Shuffle Along on Tour in the South


While the original Shuffle Along was a major success in New York and in Northern and Midwestern cities on tour, the show never ventured into the racially segregated south. This spot was taken by a “second company,” licensed by the original producers for touring more widely. Under the direction of George Wintz and featuring John Vaughner and Edgar Connors as the comic leads, this version hit smaller cities in the Midwest and even ventured into the deep South, including a three-day run in Nashville towards the end of December 1922. The local producer noted that the show played to “absolute capacity” and that it was the “cleanest and fastest dancing musical comedy” ever to appear there. Unlike the main company when it toured, many of the #2 company’s dates were limited to a single night so its travel schedule was grueling through autumn 1922-spring 1924.
Advertisement for the Shuffle Along “B” Company when it appeared in Fitchburg, MA

When the Wintz company hit Birmingham, the local critic was astounded by the lack of “negro humor—typical, traditional and fictional, as the South knows it” when he encountered instead “a smart, light stepping, wise cracking bunch of New York actors who, with clear enunciation and cream-like complexions, upset expectations. Indeed, the absence of dialect is marked even in … the principal comedians…” Nonetheless, once the critic realized that “the show is a straight musical comedy…in the hands of trained negro actors” he found it “rattingly good, altogether diverting, and a piece of stage work regular theater goes will enjoy.” Not surprisingly, however, the theater remained segregated and the show’s audience was split between a Monday night show for “colored only” and a Tuesday night performance for white patrons.

Advertisement assuring patrons that Shuffle Along was appropriate for all audiences, Charlotte, NC

To assuage Southern theater managers—and their audiences—advance notices appeared in local papers as much as 3-4 weeks before the show arrived, assuring possible patrons of the show’s appropriateness for white patronage. Before its arrival in Charlotte, North Carolina, the theater’s manager there took the unusual step of purchasing a boxed advertisement for the purpose of letting his white audience know the show’s “great success” in a number of other Southern venues. Similar articles appeared in other Southern papers citing the show’s warm reception on the road as a way of assuring white patrons that they could be comfortable coming to the theater to see it.

Not all theaters that the #2 company played were aimed at white patrons. They also hit the houses typically part of the TOBA (tough-on-black-acts) circuit. And some of these theaters were excluded or were hostile to white audiences. In fact, the Belmont Theater in Pensacola, Florida, flipped segregation on its head, limiting its white audience to the balcony and giving blacks the plum seats when the road company played there.
Learn more about the Shuffle Along tours here, including  interactive tour maps:–tours-1921-1923

The Shuffle Along Baseball Team


Shuffle Along Baseball team, 1922. Aubrey Lyles may be the player shown in the middle of the trio kneeling in front.

Here’s a unique item from Eubie’s scrapbooks: A photo of the Shuffle Along ball team at a game they played against a team led by white vaudevillians Van and Schenck. Life on the road was often boring and there were few opportunities for fun. Touring companies often formed ball teams as both a means of recreation and as a way to promote a forthcoming performance. Musician Bill Monroe famously would roll into town challenging the best local players to a game in the late afternoon before giving a tent show at night.

Van and Schenk in uniform for the game against the Shuffle Along team.

Van and Schenck were in many ways Sissle and Blake’s greatest competition on the vaudeville circuit. The fact that this white duo was paid more per week than the equally popular Sissle-Blake duo was galling to them. Sissle noted that—despite being a top draw and working their way up to a featured spot on the program—their pay remained at the bottom of the pay scale. He stated that they could “stop the show” and even out-draw popular white acts: “Nobody could follow you on the goddamn stage. The next act might be a white act headliner and [the audience would] run ‘em off the stage because they want what they want. And we were the only colored persons on the bill. … Now the unfair part about it was … they put us on the old #2–and the #2 salary, about $250. Now then, the third act couldn’t get on, so they wouldn’t follow us, so they pushed us down to the fifth act, [and] pretty soon we’d be down to act next to closing. Now, there was no complaining from that act, because they were the animals, the dog acts, something like that. But they didn’t change our salary; #4 should be $450-500 if you could hold that spot.” According to Sissle, though, their salary was not adjusted to reflect the act’s popularity with the audience.

Decades later, Blake continued to complain that—at their height after the success of Shuffle Along—Sissle and Blake made only $3000 a week in vaudeville, while the white Van and Schenck got $5000 for essentially the same amount of work. Of course, $3000 a week was considerably more than other black acts earned at that time, but still it irked Blake that the duo was not paid as much as their white counterparts.
May 13, 1922, clipping showing the lineup of the show’s baseball team.

Some sniffing around led to a discovery of two notices from 1922 that would seem to date this photo to that time. One article even lists the team’s lineup, including Aubrey Lyles. The other mentions the specific game against Van and Schenck that July. If anyone can identify any of the players in the original photo, let us know!



The success of the Shuffle Along score led to many new opportunities for Sissle and Blake in 1922, including a chance to provide songs for a “mainstream” (white) musical, Elsie. Produced by John Scholl, the shows numbers were split about equally between Sissle and Blake and Carlo and Sanders (whose previous show was Tangerine). Monte Carlo and Alma Sanders were a husband-and-wife songwriting team with several Broadway musicals to their name. Apparently, Sissle and Blake were brought in to spice up the score after the show previewed in Chicago to somewhat tepid response. An agreement with Scholl and coproducer Edgar J. MacGregor gave the duo a measly $1.00 upfront payment, but in return promised a royalty of 1½ percent of the show’s weekly gross for the length of its run—wherever it played. The producers held the song rights as long as the play was performed at least 50 times in any theatrical season following its initial run. Even more generously, Sissle and Blake were to collect this percentage even if their songs were subsequently dropped from later productions. Clearly, the savvy songwriters were trading immediate profit for long-term income—although sadly the play had little success and the promised income failed to materialize.
The sheet music for Elsie featured a generic cover that did little to reveal Sissle and Blake’s roots.
Elsie was a typical son-of-a-millionaire-courts-a-showgirl romance, with the family disapproving of the match until the charming soubrette wins them over. Several critics mentioned Sissle and Blake’s song “Baby Bunting” as being the hit of the show without mentioning that its authors were black. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Courier, Sissle Sissle discussed the difficulty they had in placing this song before they scored their hit show:
“Our race has been an asset in the success of “Shuffle Along,” but a handicap in our song writing. Publishers looked to us for jazz music and would accept such, but when we offered something more serious they would not take it.
“For example, we wrote “Baby Bunting,” the song hit of “Elsie,” seven years ago, but could not sell it. “Two Hearts in Tune,” another hit of “Elsie,” also was written several years ago, as were “My Vision Girl,” “Mary Ann of Maryland,” and several others. But the publishers could not see them until after our success with “Shuffle Along.”
Sissle concluded optimistically, “Now that we have arrived, so to speak, the handicap of race has been forgotten. Sadly, however, it turned out that black songwriters would have little opportunity to write for Broadway shows—or the explosion of sound musical films—in the later ‘20s and beyond.
Newspaper advertisement for Elsie.

Besides occasionally mentioning the hit Shuffle Along, both songwriting teams were treated more or less as equals; in fact, Sissle and Blake’s contributions were more often called out as song hits than the others. Alan Dale noted that he particularly appreciated that the score wasn’t “jiggy or jazzy,” perhaps a backhanded compliment to the fact that Sissle and Blake’s contribution was solidly in the mainstream Broadway style. Despite solid reviews, Elsie was not a hit, but it did attract the attention of British producer Charles Cochran, who would hire Sissle and Blake to provide songs for a few shows that he produced.

Eubie’s First Ragtime Publications


Eubie met several piano “professors” while working summers in Atlantic City from 190-1915, including  Charles “Luckey” Roberts.  Born in Philadelphia approximately the same year as Eubie (like Eubie, Roberts gave different stories at different times as to his actual birthdate), Roberts was one of the most accomplished of the East Coast pianists.  His first hit came in May 1913 with the publication of “Junk Man Rag.”  The piece was advertised as a “one-step,” as a means of promoting it with dancers.  Unlike Eubie’s “Charleston Rag,” judging from an early recording by Roberts, Luckey’s piece depends far more on “tricks” in the right hand, such as rapid sweeps up the keyboard, and borrows more heavily from standard figures heard in other early ragtime and jazz compositions.  The actual publication was “arranged” by Artie Matthews, the well-known ragtime composer from St. Louis, who favored a politer, more toned down style—like his mentor’s Scott Joplin’s—than the East Coasters performed.  Not surprisingly, the published score is much barer than Robert’s own recording to accommodate amateur pianists.

“Junk Man” became a hit when its publisher, Joseph Stern, had lyrics added to it.  Eubie noted that he began to hear it performed on Baltimore’s streets by local organ grinders, a sure sign of its popularity. ]  Following its success, Roberts arranged for Eubie to have his first two published rags with Stern, “Chevy Chase” (promoted as “a rag”) and “Fizz Water” (labelled by the publisher as a “fox trot”).

Ragtime scholars David A. Jasen and Trebor Tichenor note that “both of these early tunes … are in the mold of the popular one-step and foxtrot dance tunes of the teens.”  They incorporate the typical syncopated fox-trot rhythm found in many other dance numbers of the time.  Eubie was disappointed when Stern had arranger Stephen O. Jones “simplify” his pieces to make them easier for the amateur pianist to play.  (Jones was a Broadway orchestrator of the teens and ‘20s who worked for a number of Tin Pan Alley publishers.)   He complained to him, “I don’t tell you people how to write your music…I think I ought to know my own style…”  Eubie felt offended that a white arranger would have to “adapt” his music for a different audience.  Nonetheless, the piece was published in this simplified arrangement.  On his first published compositions, he was credited as “James Hubert Blake (“Eubie”).”

Cover for “Fizz Water” by J. Hubert Blake

It’s impossible to know how Eubie played these pieces himself as they were “arranged” for publication and he didn’t record either rag at the time.  Based on the published scores, “Chevy Chase” is the more interesting of the two works, with a dramatic minor opening theme set against a contrasting major B section and jaunty trio.  The piano effects—including dramatic stop time, unaccompanied right hand riffs (in the opening), and Eubie’s characteristic bass–all make this a memorable rag.  “Fizz Water” is altogether more conventional, at least as it exists in score, sounding like a typical novelty piece of the era.

Eubie’s contract with Stern was none too generous; he was paid $1.00 out of hand, along with a royalty of one cent per copy sold, for all rights to two piano solos.  In the account statements that Eubie saved, in their first year “Chevy Chase” sold 1617 copies, earning him $16.17 in royalties, while the less popular “Fizz Water” managed to sell only 388 copies earning him a meager $3.88.  In all likelihood, Stern trashed all copies after the first year’s sales were so poor.  (In comparison, Irving Berlin’s 1909 hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” reportedly sold half-a-million copies in its first month of sale.)  Eubie quickly learned that writing virtuosic piano pieces was not a path to easy riches; even Roberts’s “Junk Man Rag” only became a hit when it was wed with lyrics.  His desire to write songs clearly was motivated partially by the fact that they could become major hits through their performance by vaudeville and Broadway stars.  A tricky finger-buster was too good to capture the hearts and fingers of amateurs.

“Bugle Call Rag”

Eubie claimed that he also played for Stern another piece that he had adapted from pianist Hughie Woolford—a piece that would later become the major hit “Ragging the Scale.”  Woolford had created the tune based on Eubie’s quip that he’d rag anything—including the scale.  However, when Eubie played it for Stern, the publisher said, “Great, but who the hell can play it? You can’t sell that,” so passed on it.  When “Ragging the Scale” became a major hit for white composer Eddie Claypool later in 1915, Eubie was justifiably irritated that someone else had scored on his idea, so he started to think about another simple theme he could “rag.”  The result was a collaboration with popular white composer Carey Morgan on a piece called “Bugle Call Rag,” which Stern published to cash in on Claypool’s hit. Morgan is best-known today for composing pop ditties like “Sippin’ Cider through a Straw.”  Although called a “rag” and published as a “fox trot,” the piece is actually a march playing off the well-known short bugle melody used by the army to rouse the troops.  Written in 4 parts—like most marches (and rags)—the rhythm is as four-square as can be in the published version, and the melody borrows from other popular songs like “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”  Although it far outsold Eubie’s own rags, it didn’t match the success of Claypool’s number.  “The novelty had worn off,” Eubie said ruefully.

Louis Mitchell’s Jazz Kings


Following World War I, James Reese Europe and his band played several concerts in Paris to celebrate the recent victory. They were entranced by the city, where they could move freely, be seated in any restaurant or bar with other patrons, and find work at the same or better pay than their white counterparts. They offered something the French musicians could not equal; “authentic” African-American music performed by “real” African-Americans. One such musician was drummer Louis Mitchell, who had previously worked with various Clef Club ensembles in New York. He first toured England with composer Joe Jordan and then formed his own band.
Mitchell’s Jazz Kings, c. 1917

Sometime either in late 1917/early 1918, Mitchell moved on to working in France. He found his greatest success in Paris, and formed at least one band using local white players. Then, with the end of World War I in sight, there was an increased demand for the “real thing” in Parisians night spots. The management of one popular club– the Casino de Paris—asked Mitchell to enlist a group of black musicians to play there. He sailed to New York to recruit musicians, and returned with a group of seven performers who were eventually called the Jazz Kings. The ensemble worked from written scores and played the same style of lightly syncopated dance music that the Clef Club orchestras had offered to socialites before the war back in New York.

With so much demand for musicians in Paris, however, Mitchell had trouble holding on to his men who could easily find higher paying jobs on their own. On August 21, 1918, Mitchell wrote to Eubie about the opportunities black musicians had in France. He met Blake while performing in Baltimore around 1913, and then reached out to him five years later to try to convince him to join him in Paris:
“I suppose that you have heard of the success that I have had with my bands over here, I have just formed another band of Frenchman and I am teaching them to play rags and they are getting along fine better than I thought they would. I have them at one of the best Theatres in Paris, but I am now looking for a band of coulard boys to put in there place as soon as I can get them over here, and I will shift the white band to another Theatre in Paris.
“Now I shoud like very much to get you over here with me, Jim Europe told me that you wanted to come so that is why I am writeing to find out if you would like to come as there is a great field over here for me but I am handycaped by not having enough men to put to work. …
“Eubie this is the finest Country in the world and if you once get over here you will never want to go back to N.Y. again, I intend to stay here the rest of my life, as you can go where you want too and have the time of your life just like Mr. Eddy and no one to bother you.” [Grammar and spelling as in the original]
Mitchell’s pitch was based on the good money, short working hours, and lack of racial prejudice found in Paris. Seventy-five dollars a week was unheard of for a black musician working in New York at the time, and to have steady employment guaranteed for as much as 6 months, rather than having to constantly scuffle for one nighters, was also highly attractive. As we have seen, when working in the brothels and sporting houses of Baltimore , Blake had to work long hours – often from 10 PM to sunrise—for little pay—starting as a teen at just $3.00 a week (although tips from patrons often made up for the lack of salary).
However, what is most noteworthy about this letter is that, as early as 1918, Mitchell recognized the lack of racial prejudice in Paris, noting that even the presence of the bigoted American soldiers could not change the French enthusiasm for black culture. Even working for Europe playing in New York in the finest society homes, black musicians faced prejudice, entering through the backdoor, staying with the servants until being called on to perform, and not daring to eat or drink the food that was being served to the guests.

Eubie’s Parents


Eubie Blake’s father, John Sumner Blake, was born into slavery on July 7, c. 1838, in Middlesex county, Virginia. Through his life, Blake idolized his father who he viewed as a “man’s man.”  His charcoal-dark skin color stood out to the younger Blake, who noted that “My father was a big man, masculine…My father had …. 11 brothers and 1 sister, and during slavery, all of my father’s brothers were big strappin’ men, so they put them into stud.  This was in Virginia; see, that’s why I don’t like Virginia … [The men] only got fresh meat, and they only got sugar, preserves, when they were going into stud.  … They had everything just like the white people had.” Eubie’s implication, of course, was that the slaves were only treated to such good food when their masters hoped to boost their fertility; otherwise, they were provided just the minimal food for survival.

Blake’s father, c. 1900

Blake’s father made no bones about his having been a slave, and proudly showed his son the whip-marks on his back, much to his mother’s chagrin: “My father would show me the stripes on his back.  And my mother would say … “John, don’t tell that boy about slavery.”  And he’d say, “Yes, he has to know about slavery.”  Then he’d turn to me and say to me, “Don’t you hate people,” because he could see the scowl on my face.  “The people in the South were almost as ignorant as we were.  They thought they was right, and they were told that we were nothing.  And a man can only go by his convictions.”

“Everybody, especially colored children, needs to know,” his father would say when Blake’s mother protested his sharing stories of his days in slavery.  John Sumner’s acceptance of white people—despite his poor treatment during slavery—and understanding that their prejudice against blacks was based on ignorance had a great influence on the young Blake.

Sometime in the 1840s, John Sumner’s family had relocated to Somerset County, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, in a town called Potato Neck.  The town was populated by free blacks, perhaps suggesting that the Blakes had either purchased their freedom or been freed by their master.  By the 1870s, the family owned large plots of land in the area, indicating that the Blake family may have been better off (at least during this period) than Eubie believed.  In the 1870 census, the occupations of both John Sumner and his brother James is given as “sailors,” which may reflect the fact that most people living in the area made their living working on the bay oystering.

During the Civil War, Eubie’s father enlisted, working as a “landsman” for the Union Navy in Baltimore.  He served a little less than a year, from Nov. 1863-Sept. 1864, supporting vessels sailing out of the Baltimore harbor.  He may have already been working on the harbors as this would be his profession throughout most of the rest of his working life.

Eubie’s mother, Emma, c. 1900.

Blake’s mother—who he variously said was 13-20 years younger than his father—was born Emma or Emily Johnstone in Matthews County, Virginia c. 1856.  Although his mother denied being born a slave, Eubie said his father often reminded her that, in fact, she was a slave in everything but perhaps name: ” [She’d say] “I never was a slave in my life.”  My father would be back of her, he’d say, “Did you pick cotton?”  “Sure I picked cotton!”  “Did the master pay you?”  “No.”  … She never did admit that she was a slave, but she was.  She picked cotton and never got paid for it.”

Eubie knew less of his mother’s early life than his father.  Much fairer skinned than her dark-hued husband, Emma Blake was an intensely religious person. The 1870 Baltimore city census notes an “Emma Johnstone,” aged 14, who was a “scholar” boarding at the St. Frances Convent and Orphan Asylum in Baltimore.  Assuming this was Eubie’s mother, it suggests that she may have been orphaned or at least separated from her parents.   The academy had about 25 boarding students (“including two students from Cuba, Spanish children”) and 27 orphans living on site. When Emma was a boarder, the Academy was located in a building on Forrest Street, in the same neighborhood where the Blake family would later live. Living conditions were far better than most black children would have enjoyed at the time, with “light and airy” bedrooms “and a large playground and flower garden surround the institution.”  Along with their studies, the girls sang in the school’s chapel choir, gave musical performances, and, on occasion, presented what sound like religious (or at least moral) plays, including “The Youthful Martyrs of Rome.”

By  1880, Census records indicate that Emma and John Sumner were married and living in Philadelphia, along with her brother, George, who was 4 years her elder.  Both John Sumner and George’s occupations are listed as “stevedores,” or dock workers, an occupation that John Sumner would follow until ill health caused him to retire sometime around the turn of the century.  Emma’s occupation was given as “wash-woman,” which she also would continue to practice throughout Eubie’s youth.  Eubie recalled his religious mother singing “Lord, how long do have I got to do this?  How long?” as she bent over a washtub, caked with soap, cleaning the “white folk’s clothes.”

Blake was proud of his parents who he viewed as religious, educated, and “respectable” members of society, despite their lack of personal wealth.  He was particularly proud of their both being literate, saying his father had beautiful penmanship: “the master’s daughter used to take him down in the woods and teach him to read and write… he could have written calling cards, he had beautiful handwriting.”  Blake’s father also was a voracious reader, telling his son, “Everything I ever knew I learned from reading.”  He insisted that Eubie learn to read, encouraging him to page through the Baltimore Sun to get the latest news.

Gertrude Saunders


Shuffle Along’s two female leads, Lottie Gee and Gertrude Sanders, saw their careers boosted thanks to the show. They were given different types of tunes to perform to suit their different characters. Good-girl Gee performed “Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild about Harry.” Modern woman Saunders’s songs were the jazzier ones, “Simply Full of Jazz,” “I’m Craving for that Kind of Love,” and “Daddy.” The New York Age praised Saunders’s lusty vocals, saying “for the first time white theatregoers …are having such numbers . . . as they really should be sung.”

Gertrude Saunders, 1920

Unlike others in the show, Saunders already well-established on the stage and record.  Born in 1903 in Asheville, North Carolina, Saunders even attended college for a few years before joining comedian Billy King’s Chicago-based touring vaudeville troupe.  She had appeared with King’s company in the stage show Over the Top in 1919, and had hits with racy numbers like “Hot Dog.” Even before Shuffle Along opened, OKeh Records invited her to record two of her featured numbers—“I’m Crazy that Kind of Love” and “Daddy.” She was accompanied by African-American band leader Tim Brymn’s group. Listening to these recordings today it is hard to understand how revolutionary they must have sounded in 1921. It is clear that Saunders was used to projecting her voice in the days before amplification, as her powerful voice nearly leaps off the wax. However, her wide vibrato and stage-like diction seem hopelessly antique to modern ears, hardly exuding raw sexuality as they did for listeners in her day. And despite critics raving that she performed “real” African-American music, she sounds not that much different than similar white belters of the day—and nothing at all like the blues singers like Bessie Smith and her contemporaries. Nonetheless, Saunders success was such that she was soon lured away by vaudeville promoters Hurtig and Seamon promising her a $50 raise from her $125 weekly salary (about $1720 in today’s dollars) if she would open at Reisenweber’s Cabaret.

Saunders in Shuffle Along.

Leaving Shuffle Along turned out to be a mistake, however, although Saunders continued to appear on stage and tour through the ‘30s working with various different producers, including Flournoy Miller’s brother, Irvin’s, revues and a show produced by Bessie Smith’s husband, Jack Gee. In the late ’30s she produced her own touring show, and appeared in a minor role on Broadway in Hall Johnson’s Run Little Chillun in 1943; Johnson had been a member of the Shuffle Along Orchestra, and staged this “folk drama” as a showcase for his choir. Saunders final appearances came in the mid-to-later ’40s in a few low-budget films aimed at the African-American market before retiring from performing.  She died in 1991.

Sissle and Blake on Vaudeville


Following Europe’s death, Pat Casey—the agent who had booked Europe’s band on vaudeville—asked Noble Sissle to continue touring with the Europe band as its leader:
[Casey] wanted me to go on vaudeville and probably take 12 or 15 of the band. I said, “No, no, this band’s too great. We ain’t going to bring nothing with that name on it. Let it die like it is. But I says, “Eubie Blake—he’s the fellow I’ve been writing music with– and I, we’ll go on vaudeville.”

Casey recognized Sissle’s talent as a vocalist and saw the potential in the duo’s act. And, in an unusual move, he also supported their desire to appear in white vaudeville without blackface makeup or adapting demeaning characterizations. However, Casey wisely did not book them in the South. Judging from newspaper notices and advertisements, the duo was primarily booked in the Northeast, including a few weeks in Canada; the furthest South they seem to have appeared is Eubie’s hometown of Baltimore and nearby Washington, D.C.

On their earliest sheet music, Sissle and Blake were prominently promoted as “The Dixie Duo” as you can see on this first printing of their song, “Ain’t You Coming Back Mary Ann, to Maryland?”

The act took the name “The Dixie Duo,” despite the fact that neither had direct Southern roots. This generic name could have equally been applied to a white act of the day, although some may have picked up the hint that their “Dixie” identity referred to their skin color.

After signing Sissle and Blake to his agency, vaudeville promoter Pat Casey had some initial trouble convincing managers to take on the duo as a “serious act.” Blake said that when Casey approached Newark’s Palace Theater to book the act, the managers suggested that they appear in blackface, dressed in overalls, and speaking in typical stuttering “darkie” dialect. They suggested that the piano be placed on stage and the two would enter, approach it gingerly, and then Sissle would say: “Hey, hey, hey Eubie, wh-wha-wha-what is that over there?” Blake was to respond, “I don’t know, I ain’t never seen one of them things,” and then approach the instrument carefully before touching its keys. You can imagine the rolling of the eyes, exaggerated expressions of fear and humility, and general clownishness that would have been expected as they carried out this dialogue. Casey, however, would not accept this request. As Eubie later recalled, Casey yelled at the Palace’s operators:
“Do you know these fellows? Do you know who there are? They were with Jim Europe’s band … The big Negro band. They worked for all the millionaires in the world. You can’t put no overalls on them, you might can, but I’m not going to put them on them. They’re going to work in tuxedos, like they always work, and play the piano and sing. And if you don’t want ‘em, just say you don’t want them.”
As Eubie frequently said, Sissle and Blake were not a “black” act in the sense that their repertory, presentation, and dialogue were all geared to appeal to a white audience. It is true that Blake sometimes spoke in dialect—much to the annoyance of Sissle—but he recognized that this was necessary to appeal to the audience. However, their dress and demeanor were equivalent to the white vaudevillians of the day, like the very popular Van and Schenck. In later interviews, Blake insisted that they shouldn’t be categorized as a “black act”:
Sissle and Blake on vaudeville, c. 1920.
They’d say “We drew Negroes.” We didn’t draw Negroes, because we didn’t have a Negro act. I’m the only one did light comedy, Negro comedy. I said, “Is you a fool? What you think I is?” That’s all, once or twice. Sissle didn’t like that, but it got laughs. [When he protested] I said, “Got a laugh didn’t it? I know how to talk different.” But he never liked that.
Blake accepted the expediency of using comic dialect to please the audience; the college-educated Sissle didn’t like it, and always pitched the duo as a “class act.” And Eubie took pride in the fact that he knew how to speak like a proper gentleman, so the only people being fooled were the customers in the audience.

“Good Night, Angeline”


Sissle and Blake’s association with bandleader James Reese Europe introduced them to the world of music publishing. Europe had cowritten popular songs with several black lyricists throughout his career, and had a strong relationship with major publishers, including Julius Witmark and Sons. Upon returning from World War I, he and Sissle began a tour on vaudeville with the Hell Fighter’s Band. At the same time, Witmark published “Good-night Angeline,” a sentimental ballad credited to Sissle for lyrics and Blake and Europe for its melody. (As was typical for the time, Europe may have simply added his name as a composer because he employed both men in his organization.)
“Goodnight Angeline” cover showing James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters Band, with Noble Sissle inset at the lower left.
The song is in the mainstream, sentimental style, with a descriptive verse leading into a snappier, up-beat chorus. “Angeline” is mostly written without dialect–save for the substitution of “dat” for “that”–and the style and subject matter is very much in keeping with white pop song of the day. The song’s protagonist could easily be white, expressing his love in the language and terms of sentimental verse. The original sheet featured a picture of Europe in his band uniform, with an inset of Sissle on the lower left. It obviously was playing up their “Hell Fighters” and World War I connections.
After Europe’s death, Sissle and Blake continued to perform the song as part of their vaudeville act, and Witmark reissued it with a new cover. This cover did not feature the degrading art found on coon songs, but rather a genteel-looking Victorian (white) lady being courted by her “beau” sporting a straw hat—emphasizing again that the duo was marketing their songs to a white audience.  The song itself is a romantic ballad much in the style of similar compositions by (white) composers of the period.
“Goodnight Angeline” with illustrated cover.

After Blake was “rediscovered” in the ‘70s, popular duo Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris featured this song in their act as a homage to Blake.