooks’ Darktown, a fantasy city that sits midway between the grotesque “darky” hamlets of postbellum popular imagination and the utopia envisioned by the black bohemian dreamers of the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll trace the history of the term "Darktown,” a ubiquitous nickname for African-American neighborhoods since at least the 1870s. And I’ll focus in on the underappreciated Shelton Brooks, who began his career as a vaudevillian Bert Williams impersonator and became Tin Pan Alley’s most prolific, and most slyly subversive, “colored tunesmith.” What does “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” tell us about black self-representation in early 20th century American pop—about the torturous escape from the minstrel stage? How did Brooks reimagine Darktown, tweaking stereotypes to create a hit that did triple duty: as a coon song knee-slapper, an anthem for white slummers, and a groundbreaking celebration of black urban difference, a proto-“Drop Me Off in Harlem”?