Music, Musical Theater, and the Imagined South in Interwar Britain

By Ward, Brian | The Journal of Southern History, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Music, Musical Theater, and the Imagined South in Interwar Britain


Ward, Brian, The Journal of Southern History


IN JULY 1923 "JINGLE," THE THEATER CRITIC OF LONDON'S FASHIONABLE Bystander magazine, reviewed a new show at the London Pavilion called Dover Street to Dixie. Produced by Britain's leading theatrical impresario C. B. Cochran, the Dixie segment of this two-part show featured an African American cast headed by singer-dancer-comedienne Florence Mills, who at the time was widely regarded as "the world's greatest colored entertainer," with musical support from Will Vodery's swinging Plantation Orchestra. As Jingle explained, this production was hardly the first time that British audiences had been exposed to southern-themed musical entertainment. "We have come to look on Dixie as practically a suburb of London," he wrote, describing how Mills opened the southern portion of the show by singing "first of Tennessee, then of Dixie, both of which spots we have been taught to love." (1)

Two years later, a critic at the Manchester Guardian observed how southern themes had become commonplace in successfully imported revues. Night Light, for example, "left nothing out that a slick, well-oiled revue is supposed to have in. There are songs about Dixieland and Tennessee and Plantation Days." (2) In May 1928 the Jerome Kem-Oscar Hammerstein II stage musical of Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat (1926) began a run of 350 performances that took the story of entertainers aboard a Mississippi River paddle steamer from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London across the entire country. (3) A year later, an all-black stage version of Porgy, based on DuBose Heyward's 1925 novel about African American life in the Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, debuted in London and won plaudits for its mix of southern spirituals and "orgiastic folk-song" from a reviewer who conceded that, in interwar Britain, any "play whose scene is laid in Charleston must be irresistibly attractive to our dancing generations." (4) By 1936, when the latest in a series of Black Birds revues crossed the Atlantic--this incarnation featuring a slew of southern-themed lyrics by Georgia songwriter Johnny Mercer--the British vogue for putatively southern music, dance, and theater showed little sign of waning. (5) As war clouds gathered over Europe, a 1938 "cavalcade" organized to celebrate the "municipal centenary" of the northwest cotton manufacturing town of Bolton offered a far more comforting scene, set "in the cotton plantations of the Southern States," complete with "Negro minstrels" happily singing "of Swanee and Dixieland." (6)

Most southern-themed revues and musicals that captivated British audiences between World War I and World War II featured African American performers, occasionally supplemented by nonwhite artists from Britain and its empire or, far more rare, by whites in blackface. Yet, with a few exceptions, such as Down South (1923), directed by Iowa-born, London-based African American singer-musician Will Garland, they were largely penned, produced, and financed by whites. (7) The Black Birds revues, for example, were devised by New York-based Russian emigre Lew Leslie. (8) Consequently, one aim of this article is to probe British preoccupations with the "authenticity" and, therefore, the worth of various forms of popular culture that claimed to capture the essence of the African American experience but that usually bore the unmistakable stamp of white mediation.

But this article also suggests that debates over the racial authenticity of these entertainments frequently fused with transatlantic anxieties about the regional authenticity of music, dance, and other performance practices that purported to depict life in the U.S. South. Focusing on the real and imagined, claimed and imputed, southern coordinates of various musical entertainments popular in Britain between the wars, the argument here is that there was a kind of "Dixiephilia" at work: a marked British interest in things southern that intersected both with a more general fascination with American popular culture and with a "Negrophilia" that has traditionally been used to explain the interwar vogue for African American culture among some whites on both sides of the Atlantic. …

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