Singer – Songwriter – Musician – Actor – Civil Rights Activist

This blog is long overdue for a man who put himself on the line with his prominent Civil Rights activities and who is still kicking but today even though on the 1st March 2021 he saw his 94th birthday.

We should add before we skip through his life that this blog is also a ‘music party blog’ to be exact a CALYPSO PARTY.

Harry Belafonte was mentored in his political beliefs by Paul Robeson, he was also a close confident of Martin Luther King Jr. and as with many activists he came under the spotlight of ‘McCarthyism’ and was blacklisted.

Belafonte did not play at Civil Rights,he got his hands dirty and was in the mix, amongst the many, many things he was involved in are some notable historic moments.

He financed the ‘1961 Freedom Rides’, supported Voter Registration Drives, and helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington. During the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of Birmingham City Jail and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters and during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Belafonte bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, flying to Mississippi that August with Sidney Poitier and $60,000 in cash and entertaining crowds in Greenwood.

Harry Belafonte with Martin Luther King Jr

His list of political activities seem endless and always on the side of the oppressed – the underdog. In 1985, he helped organise and produce the song We Are the World, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987 he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he served as chairman of the ‘International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children’.

No decade in his life did he seek a quiet life, by the new century he was campaigning against HIV-AIDS, he is on the board of directors of the non-profit making Civil Rights Advancement Project, he also served on the Advisory Council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He met with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and opposed George Bush Jr. Middle East war ambitions; on the Black members of the Bush administration, he used a Malcolm X quote when describing Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice:

“There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. 

Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture”

We could go on and on about this remarkable man’s life, and we have not yet mentioned that he made 35 films between 1953 and 2020 including Carmen Jones (1954) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).

However let’s jump to the music that most people in the world remember him for, no small thing – he introduced CALYPSO MUSIC to the world.

The single Matilda (1953) became the first widely released Calypso song and was an instant success; this was followed in 1956 by the album Calypso. This album became the first album to sell over a million copies, including the first album to sell a million copies in England alone (I’ve got 2 vinyl copies just in case). Belafonte was nicknamed the King of Calypso, he liked the tag, but true to form he always emphasised that Trinidad & Tobaga were the origins of Calypso music.

At the beginning of his musical career he was a club singer, being backed by the likes of Charlie ParkerMax Roach and Miles Davis;  however at heart he saw himself as a ‘folk singer’, he studied material from the Library of Congress American Folk Songs Archives, in particular music of African Blackroots’, something that dominated his musical output for decades.

There are many things to admire this man for, but let’s be honest Calyso music put sunshine into everyone’s life and a smile on every face.

Not often cited as a controversial Civil Rights activist Lena Horne is still to this day seen only as a singer, dancer, actress performer and not as an activist, in a similar way to Nina Simone. However that could not be further from the truth.

“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way”.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a banker/professional gambler and an actress. Both parents had a mixed heritage of African American, European American and Native American descent. Her parents separated when she was three, and because her mother travelled as part of various theatre troupes, Horne lived with her grandparents for a time. Later, she alternately accompanied her mother on the road and stayed with family and friends around the country.

Over the course of her long life, Lena Horne became a star of film, music, television, and stage, as well as a formidable force for Civil Rights. She won a Tony in 1981, and two years later, earned a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks.

When she died in 2010 at age 92, President Barack Obama noted that she was the first Black singer to tour with an all-White band and that she refused to perform for segregated audiences. He said:

“Michelle and I join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country”.

Lena Horne was an enormous star throughout the 30’s and 40’s but there was a limit to how far MGM and others would go with her even as a lighter skinned Black women. In the MGM movie Showboat (1951) she was considered but not used as she was seen as, ‘too risky’. Strangely the musical is about a fair skinned Black woman, who’s life is changed when she is discovered to be ‘Black’. MGM instead chose a close friend of Lena’s to take the role, Ava Gardner, and darkened her skin with make up.

Lena was stuffed into one ‘all-star’ film musical after another – Thousands Cheer (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), ‘Words and Music’ (1948) – to sing a song or two that, she later recalled, could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.

A close friend of Civil Rights giant Paul Robeson. Robeson had an affinity for Horne because her grandmother, a staunch character with a college education, had helped him get a scholarship to Rutgers.

In 1941, Horne found herself seeking Robeson’s advice. As she later detailed in her letter at the Sands Hotel (see below), she told him she was exhausted by the pressures of show business, the racism she faced from the White establishment, and the disdain she heard from Black people who accused her of ‘trying to pass as White’, Robeson kept listening. Finally, he exhorted her to devote her life to making the country a better place, to eradicate her pain by helping people everywhere. He named specific groups such as the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

Horne also performed at a fundraiser for 10 screenwriters who’d refused to testify; they’d been fired from their studios and found guilty of contempt of Congress:

“I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody”.

These activities inevitably led to a brief period in the early 1950s under McCarthyism when Horne’s career seemed to be over. Her name had appeared in Red Channelsa report that listed more than 100 entertainers who appeared to have Communist leanings. Some of the other African Americans on the list were: Lena’s friend and mentors Paul Robeson; the actor Canada Lee; the poet / novelist / playwright Langston Hughes; acclaimed author Richard Wright; the prominent jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor Hazel Scott; the classical music conductor Dean Dixon; the author / playwight / composer Shirley Graham Du Bois; prominent singer / guitarist / songwriter/ actor Josh White; stage actor Hilda Simms; actress Ruby Dee; playwright / film director Ossie Davis; and others were outlawed by the HUAC. Most of these people were civil rights activists, some were socialists or communists but most had no affiliation to a polical party. The abusive term, ‘pinko’, was bandied around to demonise people.

Because of the accusations and intimidations, some of these creative people went to live in Europe, others were denied their passports, some had breakdowns and suffered ill health, many lost work contracts. Friendships were rift apart and people were ostracised in their own communities.

For more than three years after that, Lena Horne struggled to get work. She continued to perform at nightclubs, but nobody in the TV or film industries would hire her.

She was at a low point in June 1953 when she performed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The city was not the shining epicentre of entertainment that it is today. It was not even the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra’s famed Rat Pack jet set. There were only a handful of hotels and motels, and the infamous Strip was non-existent. But Horne had few other options. She closed the show with Stormy Weather, her most famous song:

Stormy Weatherwritten by Etta James

Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time

Oh, yeah
Life is bad
Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I’m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time

When he went away
The blues walked in and met me
Oh, yeah if he stays away
Old rocking chair’s gonna get me
All I do is pray
The Lord will let me
Walk in the sun once more

Oh, I can’t go on, can’t go on, can’t go on
Everything I have is gone
Stormy weather, stormy weather
Since my man and I, me and my daddy ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time
Oh, oh, keeps raining all of the time
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah raining all of the time
Stormy stormy
Stormy weather
Yeah

At the end of the show she went back to her room. On Sands stationery stamped with the hotel motto ‘A Place in the Sun’, her story unfolded. She wrote a letter to Roy Brewer, the trade union leader who was prominently involved in the anti-communist movement in the 1940s and 1950s:

Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, Brewer testified that the Soviet Union was financing “the takeover of the motion picture industry” and that American communists were attempting to “control the unions.”

Roy M. Brewer, 97; Powerful Figure During Blacklist Era by By DENNIS MCLELLAN
SEP. 23, 2006 in the Los Angeles Times

“Dear Mr. Brewer”, her letter began. Sadly, this marked the distancing between herself and Paul Robeson, who was also on the list.

For decades, Horne’s biographers have largely glossed over the question of how Horne found her way back into the entertainment business. Even Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, who wrote a 1986 book about the Horne family, didn’t get to see the letter until 2013. 

All that time, it was sitting in a bankers box, packed away in a children’s playhouse on a dusty ranch in the San Fernando Valley. But those 12 neatly written pages reveal how a beautiful young Black woman became a pawn in the Cold War – and how she ultimately regained control of her career and her life.

Horne continued to advocate for human rights and took part in the March on Washington in August 1963 with Martin Luther King and said of him:

 “Every colour I can think of and nationality, we were all touched by Dr. King because he made us like each other and respect each other”

Later she returned to her roots as a nightclub performer and continued to work on television, while releasing well-received record albums. Lena Horne remained an active supporter of Civil Rights throughout the rest of her life.

Read More

Chicago Tribune Obituary: Lena Horne dies at 92; singer and civil rights activist who broke barriers

Black History Bootleg Rosa Parks

Paul Robeson in Black History Bootleg

Etta James – Black Past

MGM movie Showboat (1951)

Singer – actor – athlete – political activist

“We realise that our future lies chiefly in our hands. We know that neither institution nor friend can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own foundation”

When it comes to those who stand up for their beliefs, those who stick their heads above the parapet to be counted and in doing so invoke the the full wrath of those in power, here you must count Paul Robeson amongst the great USA Civil Rights activists.

Many know him only as a great American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous for his cultural accomplishments, but in the USA he was also famous for his political activism in a time when this could cost you your life.

In the words of Paul Robeson:

“To be free – to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil to give our children every opportunity in life – that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands”.

To his credit Robeson did not just fight for Black Civil Rights he also fought for Civil Rights for the ‘Working Class’ and the poor of all colours. Travelling the world to supporting workers rights.

His concert career reads like a world traveller’s passport: New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow, and Nairobi.  His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europe as it was back home. In the United States, he couldn’t enter theatres through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing Negro spirituals and other cultures folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding.  As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in twenty-five languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian and various African languages

Robeson based himself in England from the 1929 to the outbreak of the Second World War; a house in Camden bears a Blue Plaque with his name. In England he said he:

“learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind”.

During this period he was also deeply influenced by the Spanish Civil War against fascism and saw it as a turning point in Human Rights performing in concerts to support the conflict refugees. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and enjoyed huge popularity in Soviet Russia. He remained a Marxist-Leninist until the day he died.

His support of workers and workers rights was a ‘hallmark of the man’. Performing in docks, shipyards, mines and strike gatherings around the world, including pits in Wales and Scotland taking every opportunity to perform the Civil Rights song ‘Joe Hill’, ironically about White unionist and poet and founding member of  the Industrial Workers of the World Union (The Wobblies) Joel Hägglund executed in 1915.  In 1952, with the encouragement of his friend the great Welsh politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (founder of the NHS), Robeson recorded a number of radio concerts for supporters in Wales.

When performing and supporting the Aborigines cause in Australia he was told that they were ‘backward’, to which he retorted:

“There’s no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward”.

During his travels he visited the Soviet Union and found them to be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United States and the USSR.  He began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals. 

All this was taking place at a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy of the state by his government.  In 1947, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities ‘McCarthyism’, and the State Department denied him a passport until 1958.

Paul Robeson on his socialist politics in 1958:

“I do not believe that a few people should control the wealth of any land.”

Robeson along with his friend W.E.B. Du Bois made serious political misjudgements, most notably on the Hungarian Uprising and Stalinism, but they never faltered from their beliefs in basic human rights and what they believed was the best political system to deliver it, right or wrong.

Looking back on his life as a young man, you can clearly see how this wonderful honourable man developed.

In his formative years Robeson was awarded a four year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution.  Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a twelve letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track.  He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions.  In addition to his athletic talents, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honour Society, and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1919.  

He went on to study law at Columbia in New York and received his degree in 1923.  There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory.   Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and soon left the practice because a White secretary refused to take dictation from him.

Before the 1950s, Robeson was one of the world’s most famous entertainers and beloved American heroes – once being named ‘Man of the Year’ by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Despite all his accomplishments, Paul Robeson remains virtually ignored in American textbooks and history.

Today we are looking again, he has become revered man once more, not just for his musical and cultural talents but for his long overdue recognition as a political activist, who put body on the line for what he believed to be a just and fair society.

Listen to this interview in 1960

In truth we abandoned him after his ‘McCarthyism trial’ the slander stuck. Robeson disappeared in a sea of mental breakdown, sadness and loneliness. A cruel end for a man who conducted a life full of desire and achievement, passion and conviction: 

“the story of a man who did so much to break down the barriers of a racist society, only to be brought down by the controversies sparked by his own radical politics.”

Listen and Enjoy

Land of My Fathers 3.04min (Wales)

Old Man River 3.18min to Sydney Opera house workers: 

The First Black star tribute 6.44min

The Volga Boatman 2.42min

Not a name that springs to mind when you think of Alternative Black female performers, but Moms Mabley was a pioneer act, who began her career in the 1920’s on the Chitlin’ Circuit of African-American Vaudeville her performances running through to the 60’s when she appeared on television including the Ed Sullivan Show.

Raped at the age of 11 by an old Black man and the age of 13 by a White sheriff, both of which resulted in pregnancy (the children were sent for adoption), Loretta encouraged by her grandmother ran away from home to join a Travelling Vaudeville Minstrel Show in Cleveland, Ohio.

She was once quoted as saying “I was pretty and did not want to become a prostitute”, about her decision to go into show business. She could sing, dance, and tell a joke, which made her popular on the black vaudeville circuit, the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), which toured the South in the tradition of the pre-Civil War minstrel shows. Although Mabley was a capable singer and dancer, her primary strength was comedy and she would often appear in skits with other performers.

While performing on the TOBA circuit, she met Jack Mabley, another entertainer who became her boyfriend. After a brief relationship, she took his name and began to perform as Jackie Mabley. She said “he took a lot off me, the least I could do was take his name off him”.

Mabley had earned the nickname “Moms” because of her tendency to ‘mother’ her fellow performers, and she adopted this nickname for her character. In addition to her comedic stage performances as ‘Moms’, Mabley also performed in musical-comedies such as Miss Bandana in 1927, Fast and Furious in 1931.

Chess records home of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Hoelin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry approached Moms to make a comedy album in 1960, as much of her earlier recordings had been lost, she recorded the brilliant ‘Funniest Woman In The World’.

Given the era she lived through, and her childhood circumstances it is amazing that she survived 5 decades in the business before becoming an cross cultural overnight success in the 1960’s.

Her list of credits are phenomenal:

She was the first successful female stand-up comedian.

She was the first woman comic to play at the Apollo in 1930, she was so popular she would appear in 15 week stints and also joined their comedy writing team.

She was the first women comedian to headline Carnegie Hall in 1962.

She was the first openly gay comedian (she liked to dress like Cab Calloway).

She appeared in 10 films and TV shows including ‘Emporer Jones’ with Paul Robeson and ‘Amazing Grace’ with Whoopie Goldberg in 1974 just before her death. She had a regular slot on the prime time TV show ‘The Smothers Brothers’.

She appeared in 9 major theatre productions in 1920’s and 1930’s, including ‘The Joy Boat’.

She was the oldest living person in the USA to have a Top 40 hit With ‘ Abraham, Martin and John’ in 1969.

Moms Mabley also recorded over 40 comedy albums in her career, many of which are lost, however in 1969 after the death of Martin Luther King she released a serious album of socially conscious* and soulful songs under the title ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ (not her usual satirical fair). Believe it or not I actually possess a copy of this album on vinyl.

*See “The Funniest Woman in the World”: Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley and Redefining Political Activism in the Modern Black Freedom Struggle by Frances Leeson 2014

Moms great one liners:

  1. Quit it if you can’t do nothin’ with it.
  2. Any time you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holding him for the police.
  3. My husband was so ugly, he used to stand outside the doctor’s office and make people sick.
  4. Use those brains that God put in your head.
  5. It’s no disgrace to be old but damn if it isn’t inconvenient.
  6. [On old age:] You wake up one morning and you got it.
  7. [Advice to children crossing the street] Damn the lights. Watch the cars. The lights ain’t never killed nobody.
  8. You know Moms has been accused of liking young men and I’m guilty.
  9. Love is like playing checkers. You have to know which man to move.
  10. Ain’t nothin’ an ol’ man can do but bring me a message from a young one.
  11. I don’t want nothing old, but some old money. Buy me some young ideas. That’s what I’m gonna do with it. 
  12. The teenagers aren’t all bad. I love ’em if nobody else does. There ain’t nothing wrong with young people. Jus’ quit lyin’ to ’em.
  13. Never lose your head, not even for a minute. You need your head. Your brain’s in it. 
  14. Without that basic foundation in showmanship, an act can’t remain at the top. Half of the children nowadays don’t even know how to take a bow. 
  15. Black women, white women; all of them. I’m colour blind. I don’t know the difference. I only know you’re a human being and you’re my children.

Billy Waters b.1778 & Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson b.1796

There are many examples of Black men who served in the British army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters. Less well known are those who were professional or amateur musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds were performing in Britain from the 16th century. Billy Waters and Joseph Johnson are two such men.

Post by Rob Burns

Billy Waters

Was an ex navy Black man who busked in London in the nineteenth century by singing, playing the violin and entertaining theatre goers with his “peculiar antics”. Known as the ‘King of the Beggars’, he was a well known figure in early nineteenth-century popular culture.

Waters was an African American ex-sailor, who lost a leg serving on the ship ‘Ganymede’ and so turned to busking in London to supplement his meagre pension. Waters’ pitch was outside the Adelphi theatre on the Strand. He adopted a distinctive costume of ‘Cocked hat adorned with various coloured feathers, a sailor’s jacket & canvas trousers and of course his wooden leg’ which together with his fiddle-playing, his dancing, and his trademark song ‘Kitty Will You Marry Me’, made him a well-known figure on London’s streets.

Courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich painted by David Wilkie c1815
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection. Acquired with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund

Billy Waters (c.1778–1823) was born in America during the War of Independence. He was a seaman in the Royal Navy and lost his leg as a result of falling from the topsail yard of the ‘Ganymede’ in 1812. Unable to serve at sea, he became a famous London street entertainer and was often to be seen busking with his fiddle to support his family. Waters featured in Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London’ (1820–21) and was one of the characters illustrated by George Cruikshank. Indeed, Waters appeared in several Cruikshank cartoons, including ‘The New Union Club’ (NMM, ZBA2498). Waters ended his days in St Giles’s Workhouse, having fallen ill and been forced to pawn his fiddle. He was elected ‘king of the beggars’ shortly before his death. While the attribution to Sir David Wilkie is not certain, it is entirely possible that Waters was painted by him most likely in London.

Royal Museums Greenwich

Billy’s greatest fame came, however, after he was immortalised in W. T. Moncrieff’s hit 1821 stage version of ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry). Inside the Adelphi, Mr Paolo played Billy Waters on stage in a scene based on his street performance, illustration and popular culture all intersected.

However he departed this world very poor and prior to his death sold his beloved fiddle to a pawnbroker along with his wooden leg. He died 10 days after being admitted into St Giles workhouse with a lingering condition, ironically a short time before his demise he was elected ‘King of a party of Beggars’. He did his very best as a disabled man but left his wife and two children destitute.

Joseph ‘Black Joe’ Johnson

Was an ex sailor in the Royal Navy and busker extraordinaire a beggar and street performer, also known as ‘Black Joe’, is of unknown parentage and origin. He had served as a seaman until he was forced to retire because of ‘wounds rendering him incapable of doing further duty on the ocean’. Not being entitled to relief payments ‘having been employed in the merchants’ service only’.

Working as a sailor was one of many, primarily lower-class occupations available to Black Britons. Joseph Johnson is notably excluded from the military and thus, despite obvious injuries, does not receive compensation from Greenwich.

To survive, Johnson turned to busking. He was able to draw particular attention to himself on account of his novel head attire – he built and wore a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson on his cap.

London had for centuries been home to distinct numbers of Black people, and the little that is known of ‘Black Joe’ actually reveals much about some of the ways in which the free Black presence in the capital was constituted two centuries ago.

By building a model of the Nelson, Johnson was not only telling an instantly recognisable and understandable story about his own biography (having been a seaman), he was also utilising a representation of what was one of the most recognisable and celebrated military sea craft of its day. Johnson’s choice of hat was certainly inspired by his time as a sailor, and yet the juxtaposition of a black man and large ship during a time of heated debate surrounding slavery also resonates on other levels.

Courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

At the time of this sketch, “taken from life,” the slave trade had (ostensibly) been abolished, but slavery itself was still rampant, a fact that may or may not have been lost on the women taking sugar in their tea as Johnson theatrically “sailed” passed.

‘Black Joe’ is taken to represent both the black urban poor and the particularly creative or ingenious beggar.

NOTE: He is one of only two characters in the book Vagabondiana’ identified by a African British signifier. The other is Charles M’Gee:

The following plate presents the portrait of another black man of great notoriety, Charles M’Gee, a native of Ribon, in Jamaica, born in 1744, and whose father died at the great age of 108. This singular man usually stands at the Obelisk, at the foot of Ludgate-Hill. He has lost an eye, and his woolly hair, which is almost white, is tied up behind in a tail, with a large tuft at the end, horizontally resting upon the cape of his coat. Charles is supposed to be worth money. His stand is certainly above all others the most popular, many thousands of persons crossing it in the course of a day. He has of late on the working-days sported a smart coat, presented to him by a city pastry-cook. On a Sunday he is a constant attendant at Rowland Hill’s meeting-house, and on that occasion his apparel is appropriately varied.

Vagabondania 1817
Charles M’Gee illustration courtesy of Sound and History article VAGABONDIANA

Further reading

Billy Waters – Wikipedia

Joseph Johnson – IB Taurus Blog

W. T. Moncrieff and the play ‘Life in London’ (Tom And Jerry) in Wikipedia

Music Hall star and choreographer

She was in a group called the “Octoroons” in America before she moved to Britain in 1901. She was said to be licensed by the US government to bring child performers to Britain. Some were known to exploit orphans in this way but Davis was noted for her role as their guardian. She has been said to be the first Black woman to make a recording. On 24th January 1902 she made a recording of The Honeysuckle and the Bee under the name of ‘Belle Davis and her Piccaninnies’. They were back the following month to record The Rainbow Coon.

Taken from the East End Women’s Museum blog below:

Belle Davis, Music Hall Star and Choreographer

In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.

One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star.

I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis’ life are scant, it’s likely that she was born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married comedian Eddie Whaley. 

According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis:

“was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful…” 

Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to “darken down”, presumably to fit the stereotype of an ‘exotic’ African-American singer.

In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as ‘piccaninnies’ in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different. 

Davis’ act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.

Less is known about Davis’ movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, in Paris and was responsible for the annual revues. It’s at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie. 

Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history. 

This is a gem, for tonight’s viewing with blog by Rob Burns. Enjoy.

The first all Black cast in a Hollywood sound drama musical

Hallelujah was King Vidor’s first sound film, and combined sound recorded on location and sound recorded post-production in Hollywood. It was the first all Black cast drama-musical and of such importance it  is conserved in the USA National Film Registery by the Library of Congress as being of ‘Cultural, Historical or aesthetically significant’. King Vidor was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film.

King Vidor brings you in his startling vision of the soul of the coloured race.

Hallelujah (1929) was shot in Tennessee and Arkansas, far from the prying eyes of studio executives and the interference of newly venerated sound engineers. Thus, Vidor was relatively free to experiment with what was essentially a new medium. (Judging by the limitations of the next several films Vidor made back home at M-G-M, it is most likely that much of the adventuresome quality of Hallelujah would have been lost if it was made under the nose of Irving Thalberg.)

To watch Hallelujah either go to Heritage House Arts & Civic Centre West and watch on Facebook and if you prefer go to:

Free Great Movies. There’s about 10 minutes of requests to donate. Then the presenter gives a 15 minute talk about King Vidor. It’s helpful as the film certainly contains racial stereotypes and has to be watched with that in mind. The film starts at about 26 minutes.

Visually, it is as striking as any of Vidor’s silent films. Since many sequences were shot silent with sound added afterward, the director was able to retain the fluidity of camera movement so evident in The Crowd. Vidor’s lovely soft-focus images of life in the cotton fields, his spectacular staging of a mass baptism, and the brilliant Expressionism of the church meeting and the climactic chase through the swamp are unparalleled in the early sound film. His imaginative use of sound, ranging from off-screen voices to moving musical numbers, is equally unique. It could be argued that Hallelujah is, in its way, as important to the development of talkies as The Birth of a Nation was to the silent film fifteen years earlier. Unfortunately, the parallel between the two films doesn’t stop there.

Vidor, an unabashed Texan, carried much of the baggage of a Southern upbringing. On one level, Hallelujah clearly reinforces the stereotypes of Blacks as childishly simple, lecherously promiscuous, fanatically superstitious, and shiftless. This was, of course, not unusual in American films; even the great Paul Robeson had to shuffle a bit in James Whale’s Showboat (1936). Chick, the mulatto temptress (or “yellow hussy,” as Zeke’s mother calls her) reappears as the Lena Horne character in Vincente Minnelli’s “sophisticated” Cabin in the Sky (1943). Certainly, Vidor could never be accused of the overt racial venom exhibited by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. Yet the benefit of the doubt one might give to Hallelujah is partially negated by his So Red the Rose (1935).

The director himself links the two films by opening So Red the Rose with cotton-field footage of the Johnson family from Hallelujah. Daniel Haynes (Zeke) reappears as a loyal slave who puts down a slave rebellion following the Emancipation Proclamation. He converts the Blacks back into the happy singers they were before they became “uppity” and began to think of themselves as men rather than chattel.

Is there, then, a defense for Hallelujah beyond its aesthetic importance? I think there is, and I think it lies in Vidor’s personality as we know it from his films. (Full disclosure: I found Vidor modest and utterly charming in the few hours I was privileged to spend with him in 1972.) Certainly, for a white man to make such a film now would require a great deal of chutzpah. For King Vidor, however, in 1929, there may be grounds for understanding, if not approval.

He did grow up in the South and did, indeed, have preconceptions about Blacks. These he tried to render lovingly in dramatic form in what he sincerely deemed to be an honest and affectionate film. Given his naivet&eacute, his lack of malice, and his trust in his own fairness—and given his almost mystical fervor—Hallelujah can and should be accepted as the remarkable achievement it is. Perhaps we can best gauge Vidor’s purity of intent through the words of Zeke’s song:

“I can’t go wrong, I must go right/I’ll find my way ‘cause a guiding light/will be shining at the end of the road.”

Reviews

REALISTIC! EARTHY!…it pictures in dialogue and heart-stirring song the reckless love and the gripping drama of the Southern Negro…come to the dusky cabarets….the revivals and the baptisms.

In a juke joint, sharecropper Zeke falls for a beautiful dancer, Chick, but she’s only setting him up for a rigged craps game. He loses $100, the money he got for the sale of his family’s entire cotton crop. His brother Spunk is mortally wounded in the shoot-out which follows. Zeke goes away but returns as Brother Zekiel the preacher. His forceful preaching draws the faithful in large numbers. Even Chick wants to be saved. Zekiel has asked the pretty Missy Rose to marry him, but Chick can still cast a spell over the preacher…

ActorCast
Daniel L. HaynesZeke
Nina Mae McKinneyChick
William FountaineHot Shot
Harry GrayParson
Fanny Belle DeKnightMammy
Everett McGarritySpunk
Victoria SpiveyMissy Rose
Milton Dickerson
Robert Couch
Walter TaitJohnson Kid
Dixie Jubilee Singers

By Rob Burns

This larger than life character was a fire eater in a circus, a sailor, a boxer, a model in Germany where he was imprisoned in WW1, but most of all he was the most famous ‘Horse Race Tipster’ in Britain, I love the stories below found on the website My Brighton and Hove, they sum up this larger than life character perfectly.

By Colin Southwood – My Brighton & Hove

My first recollection of Prince Monolulu (1880-1965) was as a six year old boy in the early fifties when my grandfather used me to take to the Brighton races with him. Part of the excitement for me was the trolley bus ride up Elm Groove, my grandfather and me sitting on the top deck looking at all the punters making their way laboriously up the steep hill on a summer’s day.

A giant black man

To a six year old lad the first sight of him was amazing, there was this giant black man in a brightly coloured outfit with large coloured ostrich feathered plumes from his hat. The first sighting made all the more exciting when my grandfather told me he was a Zulu Prince from Africa!  At six years old I had never seen a black man before let alone a black prince!

A tipster in fancy dress

My grandfather was a regular visitor to Brighton race course and knew him well.  On the first occasion my grandfather introduced me to him I remember standing there petrified!   Fifty odd years later I can still see the man and him shouting, “I Gotta Horse” to anyone that would listen as he strode around the course in his fancy costume and plumes.

The most famous black man

Ras Prince Monolulu was the most famous black man in Britain. Between the wars, he was a national icon renowned for his eccentricity, a racing tipster of such theatricality that even in the days when newspapers carried few photographs and television was in its infancy, he was still the most recognisable racing personality other than the top jockeys.

Catchphrase – “I gotta horse!”

Everyone knew that he wore a bizarre costume of massive baggy trousers, and a headdress of ostrich feathers atop ornate waistcoats, and colourful jackets. Prince Monolulu would be at all the important race meetings where he would sell his tipping sheets in envelopes. He was very funny, and would have the crowds in stitches with his banter – just like a market trader, only with much more style. His catchphrase “I Gotta Horse” guaranteed him a place in most newsreels of the day featuring racing.

Of Scottish descent

He claimed to be the chief of the Falasha tribe of Abyssinia, but in reality he came from Guyana, as it is now and was of Scottish descent – his real name was Peter Carl Mackay. According to his memoirs, called, funnily enough, “I Gotta Horse”, he started out as a sailor but re-invented himself as a Prince after being press-ganged aboard an American ship in 1902.

He was told princes were important people, and he figured a prince wouldn’t be shanghaied again. He was soon off round the world, eating fire in a travelling circus, working in Germany as a model and boxing in France, pretending to be an opera singer in Russia, and becoming a fortune-teller in Italy.

Battle against racist attitudes

Interned in a German camp during the First World War, he emerged to become Britain’s most famous racing tipster – unlike some of today’s TV tipsters he was funnier, louder and considerably more accurate with his tips!  

Indeed he came to prominence because of an extraordinary coup in the 1920 Derby. Virtually alone among tipsters he plumped for ‘Spion Kop’ the 100-6 outsider which romped home in record time to win him £8,000 – a fortune in those days. His career was made; soon no major race meeting was complete without a visit from the Prince and his envelopes of tips.  He was a figure of fun, yes, but he also contributed in his own uniquely humorous way to the battle against racist attitudes.

First black man on TV

Such was his fame that in 1936 he achieved a slice of immortality – on 2nd. November in that year, the BBC began its television service and Prince Ras Monolulu was the first black person to appear on screen on that very first day of British television broadcasting. He himself estimated that between 1919 and 1950, he made and lost up to £150,000 on the Turf, and while his health and fortunes declined in the late 1950s he was still a much-loved character.

Remembered as an amazing man

Images courtesy of Mashable 1920s – 1950s: Ras Prince Monolulu

Prince Monolulu was always himself as a bit of a ladies man and was believed to have fathered many children and married several times. Once was to the actress, Nellie Adkins on the 21st August 1931. When he died of cancer on the 14th February 1965 at the age of 84, the Daily Telegraph and many other newspapers carried full obituaries of this amazing man.  Prince Monolulu, the man who had brought a ray of sunshine to the punters at many race courses throughout Britain regardless if they won or lost!

Read more

Ras Prince Monolulu BBC in 2010 and here in BBC Sports in October 2020

Jeffrey Green’s blog pictures him in 1957 with Dutch fashion models

Short biography in Gambling online news

Martin Luther King’s Dream speech reimagined by poet Benjamin Zephaniah

On the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, poet Benjamin Zephaniah reimagines Martin Luther King’s words and tell us what his dreams are for Britain in 2020.

I am here today my friends to tell you there is hope. As high as that mountain may seem, I must tell you I have dream and my friends there is a tunnel at the end of the light. And beyond that tunnel I see a future, I see a time when all people who live on these green rocks we call the British Isles will know the name of Sean Rigg, Leon Briggs, Christopher Elder, Kingsley Burrell, Mikey Powell, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman as well as they know the name of Stephen Lawrence.

I dream of a time when we will no longer feel forced to take to the streets to demand the right to roam the country of our birth without the fear of being dragged from our cars, searched on our streets and humiliated in front of our children…..Read more or Listen Here 

BBC Radio 4 on World at One on January 1st 2020

1796-1871

Lewis Hamilton was guest editor on Boxing Day on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in the morning. He was interviewing David Olusoga and they were talking about Black history, about the importance of not just relaying British greatness, but also to talk about it’s violence. It’s not about negating working class history to promote black history, they are one and connected. Hamilton said that someone he’d like highlighted is Pablo Fanque. So here we go.

William Darby, also known as Pablo Fanque, is unusual in the fact he owned his own circus. Whilst Black circus performers were not unusual in Victorian England, Black circus proprietors were rare. Darby was born in Norwich (his father was a butler), he lost both his parents at a young age and as a result, he was sent to work and made an apprentice to the travelling circus owner William Batty.

He soon became known for his agility as ‘the loftiest jumper in England’. Around 1834 he married Susannah Marlow, the daughter of a Birmingham button maker, and started a family. A programme for Ryan’s Circus, Birmingham, 4th July 1836 advertised Fanque’s ‘agility’, and another, for Batty’s circus in Cork, referred to, ‘the Leaper and Rope Walker, Pablo Fanque from Africa’.

Darby is described as ‘a man of colour, short in stature, of Black and shining countenance, with luxuriant curly Black hair’.

By 1850, Darby had left William Batty and started his own circus company, which visited Birmingham that year. Fanque performed in Kidderminster, Worcester and Wolverhampton in 1854, but in 1859 went bankrupt.In 1864 when Burton’s Royal Alhambra Promenade Circus opened in Carr Lane, Birmingham, Fanque was its equestrian director.

Fanque died in Stockport in 1871 and was buried in Leeds.

Some 30 years after Fanque’s death, Rev. Thomas Horne, chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild, wrote: ‘In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession… he was a genius’.

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band by the Beatles, includes the song- Being of the Benefit for Mr. Kite!, recorded on 17th  February 1967. The song, inspired by a circus poster, was written by John Lennon and Mentions Pablo Fanque.

Read more about William Darby – Pablo Franque