Monday, August 20, 2018

Ta-ra-ra-boom-de ... oy?

On my wanderings in Blois, I happened on another splendidly fun musical item in the shape of an 1890s French music-sheet of that favourite music-hall song known to turn-of-the-century lovers of great music as 'Ta ra ra boom de ay' (spelling, as you can see, varies).

It is clearly a cheap edition, but the song was highly popular, as an adjunct to the performances of the saucier songstresses of the Paris halls, for some years, going on as far as to become the title of a successful revue at the Ambassadeurs, so I guess a cheap edition was in order. I don't think any of the four ladies named above would have liked to think that they had legs like that.

Marguerite Duclerc (?1869-1902) is usually stated to have been the first to perform the song in France. A dark, frenetically energetic dancer and chanteuse, she had half a dozen years of high popularity but it was this song that 'a definitivement classée cette artiste parmi nos étoiles parisiennes'.

The lass who called herself Valentine Valti (1868-1940) was another of the same kind of performer, if rather less smoulderingly earthy than Duclerc. She lasted longer in public favour, and much longer on this earth.


Less celebrated was the lady known as 'Mlle Genève', whom I must admit to not having heard of. However, she is spoken of in the press in the warmest of terms as a revue actress, singer and dancer ... there she is featured at the Alcazar d'Été, the Horloge, the Moulin Rouge ... so I shall have to look into her sometime ...

And Polaire? Well, I don't need to tell you about Polaire. Fifty thousand Frenchman have done it already!

The sheet music also proclaims that the words are by 'Fabrice Lemon' (Gabriel Lemoine), a practised provider of music-hall words

and the music by Édouard Deransart (d 1905), a prolific musician: composer, arranger, songwriter and revueist. Really? I grant Monsieur Lemon his paroles, but the music ...? Ah. If you go back to an earlier edition the music is credited as 'arranged by' Deransart. Not the first time in musical history that those important words have just ... slipped out of a credit.

So, 'Tarara' had its years of French glory, but the title will remain forever connected to the name of British music-hall performer, Lottie Collins, who turned it from an American nothing-or-other into a world-wide hit by her performances of what became the definitive version (lyrics Richard Morton, arrangement Angelo Asher) of the song, in the music halls of England.

So, moving backwards ...

Lottie seems to have first performed her made-over version of the song in the London music-halls in December of 1891, and she introduced it, just weeks later, into her pantomime, Dick Whittington, at the Islington Grand, with decided success. ('It is not exactly what she does, it's the way in which she does it'). Her agent, 'Hugh Didcott' (Morris Josephs) quickly handed it out to his other clients -- 'George Beauchamp', Marie Loftus, Marie Lloyd, Millie Steele -- and the ripoffs began ..

Well, Lottie made the song, and the song made Lottie ... and I was happy to leave it at that, until today, when I chanced on an article entitled 'The black origins of Ta-ra-ra- (etc)'. Black? Well, the article is all taken from secondary sources and those 'memoirs' of folk who want to be 'sexy' ('St Louis brothel', creole danseuses with no underclothes, some mythical big mammy singing songs in 1891 that weren't published till 1896) and posits a rather laughable 'theory' that the song came out of the dives of Missouri. Ms Bellanta, the article's writer, inquires no further (as she, straightforwardly, says) than these secondary sources, and tacks them together under her misleading title. 'Black'? Prove it.

So. Let's go back further. Yes. A song called 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ré' was sung in the popular little musical comedy Tuxedo. Tuxedo was a novel show. A rather original 'farce comedy'. A 'Farce comedy' of this kind consisted of a comedy with songs which dissolved, after setting up a tiny frame of plot, into a concert for its second 'act'. But Tuxedo was a touch different: it dissolved into a real, American, minstrel show, performed, in this case, by the well-known George Thatcher and his troupe. All male. And white face. 'Ta-ra-ra' was, however, not sung in the minstrel show portion  of the entertainment, nor by 'a woman of the company', it was sung, in whatever form, by all the girls, as a song-and-dance finale to the piece's first half. This version became credited to Harry J Sayers, the manager for Rich and Harris, the producers of the show, who -- like Deransart and Asher -- had apparently more or less 'arranged' the tune, in the usual fashion, for its use in Tuxedo. Tuxedo was produced at Lincoln, Nebraska on 23 July 1891, and, after a tour of mainly 1-2 night stands, opened at New York's Park Theatre 5 October. Which was allegedly when Lottie Collins's then husband, Cooney, who was a part of the producing management, picked it up, and the rest is history. From Lincoln to London in just five months.

So, can we go back further than Tuxedo? A little. Beyond the maybe-mammy in St Louis anyway. When the song became a hit in England there were, of course, attempts to 'pilfer' it. And so it came to court, and there the law was presented with an affadavit from star American singer and actress, Flora Moore, which affirmed that she had sung the song in the early 1880s. Around this time, Flora had been starring in the loosely-musicked hit shows A Bunch of Keys and A Rag Baby, so maybe our song had even been heard in a theatre before Tuxedo.

Well, I don't suppose we'll ever know how much further back the tune (which has a distinct German ring to it, to my ear) and ever-changing words go. Like Topsy it seems not to have been born, but just growed up. But to attribute it to Mammy in St Louis, merely to fit an agenda, or to dub it 'blackface' (which it wasn't), is not on. So, any sightings before c1884, please report. Especially if you were there in person.

Result: a note from the well-known musicologist and historian, Andrew Lamb which confirms my doubts and puts final rout to the theory of a 'black' song:

'Well, I'm afraid I wasn't there, but it's perhaps worth making the point that the song went much
further internationally than America, Britain and France. I'm sure you're very well aware of that. [I was :-]. It was such a hit in German-speaking countries, for instance, that various composers arranged the song into vocal marches. In his monumental Carl Michael Ziehrer: Sein Werk, Sein Leben, Seine Zeit, Max Schönherr cites examples by Karl Komzák, Dominik Ertl, Theodor F. Schild and Paul Lincke as well as by Ziehrer himself. Schönherr also quotes Sigmund Spaeth's A History of Popular Music in America as stating that Henry J Sayers had arranged the music from themes that "coloured girls had picked up in Babe Connors' notorious Saint Louis resort". But perhaps that's one of the secondary sources to which you refer. [Yes, it is :-)]

Actually, Max Schönherr pretty clearly got his information from James J. Fuld's The Book of World-Famous Music. Again quoting Spaeth, Fuld states that, "Sayers wrote the song after having visited Babe Connors' notorious St. Louis cabaret, but the song was not successful in this country [the USA] until after Lottie Collins had introduced it in England. Fuld goes on to state that Judge F. Patterson later held that the music and words were not original, citing possible sources as Deutschlands Liederschatz, published by Alfred Michow, Berlin, a booklet by Von R. Forster containing a composition entitled Tarara Bumtara (but without music) and a collection of Tyrolean songs for zither and voice, dated 1809, and with music entitled Ta rada Boom di e. As we know, there's nothing ever really new.'

We do indeed. I can add to that list of 'versions' too! Karl Kaps's Tararaboomderé Polka was published by Francis, Day and Hunter, another was put out by Josef Meissler, a Tarara-boom-de-ay March was arranged by Theo Bonheur ... And Henry Sayers was not, to my knowledge, a musician, in any case. He was a highly efficient company manager.

Anyway. Sorry, Ms Bellanta. You are way off beam with your 'black' story. 'Casta diva' isn't a 'black song' just because Leontyne Price once sang it. Wikipedia, please take note. Error alert.

PS2 I love my feedbackers....

Pretty item .. the songs of the year, Paris 1893 ... Tra la la Boum! ça y'est! 

And look at this! Published 1892 in New Hampshire

 ... not quite a Mammy.

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