We are all unfortunately immersed in the visual legacy of Blackface minstrelsy. Caricatures that mutated Black men into creatures, women into mockeries — offensive ornamentation designed to highlight a lascivious, criminalized otherness. One of the key ways these racist imaginaries seeped into the Western subconscious was through the proliferation of print material, and particularly through the covers of sheet music brought home to play around the parlor piano. These images appeared on music written by both Black and white artists, as the standard of presentation. And yet, beginning in 1905, one star-studded song-publishing company would push the aesthetic limits of how Black popular music was shown to the public.
Throughout the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, popular music traveled from stage to page via publications featuring songs written and performed by white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork to transform into living racial stereotypes. The covers of these publications often featured cartoonish drawings of these racist figures, and as the century moved onward, photographs of the performers in and out of Blackface, illustrating the depth of their transformation. By the early twentieth century, the genre had reached a bizarre space. African Americans were allowed to perform on the popular stage, but often only if they too painted themselves a shiny Black.
The path to self-determination on the musical stage came in fits and starts, with some broad-brush overviews attributing the major breakthrough to the 1921 music Shuffle Along. The first two decades of the twentieth century, however, were marked by conflicted attempts to balance a public demand for established ethnic characterization with the desire for authentic self-expression. A lesser-known attempt that encapsulates this incongruity is the 1905–1911 run of the Gotham-Attucks Co., a song-publishing company managed by some of the most famous Black writers and performers of the day.
In the August 12, 1905 issue of the controversial Black newspaper The Broad Ax, under the headline “News and Comment from our Yankee Metropolis”, the New York beat reporter covered the merger of two smaller music concerns and the opening of Gotham-Attucks in “elaborate and cleverly appointed headquarters” on 42 W 28th St. The article lists a who’s who of Black entertainment as taking leadership in the new company, with performing duo George Walker and Bert Williams as president and vice president, and with collaborators Earle Jones, R.C. McPherson (Cecil Mack), Alex Rogers, and Jesse Shippe as part of the team. Most, if not all, of these men would be household names to anyone interested in popular entertainment at the time. All of them had written lyrics, music, or starred on the covers of sheet music published by other firms, and many were visually represented in racist manners, often out of their control.
The Broad Ax was unequivocally in favor of the enterprise upon its founding, writing:
The Gotham-Attucks are extremely fortunate in having published about 9 songs this summer that are really “hits” with the public. It is the first colored American music publishing house properly established and managed that is deserving of the name. Most all the compositions handled by the firm are the fruit and product of Negro Brain and creation.
Sylvester Russel, one of the more acerbic Black critics of the day, had a harsher view on the firm, publishing a satirical poem referencing a Black business convention in an issue of the Indianapolis Freeman published on the same August Saturday:
The Gotham-Attucks music house
Will probably be seen there,
As business men exhibitors
Of coon songs and hot air.
Russel’s critique was directly commenting on the incongruity described at the outset. While Gotham-Attucks was run by Black creatives, much of the lyrical content was still clearly in the legacy of blackface minstrelsy. The writers may have only been able to subtly push the status quo, but the artistic design was a radical shift. Sheet music for popular songs by and about African Americans, up to that point, had trafficked in stereotypical images and racial grotesques. Gotham-Attucks publications featured modern colorways, art deco detailing, and flattering, naturalistic illustrations of Black people. In some of the boldest covers, there are illustrations of an (apparently) white woman representing the song’s subject, accompanied by a photo of the famed Black performers. This inverted a long-standing practice of featuring photographs of white performers in formal dress paired with Blackface, racial caricatures to both assure the purchasing audience that white performers were behind the minstrel mask, and to impress them with the transformation. Though Gotham-Attucks was short-lived, their decisive visual designs were part of a larger push towards Black creative life defined on its own terms.
Marked by a striking logo — featuring the Pyramids of Giza, bookended by four-leaf clovers — the company’s published sheet music has a distinctive look. Though information on the specific designers and illustrators has not yet been discovered, the creative direction is clear. “Nobody” and “(That’s Why They Call Me) Shine” became classics of the American Songbook and their covers feature enduring designs. Inspired by Arts and Crafts styles, they exhibit rich colors and modernist floral elements with nothing verging on the cartoonish. Pieces like “Bon Bon Buddy” and “Malinda (Come Down to Me)” reveal the particular tightrope that Gotham-Attucks walked with popular taste. Though the use of stereotypical dialect is lessened in the music itself, both songs are closely tied to traditional minstrel themes, and both have illustrative elements — like a banjo-playing man serenading his beau, or cherubic Black babies — that had commonly been exaggerated for “humorous” racist intent in many other publications. There is a beauty in these Gotham-Attucks publications that can feel designed directly for a new, Black audience wanting to see versions of themselves in popular music — or, at least, wanting to own the latest popular songs and not feel ashamed to have them out on the piano stand.
Feb 1, 2024