Monday, October 19, 2015

Throwing Shade Throughout History: 1920s Edition

'At whom should I throw shade today?': possible musings of PG Wodehouse
With this post, Schenkerian Gang Signs ushers in a new series called Throwing Shade Throughout History, in which we examine past cases of shade throwing that we feel merit revisiting by carefully examining primary documents and acknowledging the inexorable and inexhaustible need that we, as people, seem to have to throw shade. The term, of course, derives from the gay/drag ballroom scene that emerged in late 20th-century American culture and is neatly defined in the following colorfully-expressed clip from the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning:

If you haven't seen this documentary, you need to stop reading this and check it out. Don't worry, we will wait for you.

While we have some inkling of the etymology of throwing shade, it is impossible to imagine that we could come anywhere near assembling an exhaustive anthology of the phenomenon that would do justice to its breadth across the eras of history (my brain seems to remember that Catullus threw shade at people during Roman times, although any further details remain foggy). However, we at Schenkerian Gang Signs enjoy tackling these challenging problems within our discipline(s), and so we embark on this journey to identify moments in history when shade was thrown. It is important to note that there is a certain nuance to shade throwing, as Dorien Corey stated in the clip above. To paraphrase: it is not calling someone ugly, for surely that person must already know this indisputable fact. Nor is it akin to the Great Fondue Beef of 2014 that pitted Drake versus Jay-Z in an argument over melty, cheesy Swiss dishes. No, shade is more subtle. More nuanced. More the purview of, say, a PG Wodehouse than a Drake. <-- see what I did there?

And indeed, our inaugural shady post is a salute to PG Wodehouse, who used his power as a writer of comic stories gently mocking England's upper classes to throw some legit shade at Jewish-American often-in-blackface performer Al Jolson. How, you might ask? By selecting one of Jolson's biggest hits as the punchline of an extended joke in his story 'Jeeves and the Song of Songs,' which first appeared in Strand in 1929 (or Cosmopolitan in the same year, if you were in the United States).

If you have not read PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster books, you need to stop reading this and check it out. Some (although not this one) are available for free via Amazon.

As with most Jeeves and Wooster stories, the plot involves complications between various younger members of the British upper class, particularly with regard to their relationships. Wooster is Bertie Wooster, a somewhat facile character whose enthusiasm well outmatches his capabilities. His valet (or gentleman's gentleman) is Jeeves, a man who works tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that all turns out well. In 'Jeeves and the Song of Songs,' Bertie's friend Tuppy Glossop is enamored with a professional singer, Cora Bellinger, and is doing his utmost to impress her. His ardor causes consternation with Bertie's Aunt Delia, whose daughter, Angela, was previously the apple of Tuppy's eye. Aunt Delia demands that the Tuppy matter be resolved and while Bertie thinks he may have an answer, of course Jeeves is the one to come up with a solution. Here is where Jolson enters the picture.

Jeeves proposes that Bertie go to a somewhat rough neighborhood of London and perform the song 'Sonny Boy' for charity. Bertie registers his disdain, as he finds the song to be little more than schlock, but he nonetheless obliges:

It's worth noting that Bertie's musical taste is not exactly impeccable. Witness Bertie's glee at the song 'Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors':

Why yes, that is Hugh Laurie singing (and sometimes Stephen Fry sings too). If you haven't seen this series, stop reading this right now and join us again when you're done.

What Bertie does not discover until later is that Jeeves had set up a number of different people to sing 'Sonny Boy,' ending with Cora Bellinger. The crowd, already riled up from having heard the song three times, reacts in the manner that one might expect. Wodehouse could not have arranged this more masterfully, with the oblivious, haughty singer heckled off of the stage by means of rotting fruit and vegetables. People, this is humor! Thinking that Tuppy set her up (as he requested that she sing 'Sonny Boy'), Cora Bellinger stomps off of the stage, never to be seen again. Tuppy returns to Angela and peace is restored.

But why, of all songs, did Wodehouse choose 'Sonny Boy'? It's hard not to think that Al Jolson's maudlin performance of the same did not cross his mind when he was selecting an appropriate tune for his story:

A bit of background: prior to schlocking the bejeezus out of 'Sonny Boy' in the clip above, Jolson starred in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which explored the drama of a nice Jewish kid wanting to make it in show biz despite his father's strenuous objections. If you've seen that episode of The Simpsons with Krusty and his father, you've pretty much seen The Jazz Singer.

Fun fact: Neil Diamond would later remake The Jazz Singer 1980 with the role of his father played by Laurence Olivier. The historical basis for this decision was most likely tied to the ready availability of cocaine in the late 1970s. You don't need to stop and watch this one (here is a clip, though, to satiate your curiosity).  

Flying high on the success of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers followed up with the 1928 film The Singing Fool, in which Jolson played a singer who makes it big, then crashes hard, all the while singing 'Sonny Boy' at every given occasion (in truth, he sings it three times). The woman who was with him in the good times leaves him in the bad times, taking his son (aka Sonny Boy) with her. Then Sonny Boy dies. I was not kidding about the maudlin.

This song was a massive hit, selling over three million copies and holding the number one spot as best-selling record for twelve weeks. It is almost impossible that Wodehouse, when penning his 1929 story, was unaware of Jolson's performance, as he was closely tied to Broadway and the cinema.

It's entirely possible that Wodehouse felt antipathy toward 'Sonny Boy' and recorded his frustration as such in a journal or something--I cannot claim to be a Wodehouse scholar, although I can imagine that that would be a particularly enjoyable avenue of study. I can, however, give credit where credit is due. By immortalizing the song in his story, he mocks its faux sentimentality, leaving the reader (and later viewer) with the image of Cora Bellinger exiting the stage as hastily as possible. Credit is also due to the fact that Wodehouse's choice of medium likely helped him in his shade-throwing efforts. His ability to write quickly and cleverly undoubtedly allowed him to capture this moment of history in what would still have been a timely fashion. PG Wodehouse, we salute your ability to turn what could have been a temporal blip of Jolsonian schlock into a long, long shadow that still casts its shade today.

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