“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”

I posted a couple of links today on the Facebook page for this blog that led me to the idea of posting the full scene from “A Day At The Races” featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. But since I had some thoughts lengthier than 420 characters, I just thought I’d turn it into a full blog post.

This clip reminded me of one of my many incomplete blog posts where I was doing research on my favorite Duke Ellington vocalist featured in this clip, and possibly my favorite female jazz vocalists of all time, Ivie Anderson. Had she lived longer, I have no doubt that she’d be considered in the same breath as Billie and Ella.

Lindy Hoppers only usually see the last part with the dancing, but there’s a lengthy sequence before that which sets it up including the beginning cue that pianist, Mark Kotishion, milks every time The Boilermaker Jazz Band plays the song. It’s worth wading through the unfortunately racist overtones of the rest of the scene to hear her belt out those first few notes. Plus there’s the way she grooves from the slow intro into the faster section which is unlike the actual recordings that the Ellington band did for popular release.

Speaking of Ellington and racism, several members of his band appear in this clip; however, the man himself is absent. Ellington was often called out in later years for being too passive in relation to standing up for civil rughts during this time. The best he could do was to avoid scenes like the one in “A Day at The Races.” A musician of his reputation could afford to do so. That’s why you’ll only see pictures of him from this period looking as debonair as humanly possible. It was his silent way of undermining the way everyone viewed black Americans.

But as popular and influential as he was for a black musician, he was still considered a black musician. Not everyone could afford to turn down screen time in a major film. One of the few ways of getting any kind of mainstream exposure was for black artists to subject themselves to some pretty degrading situations. Even then, they would appear in scenes such as this one, that could easily be cut out for showing in certain areas that didn’t appreciate black and white performers in the same film.

A lot of people tend to forget that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’ all appear in servants’ garb for a reason. It wasn’t all pin up dresses and sailor uniforms back then, and not everyone had the luxury of choosing whether or not to wear high heels. As uncomfortable as parts of this scene is, it’s a good reminder of that time.

Also, here’s one more link about “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.” It gives more background about the song itself. Funny, I dug this article up awhile ago when I was looking up info about Ivie Anderson, but I just noticed the mention of Artie Shaw recording a version of this song. Sure enough, I looked it up and downloaded it . I think it’s a winner and you just might be hearing it sometime during DCLX next weekend. In the mean time, you can go back and listen to Boilermaker’s version and hear the Shaw influences on Paul Cosentino’s clarinet playing.

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5 Comments

  1. dogpossum said,

    April 7, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Sorry this is so long. But I’ve been thinking about that brief comment I made about race and shoes and I was excited to see you take it up here in your post. I’d be curious to see what people know about the things I’ve listed below – esp if they’ve talked to oldies who were dancing in those days.

    I’ve recently been going through archival clips really closely and carefully for a mini project I set myself for Women’s History Month. I’ve never spent this much time looking so closely just at women dancers. o_o I found a couple of comments about representations of black lindy hoppers in different periods. I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw it (I’m going to have to search now, because it’s bothering me), but I read a comment about how black dancers in film were presented more often as servants in the 40s than they were earlier.

    I reckon this observation needs some exploration. Or at least research. Here’s what I’m thinking:

    - When we start seeing lots of white lindy hoppers on film in the 40s, we see a shift in the presentation of black lindy hoppers – to servant roles or settings. Previous decades (the 30s and 20s) show different types of images of black performers.

    - Films with all-black casts might have presented black characters in different ways – ie as more than just servants or the disturbing sort of ‘happy plantation types’ in the All Good Chillun clip. I need to research this, and I’m sure there’s plenty of literature on it in film studies scholarship.

    - Butters notes in ‘Banned In Kansas’ (http://www.amazon.com/Banned-Kansas-Picture-Censorship-1915-1966/dp/0826217494) that films with mixed-race casts often had the black performers in separate scenes that could be easily cut out for distribution in the southern American states. The point here being that mixed-race casts were censored in some states in the south, and film distributors wanted to be sure they could still sell their films in the (lucrative) southern market. Ironically (I reckon, I have no evidence for this), this meant that films could present more progressive images of black performers for northern audiences, because they would be cut entirely in the south.
    This helps explain scenes like the Hellzapoppin’ routine – it could be cut from the film and not disturb its narrative flow. Though considering Hellzapoppin’s fairly wacked plot…

    - Short films and soundies are different animals. Some were developed for distribution only in black communities – in America and overseas (in south east Asia, for instance) – so there are different types of images of black characters at work in this medium.

    - Different film studios had different policies in regards to black and white performers in film – some were totally ok with mixed casts. Some produced films where black artists could be cut out. Some produced films with all black casts for black audiences. Some didn’t feature black artists at all. Butters talks about this as well, but only in a very general way.

    • Jerry said,

      April 7, 2011 at 9:49 pm

      One book I’d recommend is, “Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film” which has an essay on minstrelsy that does an almost frame by frame analysis of that “The Day at the Races” scene.

      You may also want to contact the author of this article, Lisa Wade. She’s a professor and helps run that website which specializes in the sort of analysis that you write about. She was also an active Lindy Hopper nationally here in the US up until a few years ago.

  2. Katie said,

    April 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    I thought it was Ethel Waters in Day At The Races.

    • Jerry said,

      May 1, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      I’m pretty sure its ivie in those clips. I double checked IMDB though and the entry for the movie only lists her. No Ethel Waters listed

      • Katie said,

        May 9, 2011 at 9:09 am

        Okay. I was getting my “Whitey’s in the movies” stories mixed up, maybe. :-)


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