Jun 28, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 4

Our Harlem Moon. 

In this spin-off tale, Ethel Waters hijacks a degrading song and makes the music her own.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, writer Cord Jefferson, WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, and WNYC's Jami Floyd. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. Featuring interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

Thank you to our podcast friends at Throughline for featuring our series on their show. Check out their feed for an exclusive behind-the-scenes interview about the series with Rund, Ramtin, Jad and Shima.

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RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) How would it end? I ain't got a friend. My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so Black and blue?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BLUE")

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) To be so Black and blue.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Child, this is why I've been feeling like I'm blue in the face for years. I'm just like, this period - basically between emancipation and the Harlem Renaissance - it is the key to our American character.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Could I get your name and your title just to begin?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: My name is Rhiannon Giddens. And I am a singer, player, composer and an armchair historian.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK - quick intro - this is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB. I'm Jad.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I'm Shima.

JAD ABUMRAD: We begin this week by branching out from Harry. And we couldn't resist but bring you this short episode.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah. So this one came about when we called up Rhiannon Giddens during our research.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: From when I found out about Black Swan, I was like, yes. This is what we were doing. We're doing all of it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I wanted to ask her a whole bunch of questions about Ethel Waters because I knew she sometimes performed Ethel's songs. But then suddenly...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: You know, what is Black? What is American?

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...We were on a bullet train, speeding through hundreds of years of American history.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Minstrelsy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It started with that word.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Minstrelsy was such a big deal. It was, like, the first American cultural export. It was like rock 'n' roll before rock 'n' roll, right?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Minstrelsy is this phenomenon starting in about the 1830s - went on for about a hundred years - you could even argue, longer than that - where you had white musicians dressing up in blackface and singing these disgusting racist songs using very exaggerated stereotypes of Black people. We touch on this a bit in Episode 1. But on this particular call, Rhiannon started telling us about the way this minstrel past...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Has never really passed.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: There was an Australian prime minister in a minstrel troupe...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my God.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...In this history. Like...

SHIMA OLIAEE: No.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...Literally there's a picture. It's online. I could show it to you.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This will connect us back to Ethel in just a second.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: So it's weird. You have, like, white people in blackface playing music that does actually have authentic African American roots. But then Black people start to join minstrelsy because you're trying to get a job, honey. It is one of the few jobs that they have open to them. But to do it, they have to put on blackface.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: The very first moving picture done by the Lumiere brothers on British soil in London is of a blackface minstrel troupe outside entertaining. The other place that minstrelsy went other than Hollywood movies is cartoons, right? - even Mickey Mouse - the formation of him with the white gloves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOONEY TUNES")

MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) Well, shut my mouth and call me corn pone.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Then you, get to, like, Bugs Bunny and all this coming (ph).

MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) Please, don't beat me massa (ph). Don't beat that tired old body.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Like, Bugs Bunny in blackface.

MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) No.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNIDENTIFIED SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Goofy) (Laughter).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Multiple cartoons - you have to laugh because you'd cry otherwise. And then you have the coon song, where this imagery from minstrelsy is getting funneled.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The most popular song of the period...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: "All Coons Look Alike To Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL COONS LOOK ALIKE TO ME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) All coons look alike to me.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I am so fascinated with this song because a lot of these songs are so catchy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL COONS LOOK ALIKE TO ME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Any other [expletive] never thought I should be (ph).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: But this song was so incendiary that you can whistle it at somebody, and you could start a fight.

JAD ABUMRAD: Are there other songs you can point to where you're like, wow, this is a great song if I just listen to the music?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Sighing). All of them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Jimmy crack corn and I don't care.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: All the songs we learn in third grade or whatever, these songs were originally minstrel songs.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Which ones?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Oh, "Jimmy Crack Corn."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Little brown jug, don't I love you?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: "Little Brown Jug."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) The Camptown ladies sing this song - doodah, doodah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: "Camptown Races."

 

RHIANNON GIDDENS: "I've Been Working On The Railroad."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a tiger by the toe.

SHIMA OLIAEE: "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe"...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Eeny meeny, miny, moe.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...In the original, it wasn't a tiger they caught by the toe.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: They've been cleaned up.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Dem bones, dem bones.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: "Dem Bones, Dem Bones." I mean, anything with dem in it - minstrelsy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I remember being in choir singing "Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick A Bale Of Cotton" (ph). I remember.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Me, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Jump down, spin around, pick a bale of cotton.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Everybody knows this song. "Oh, Susanna," that verse - oh, they took that one out. Oh, that's 'cause James Taylor sang that. Wait a minute.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yeah. So I jumped aboard to telegraph and trabeled (ph) down to riber (ph). It's not a minstrel song if it's not in dialect. I jumped aboard to telegraph and trabeled down the riber. Riber - you know what that's going to rhyme with. De (ph) electric fluid magnified and killed five hundred N-words.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, dang.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Oh, this is nothing. This is nothing, y'all. When I do a show, I get gasps when I talk about coon songs. Go, all coons look alike to me. And they're like, oh, my heavens. Pearls are clutched, you know? It takes a lot of thinking to figure out what to do with this music. But shoving it under the rug is not the answer.

JAD ABUMRAD: Do you yourself perform any of these songs when you do your shows?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: The one that I do is "Underneath The Harlem Moon" and I do Ethel Waters' version of that song because I saw that film...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As Rufus Jones) Am I going to be a great man, Mammy?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Was it "Rastus For President," (ph) "Rufus For President" (ph)?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character) President.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I can't remember. But it's with Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As Rufus Jones) Me?

ETHEL WATERS: (As character) Sure.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Who's like 4 - not 4, but he was very, very young.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As Rufus Jones, singing) I'll be glad when you're dead, you, rascal you.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In the movie, he gets elected president, becoming the first Black president - but as a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Come here, Prez. You got to say something to your constituen-say (ph).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: You know, it's a dream. But it's white people's idea of what would happen if Black people took over the presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) From now on, pork chop will be free.

SAMMY DAVIS JR: (As Rufus Jones, singing) I do, I do...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It will be his duty to plant the watermelon vine.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Talking about the watermelon amendment and [expletive] like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It is too many loaded dice in this country.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Shooting craps - and it's just the most horrible collection of stereotypes ever assembled on one screen. I mean, they're just awful.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hey.

SHIMA OLIAEE: At the end of the movie...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: They're in the courtroom. And in strolls...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character) Now, Senate, listen here (ph).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...Ethel Waters in an evening gown...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character) Office of the president...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...Maybe a fur. I can't remember. It's been a while since I've seen it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Ethel Waters plays the mother of Sammy Davis Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character) And I'm also around to...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And she sings this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) Creole babies walk along...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ..."Underneath The Harlem Moon." And I was like, what the heck is this?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) ...Rhythm in their feet, in their lips and in their eyes.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It's so good. And then I looked it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERNEATH THE HARLEM MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And I was like, whoa, those aren't the words that she sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERNEATH THE HARLEM MOON")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) ...Find love that satisfies - underneath the Harlem moon.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And I was like, hmm, she rewrote half of that song.

SHIMA OLIAEE: How? What'd she do?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Like, look. These lyrics - all right, I found the original "Underneath The Harlem Moon." Let's see. Creole babies walk along with them in their thighs, rhythm in their hips and in their lips and in their eyes. Where to high browns find the kind of love this satisfies? Underneath the Harlem moon. They don't pick no cotton. Picking cotton is taboo. They don't live in cabins like the old folks used to do. Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue underneath that Harlem moon.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So that's how the original goes.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: She sings...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing, as character) We don't pick no cotton. Picking cotton is taboo.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...We don't pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo. Right then there's a change. She is owning it. She's like, nah, y'all aren't going to talk about us. We're going to talk about ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing, as character) Underneath our Harlem moon.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Underneath our Harlem moon - that is, like, the biggest change. It's not underneath the Harlem underneath moon. It's underneath our Harlem moon. She's like, oh, no, no, no. I'm going to talk about my people now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) We're never blue or...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Even - there's a line, that's why we darkies were born. She changed to...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) That's why we schwartzes were born.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...That's why we schwartzes were born.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And if you know her relationship with that Yiddish song on vaudeville that was such a smash, you know, like, the idea of Blacks and Jews, all this - these are the things also that we don't talk about, the different cultural connections that were going on.

ETHEL WATERS: It was all a melting pot - Jewish people, Chinese, Italians, Polish people, Arabs. Nobody in our race is jet black. I'm a brown-skinned woman. We are many colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) ...Underneath our Harlem moon.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: I love her. Here's one of her verses. We don't pick no cotton. Picking cotton is taboo. All we pick is numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) And that includes you white folks, too.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And that includes you white folks, too, 'cause if we hit, we pay our rent...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) Then we pay our rent...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...On any avenue, underneath our Harlem moon. Right? Such a gravitas - like, you can just hear it in her voice. Once we wore bandanas; now we wear Parisian hats.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) Once we were barefoot...

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Once we were barefoot...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) ...Now we're sporting shoes and spats.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...Now we're sporting shoes and spats.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUFUS JONES FOR PRESIDENT")

ETHEL WATERS: (As character, singing) Once we were Republicans, but now we're Democrats.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: And now we're Democrats - which has a whole 'nother meaning.

SHIMA OLIAEE: My gosh.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Right? It's that political shift that happened around that time. I mean, she owns every aspect of being a Black person. I get goose bumps every time I sing that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs.

I do her version of "Underneath The Harlem Moon." And that is the moment I unleash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) Oh, now then we drink our gin, smoke our reefer when we're feeling low.

I unleash my bitterness (laughter). That's - like, that's the moment of me kind of just giving it to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) Don't stop for law or traffic...

Just like, you know, I wish I didn't have to talk about this stuff, but I do. But you know what?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Underneath the Harlem...

Ethel gave me this vehicle to let loose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: ...Moon.

(APPLAUSE)

RHIANNON GIDDENS: If you could rewrite all of them to be like that, that's what I would do.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is "The Vanishing Of Harry Pace" miniseries on RADIOLAB. Who are you?

SHIMA OLIAEE: I'm Shima Oliaee.

JAD ABUMRAD: And I am Jad. And this episode was a little bit of a shorty. But in just three days, we have a bigger one coming.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And it's a good one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: His story is one of the most inspiring stories in lost sounds, I think, because, boy, he was one of those people that just knocked down the walls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This guy was like a battering ram.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know, when he went overseas, they were, you know, hide your daughter; you know, this Black man is coming; close down the windows 'cause he's dangerous; somebody's going to be pregnant before he leaves - all that kind of nonsense.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When he walks out, he is booed and hissed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He believed that it was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAULE, SAULE")

STILE ANTICO: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...The epiphany of the Apostle Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAULE, SAULE")

STILE ANTICO: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What he accomplished was extraordinary.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This story is just bananas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: It's a story we did not expect to tell. But when we bumped into it, we were so surprised that we just had to include it. That is coming up in three days.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And before we leave you, we just want to say thank you to Throughline - Throughline podcast. We did a behind-the-scenes interview with them, and they've just posted it on their podcast feed if you search Throughline podcast. They're amazing. Thank you Ramtin and Rund.

JAD ABUMRAD: Definitely.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Thank you for listening. We'll see you in a few days.

JAD ABUMRAD: Bye.

 

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