Today’s post is by David Sager, Research Assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
In observance of Black History Month, we’re highlighting a little known song by the great Bert Williams, found in the Library’s National Jukebox.
Although opportunities for African American performers during the early days of the recording industry were scant, they certainly did exist. Between 1890 and 1910 there were at least a dozen individual artists and ensembles represented on both disc and cylinder. Moreover, the presence of black music on record was not just limited to performers; there were many more recorded examples of songs by African American composers and lyricists as well.
Among the artists who were both performers and songwriters were the fabled comic Bert Williams (1874-1922) and his partner George Walker (ca. 1872-1911). They made their first recordings for Victor in October 1901.
Onstage, Williams and Walker portrayed archetypal caricatures: Williams as the dull-witted buffoon. Walker’s character was a scheming, quick-minded, and sharply tailored dandy, whose goal was to bilk Williams out of his precious dollars.
Offstage, these well-educated and eloquent men were both brilliantly creative and astute. By 1897 they were vaudeville headliners and by 1900 were on Broadway. Moreover, being great favorites with white Broadway audiences, Williams and Walker were a natural choice for the Victor Talking Machine Company’s newly established label, and by November 8, 1901, had recorded 29 masters, 8 of which appear to have not been issued.
At their marathon session of October 11, 1901, Bert recorded a solo performance of “All Going Out and Nothing Coming In,” composed by himself, along with Walker, and the poet, author, and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson.
There seems to have been some uncertainty as to the song’s correct title. The 7-inch version recorded the same day is “When It’s All Going Out and Nothing Coming In.” Adding further confusion is the title used for copyright registration: “Dat Am De Time,” an oft-repeated lament in the song’s refrain.
The song itself is an unusual one in that it is in the second person. Since the singer is speaking to an invisible audience, it is more difficult to focus and deliver the song’s message. Additionally, the rambling melody and dialect add to the challenge of performance.
Williams, a master of expression and insinuation, imbues the song with pathos and wry humor. In addition, we hear vestiges of his stage presence. Williams communicated through subtle physical gestures, and on this recording, one gets a sense of Williams raising an eyebrow here and there.
The Library of Congress Music Division holds the original copyright deposit lead sheet, registered on December 1, 1902. Access to this sheet allows us to see just how awkward a song this is, especially in measure 16, where words “but, oh…” are accompanied by a melisma—more notes than words.
Mass production of Victor recordings did not occur until late 1903. Recordings were pressed in very limited quantities—usually only under a thousand, until the stamper wore out. For that reason, their recordings disappeared quickly. Typically, when a recording was no longer available, Victor would recall the original artist to recreate the performance. Apparently, Williams and Walker were not available to do so and their Victor recordings are extremely rare today.
However, the song, “All Going Out…” was popular enough to warrant a new version. To that end, Victor prevailed upon pioneer recording artist, and former Chicago alderman, Silas Leachman to do so on January 14, 1903.
Leachman’s version offered yet another title variant: “All Goin’ Out and Nothin’ Comin’ In” Despite Leachman’s abilities as a performer, his version carries none of the qualities found in the Williams recording and this version conveys none of the pathos delivered previously. His reading of the passage cited above, “But oh…,” is stiff and uncomfortable. Additionally, his adding extra syllables to the lyrics is bewildering and seems to serve no function.
One cannot help but having a deeper appreciation for Bert Williams, an artist who primarily appeared on stage and left little in the way of motion pictures. Fortunately, his vocal nuances spoke volumes.
The National Jukebox is just one of many online audio collections offered by the Library of Congress. You can access others by visiting the Recorded Sound Research Center and clicking on Recordings Available Online.
For more information about this recording or recorded sound research in general, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Recorded Sound reference librarians at Ask-a-Librarian or with our Recorded Sound Research Guide.