Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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December 20, 2006
the mystery of Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones -- the Romantic Musical"?

Everybody has a MySpace page now. "Everybody" includes Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985), the jazz and pop singer from the 1920s and '30s. I was lucky enough to discover her general existence through my grandfather's 78 rpm of the delightful "Aw Gee! Don't Be That Way Now" from 1927.

Annette's MySpace friends include The Boswell Sisters, among whose friends we in turn find the page of Ella's fave Connee Boswell. And that's where we find a recording of "Emperor Jones." And that's where it gets weird.                               
[And allows for the kind of haphazard research geekery for which the intertubes are ideally suited, as follows.]

You listen to the record and have to ask, "Is this what I think it is? A jazzy little romance-themed pop tune inspired by the 1920 Eugene O'Neill play? (I recently read the play, with all its weird flaws and dated "dialect" language, in a sitting during a bout with insomnia.) The play set largely in the jungle of a Caribbean banana republic, in which a former tyrant flees ghosts and terrifying visions from "his" past, and all about themes like racism, colonialism, imperialism, the weight of history and, possibly, the Jungian Collective Unconscious? Now transmuted into a song about a flapper who misses her beau? Is it possible?"

Seems to be. The record seems to have come out on the Bruswick label in August 1933. According to this NYT review, the following month saw the NYC opening of the movie version with Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday, who was an extra. Guess there was an O'Neill or "EJ" trend that summer and fall? The endlessly omnivorous creativity of the historical sweep of American pop music & mass culture displays itself yet again. Note, for example, that a few weeks ago, someone sold on e-Bay for five bucks the sheet music for an April 1933 Boswell Sisters tune, "Rasputin, That Highfalutin' Lovin' Man." Tin Pan Alley era songs about Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution are deserving of a blog post all their own.

However, the Connee Boswell song really does seem to be derived from the O'Neill play/movie.

For example, the record opens and closes with the sound of "jungle" style tom-tom drums.

Lyrically, where the play gave us:

(The witch-doctor's voice shrills out in furious exultation, the tom-tom beats madly. Jones cries out in a fierce, exhausted spasm of anguished pleading)
"Lawd, save me! Lawd Jesus, hear my prayer!"

Connee sings:
Just like Emperor Jones, I’m haunted.
The echoes of the past keep drummin’ through my head.
Oh lover forgive me
Let me come back to you.

And whereas O'Neill writes,

(The beat of the far-off tom-tom is perceptibly louder and more rapid. Jones becomes conscious of it—with a start, looking back over his shoulder.)
"Dey's gittin' near! Dey'se comin' fast! And heah I is shootin' shots to let 'em know jes' whar I is. Oh, Gorry, I'se got to run."

(Forgetting the path he plunges wildly into the underbrush in the rear and disappears in the shadow.)

Connee sings,
Just like Emperor Jones I’m tortured,
The shadows in the night are memories of you. . . .

Oh I can hear those drumbeats drummin',
Drummin out my fate to be,
For my judgment day is coming
Unless you set me free.

If you don’t my life is shattered,
Like Emperor Jones I’ll lose my mind.

Who wrote the song? This site lists the composer as one "Wrubell." Could it have been Allie Wrubel, who wrote, among other things, "Zip A Dee Doo Dah"? However, his song appears to be distinct from another tune also called "Emperor Jones," which Charlie Barnet and later Duke Ellington did.

Is there some kind of social commentary going on beneath the surface of an apparently innocuous pop tune? Probably not, but it's interesting to wonder about. What exactly might have been the forces at work at that time that might have separated the (female? male?) character, who was "just like" the Emperor Jones, through which Boswell sang, from the object of her/his affection? The O'Neill play offers few answers, because it has no romantic subplots. However, the Hollywood movie version does work in such a subplot, in the scenes for which the studio insisted that actress Fredi Washington wear darkening makeup so that Jim Crow-era audiences would not think, during her scenes with Robeson, that an interracial romance was being portrayed.

Or was the "Emperor Jones" gimmick simply an excuse for the Victor Young Orchestra, which backed Boswell (I wonder who, specifically, was responsible for the drum parts?) to exploit on the record a nifty, percussive "tom-tom" & piano ostinato riff thingy that somebody came up with and dug?

One could ask, is this not the coolest infiltration of "high culture," or at least O'Neill, into 1930s mass or lowbrow culture? The answer is no. The prize there must go to Groucho Marx's hilarous "strange interlude" routine from "Animal Crackers" (1930).

"If I were Eugene O'Neill I could tell you what I really think of you two. You know, you're very fortunate the Theatre Guild isn't putting this on. And so is the Guild. Pardon me while I have a strange interlude . . . ."
A video of Groucho's entire routine is on YouTube, here.

The Electronic Eugene O'Neill Archive, by the way, is wonderful. And not only because it provides the texts of some of the plays. Among the other great resources is this article which uncovers some heretofore lost and gut-wrenching letters from O'Neill to Louise Bryant. The letters include a truly awesome poem about worms. Unfortunately, I find the letters and poem impossible to read without imagining Jack Nicholson reading them to Diane Keaton.