[Dixielandjazz] Bert Williams - Early American Music Master.

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Oct 13 08:22:07 PDT 2004

Bert Williams was a black vaudevillian who recorded from 1901 to 1922 when
he passed away. Some of his work has been re-issued by Archeophone, a
company devoted to preserving early popular American music. Archeophone

Note the below excerpt from a NY Times article by Margo Jefferson. Seems
that Williams was the first rapper to record. Beating today's kids by about
100 years. 

If anyone would like a copy of the entire article, please write me off list
and I'll forward it.

Steve Barbone 


Williams's signature song was a bad-luck ballad called "Nobody." He wrote it
with Rogers and soon grew sick and tired of having to perform it night after
night. But it is a masterpiece. The song begins with the dignified and
melancholy, "When life seems full of clouds and rain/ And I am full of
nothin' but pain/ Who soothes my thumpin', bumpin' brain?"

"Nobody," he chants mournfully.

Then it heads into absurdity: "When I was in that railroad wreck/ And
thought I'd cashed in my last check,/ Who took that engine off my neck?"

"Not a soul," he snaps out crisply.

We call this speech-song, the Germans call it Sprechstimme: call it what you
want, but nobody does it better than Williams. His voice moves across bar
lines and around the beat. He can stretch a sentence or word out, then break
it with percussive exclamations and syllables; imitate a trombone; move up
and down octaves as he speaks. But never at the expense of the story he is
telling. He never shows off when he takes on the voice of a new character in
one of his monologues. The variety and subtlety amaze.

Williams knew all the dimensions of the human voice, how it reveals not only
class and ethnicity but our fantasies about them, too. Nor did he ever
sacrifice the small truthful details, the pauses and shifts of tone that say
everything about an individual character.

If I were a hip-hop musician, I'd be listening very hard. (Hip-hop is the
ethnic vaudeville of our day, and it doesn't hesitate to stage minstrel
shows, either.) I'd be listening if I were doing solo performance,
spoken-word poetry or stand-up comedy. So many voices so many identities and
styles: Williams is a perfect artist for our times.

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