Wednesday, April 2, 2008

An American tradition, remembered

You can’t consider the history of “racial masking” – or the history of American show business – without talking about Bert Williams.

Born in the British West Indies, Williams joined a U.S. minstrel troupe while still in his teens. He soon teamed up with George Walker. “Williams & Walker” became one of the most popular acts in vaudeville.

Williams was light-skinned, Walker was dark... and they both performed in blackface. But Williams & Walker moved beyond cooning to a more universal, humanistic kind of comedy.

As a singer and songwriter, Bert Williams was the most popular black recording artist of the early 20th Century. Click here to hear a Williams recording from 1901(!): “She’s Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day.” (Available on this CD.)

Williams was also a gifted mime. One of his famous stage routines was a pantomime poker game. The 1916 short film below ends with Williams performing that bit. It’s a wonderful cultural artifact.

UPDATE (04/02/08): Thanks to DeAngelo Starnes for pointing to Greg Tate’s piece for today. I was unaware that a new Bert Williams biography recently came out. It’s called “Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Black Star,” by Camille F. Forbes.


DeAngelo Starnes said...

This is a timely post. Greg Tate actually wrote a strong article on Bert Williams in today's ebonyjet. Here's the link:

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, DeAng! I didn't know about that. I'll update my thang...

Qadree said...

@DeAgelo and UBM

Thanks for posting this info. I was actually planning on doing some research on Williams.

It's hard to find information on many of these performers. I saw Johnny Huggins in a bizarre short film by Jean Renoir and he was in blackface, but I haven't been able to find much of anything about him beyond the fact that he was a performer in "La Revue Negre" with Josephine Baker.

I'm going to get that Bert Williams biography for sure, thanks for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

Not only was Bert Williams fabulously talented; he was FINE! Thanks UBM and Deangleo. It's too bad some people can't get behind the burned cork to see the real genius of this mind.

Wow Jones said...

I am reading the book now. Fascinating and insightful.

--The Wow Jones Report