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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Underneath the Harlem Moon - The Brown Sisters

You start off doing one thing, and end up doing another. Coming up, a post on the location where the Dreamin' of You video was shot. But first, this amazing video of The Brown Sisters performing Underneath the Harlem Moon.

Underneath the Harlem Moon was written by Mack Gordon, née Morris Gitler, in 19 and 32 when Gordon was 28, and was his first big hit. Gordon would later go on to write many more memorable - and less racist - songs, including Chattanooga Choo-Choo, You Make Me Feel So Young, and Etta James' signature song, At Last.

Except for the urban references, Underneath the Harlem Moon was a straight-ahead minstrel show number, and a 21st century perspective might find it surprising that it was popularized by black performers - it was a favorite of Ethel Waters - and popular with black audiences, although it was also a huge hit among whites. Billie Holiday notes in her pseudo-biography Lady Sings the Blues that she used the song in an audition "because it was so popular," and subsequently lost the job when Waters, who was heading the bill, said that nobody else sang Underneath the Harlem Moon except Herself and The Brown Sisters.

Ethel Waters would introduce Underneath the Harlem Moon to film in 19 and 33 in a short called Rufus Jones for President starring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a seven-year-old whose mother, played by Waters, dreams he gets elected president. We'll pause for a moment to reflect on all the obvious ironies. You can find Rufus Jones for President on YouTube, although the usual caveats about this sort of material apply. If you're offended by Underneath the Harlem Moon you'll almost surely be more offended by Rufus Jones.

Waters' version, which you can hear about 4 minutes into Part 2 of Rufus Jones for President is notable as it deals head-on with the racism of the original lyrics, zapping the Jewish composer in the process with a change of “darkies” to “schwartzes.”

“You may call it madness” turns into “white folks call it madness.” And then Waters adds a series of brand-new lyrics, creating, as a review at the Faking It blog terms it, "... an incredible act of reclamation, changing racism to triumph."

Once we wore bandannas, now we wear Parisian hats,
Once we were barefoot now we wear shoes and spats,
Once we were Republican but now we’re Democrats
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We don’t pick no cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo.
All we pick is numbers, and that includes you white folks too,
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath our Harlem moon.

We just thrive on dancin’;
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh, grin, let the landlord in--
That’s why house rent parties were born!

We also drink our gin, puff our reefers, when we’re feelin’ low,
Then we’re ready to step out and take care of any so-and-so.
Don’t stop for law or no traffic when we’re rarin’ to go,
Underneath our Harlem moon.
Love and Theft, baby. Love and Theft. Throw the stereotype at us, and we'll just turn it on its head and sell it right back to you.

As Mr. D. might say, I don't know very much about The Brown Sisters, although they apparently were very popular on stage and radio during the `30s, at least on the East Coast. Several YouTube commentators noted the heavy influence of The Boswell Sisters in this clip. Certainly true, as were any singing sister act of the time - including The Andrews', who would eventually overshadow The Boswell's.

The Brown Sisters never recorded, and Underneath the Harlem Moon is all we have left of them. The clip is from a so-called "race" film, Harlem Revue, created by the Feeber Film Corp. circa 19 and 38, presumambly in an attempt to popularize the featured "all-star cast of radio performers" to theater goers. The setting appears to be a stage set for an actual theater production, and Harlem Revue may be one of the few documents left of a complete black burlesque minstrel show of the late '30s .Harlem Revue can be found at the internet archive, and again, I have to provide the warning that much of the material - especially the opening blackface routine - is extremely racist and offensive. Nevertheless, it is our past, and one ignores the past at his peril.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish someone could find their current relatives. I would love to find out more about them.