Have yo’ heard about dat bully dat’s just come to town?
He’s round among de niggers, a-layin’ their bodies down.
I’m a-lookin’ for dat bully and he must be found.
I’m a Tennessee nigger and I don’t allow
No red-eyed river roustabout with me to make a row.
I’m lookin’ for dat bully and I’ll make him bow.
When I walk dat levee round, round, round, round,
When I walk that levee round, round, round, round,
When I walk that levee round,
I’m a-lookin’ for that bully an’ he must be found
— Issaac Goldberg, in: Tin Pan Alley, a Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket, 1930
A clear and startlingly unexpurgated recording of ‘The New Bully’ by May Irwin can be heard HERE (Warning: not for the faint of heart).
May was already famous, her name emblazoned “in incandescent lights and on twenty-four sheet billboards,” for singing songs like ‘After the Ball’ and George M. Cohan’s ‘Hot Tamale Alley.’ ‘After the Ball’ was written by Charles K. Harris and first performed by W.C. Handy at the Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1896, along with comedian John Rice, May Irwin made a 50 foot kinetoscope reel for Edison, ‘The Kiss,’ that was viewed widely from America to St. Petersburg to Japan.
Marcuse wrote that ‘The New Bully,’ along with ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De Ay,’ and ‘Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ (50,000 copies of sheet music sold), came out of Babe Connor’s black brothel in Saint Louis in 1893. W. C. Handy saw it as a negro folk melody popular on the St. Louis docks. The original bawdy “unspeakable” lyrics were changed by the white song-pluggers of Tin Pan Alley. In a letter to the New York Post, dated December 7, 1926, John P. Wilson claimed to be the author. Wilson was house librettist at the Tivoli Theatre in San Francisco in the 1890’s. One day sports-writer Charles E. Trevathan entered the music room accompanied by a “little Negro.” The Negro had a tune with a few lines of words.
“Joseph Hirschback took down the tune, which was ‘Maid of Athens’ with a touch of jazz.”
|May Irwin as a Baby|
“As you know I have made my greatest successes with negro songs. Perhaps the reason is that I like to sing them. It is no effort at all for me to pour out a rollicking negro melody that has ring and snap. Last year I thought ‘The New Bully’ was the greatest song of its kind in the world, but now I think that ‘Crappy Dan’ draws the line a little finer still. I am very fond of the colored people too. George William, come in here, I want to see you.”
There was a patter of small feet in the hall, and a colored gentleman about three feet high, in a bib and a tucker, stepped into the room. “This is George William. Shake hands with the gentleman George William.” George William rolled his eyes and extended his hand, gravely. Then he turned abruptly on his heel and went out. “He’s my youngest,” laughed Miss Irwin, “and I am quite proud of him.”
Coon songs were taken up by Caucasian and Negro song-writers. Black performers, however, like Ernest Hogan and Sam Lucas, were restricted to singing ragtime and coon songs written in dialect. One rare exception was black composer Gussie L. Davis, who went from writing and singing coon songs (‘Ain’t I Your Honey Boy no Mo’?’) to writing ballads like ‘The Baggage Coach Ahead’, a weeper which has been preserved by country and western singers into modern times. One writer, Lester A. Walton, recalled in 1934 that
“Neither the public daily press nor managers were as liberal toward Negro entertainment twenty years ago as today. Messrs. Walker, Cole and Hogan who transacted the business for their respective organizations, were constantly involved in arguments over financial matters, also about “what the public will or will not stand for from a colored show,” the size and personnel of company.”
|Poster for 'The Widow Jones, 1895|
“By keeping everlastingly at it, I finally discovered that the rag-time was obtained, not by the voice, but by the instrument. With the Negroes it had been the result of the use of the ‘thumb-string’ on the banjo, by thrumming which was produced the effect of a weird chant.”
May Irwin died of bronchial pneumonia in her apartment at the Park Crescent Hotel in New York, October 22, 1938.
— The Colored American (“the Monarch of Negro Newspapers” 1893-1904) The Colored American was an illustrated 12 page weekly ‘Afro-American’ Republican newspaper published in Washington, D.C. by Edward Elder Cooper, founder of the first illustrated negro newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman (1884-1927)
— John Strausbaugh, Black Like You; Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture, New York: Penguin group, 2006
— E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, Before There Was “Gangsta” Rap There Was “Bully Rag:” Some Thoughts Inspired by Frank Merriwell’s Return to Yale, in: Dime Novel Round-Up, Vol. 79, No. 4, August 2010
— Isaac Goldberg, Tin Pan Alley, a Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket, New York: The John Day Company, 1930
— Maxwell F. Marcuse, Tin Pan Alley in Gaslight, a Saga of the Songs That Made The Gay Nineties Gay, Watkins Glen, N.Y.: Century House, 1959