What's New on the Rialto
Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race
by Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom
Book Review by Rob Lester
In the intriguing Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race, dedicated authors Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom dispel claims of another 100th anniversary: that of the prolific composer/pianist's birth. In the rewarding 1970s renaissance of ragtime and irrepressible Blake's appearances and music (including the Broadway revue Eubie!, begun as a concert restricted to Shuffle Along's songs), his advanced age caused attention. Publicity, tributes and TV shows heralded his approaching 100th birthday (then came reports that he died a mere five days later). The pesky truth is: Blake had long been lying about his age; when Shuffle Along's composer shuffled off the mortal coil, he was actually 96. Other writers propagate the falsehood which is trapped in accessible old TV footage and news articles. If true, it would be sweet metaphorical icing on the (birthday) cake of an already dramatic tale, but there's enough actual drama to make the book frequently feel almost as lively and fast-moving as its hero's celebrated ragtime romps.
Some incidents rival fictional sagas' accounts of beleaguered protagonists' struggles, setbacks, and roadblockswith path-crossing coincidences, cameo appearances of stars, and foreshadowing. Imagine the face of a devoutly religious motherfinding ragtime music offensive, finding out her teen-aged son Eubie sneaks out of the house nightly to play itemployed at the local whorehouse. Noble Sissle becomes Blake's key lyricist/performing partner, but they literally meet in passing: one hurriedly rushing down a flight of stairs as the other ascends, doing business in the same office. You can't top this for backstage drama: In the dressing room, a musician responds to being chastised by the bandleader by fatally stabbing him. Stranded out of town when the producers' paychecks don't come, performers' train fares are paid by an admirer encountering them.
The writers, fortunately, had access to duly noted (and duly footnoted) mountains of material, published and private: letters and legal fights, contracts, and receipts. Comparing these often proved that promised payments weren't fully made.
We follow Blake through youthful poverty in Baltimore, vaudeville, theatre, touring, two marriages, co-writers with contrasting temperaments, financial ups and downs, employment through the USO and WPA, piano and band gigs, recordingsmuch recalled first-hand in generously quoted feisty interviews and letters. Omnipresent is the ugly reality of the albatross around his neck: the issue named in the last word of the subtitle Rags, Rhythm, and Race. A son of two former slaves, facing extreme prejudice was a way of life, with dismissive treatment, limited opportunities, and the sting of stereotyping. As performers, tuxedo-clad Sissle and Blake successfully resisted wearing blackface and fought for integrated audience seating. Many excerpts from newspaper reviews reveal ignorant, easily decodable language. The kid who'd walked to school dodging rocks hurled by hate-filled white neighbors later endured verbal brickbats in print, tossed at his shows.
The bountiful biography's often meticulously heavy details make one regret things glossed over, perhaps because of scant verifiable information, Blake's sense of privacy, or the writers' respect for that. How were Blake and his parents emotionally impacted by him being the only one of many offspring to live beyond toddlerhood? Did he have any connection with the (here shadowy) adopted sister and others who later shared their dwelling? The chronological format leaves the wives unmentioned for long stretches, but there are numerous mentions of Blake's philandering. Oh, to be a fly on the wall and get more than the crumbs of info about brief path-crossings with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, or the auditions rejecting Ethel Waters and teen-aged Josephine Baker (later hired, grabbing press attention for her wild stage manner).
There's discussion of Nat King Cole recording "We Are Americans, Too," which advocated acknowledgment of blacks, in the 1950s. Presumably out of caution/reluctance about something that could assertively ruffle feathers, the record company didn't put it out then. However, the statement that it "was never issued nationally" is not correct, as it was released in this century. Noble Sissle, Jr. has been visible in discussing his father's legacy, but we find no mention of him or if he was approached and declined an interview. Oddly, there is no reference in this 2020 book to the existence of the high-profile 2016 New York theatre production about the making of Blake's biggest claim to fame, Shuffle Along.
With a huge amount of archival material available, I don't envy authors' choices in being judiciousselecting to quote verbiage verbatim versus summarizing and what to leave behind as minutiae or insufficient relevance. They may feel like kids let loose in a candy store who want to gorge on everything. Oh, it can seem ungrateful for a genuinely curious reader to grouse that there is "too much of a good thing" if we think of heavy detail or multiple (but similar) examples of condescending or perfunctory theatre reviews as "a good thing." Of course, it all depends on one's level of interest in the life and times of a biography's subject, and earlier familiarity with the material being discussed. The tome is not always a fast, breezy read, and when names come up after a first time we may get the identifying credits again; some readers will appreciate this as a "refresher course." There can be some frustration with some "he said.../ the other guy said..." accounts when the truth is elusive or unprovable or points are moot. Although the writers don't paint Blake as angelic or consistently his own best advocate, the deck is arguably affectionately stacked to make us root for the route of him prevailing.
Alas, it may be a thankless task to try to describe piano-playing or melodies (especially the unfamiliar and unrecorded) in a way to make the reader get a sense of "hearing" them. And since the spotlight is on the composer rather than his lyricists, there's not much in the way of lyric excerpts as a more doable task of giving us a flavor of the songs. We do get a feel for the times from the many photos and sheet music covers, etc. that help to plop us into the eras.
In addition to listing Blake projects and expanding on consulted sources, the appendix helpfully collects names of songs one may well be motivated to collect after reading about them. The text's descriptions of compositions and piano-playing approach aren't overly technical for non-musicians, but do whet the appetite. Frustratingly, some Eubie Blake material is lost to history; even more maddening is knowing that, because of racial bigotry depriving him of more opportunities, we can only imagine how much more he'd have done. But, unquestionably, Messrs. Carlin and Bloom have done much to bring renewed flow to the spotlight the man deserves. With recent news events yet again drawing attention to the spectre of racism and its scars, the hurdles and horrors faced by Eubie Blake and other blacks in 20th century show business feel all the more visceral. And we can appreciate this man who persevered and pioneered, adamant about not letting his skin color color all his hopes.
Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race