Politically incorrect

Cads, bounders, and unbecoming women in opera and song: episode two – an unpalatable truth

Zazel in action at the Royal Aquarium in 1877.
Public Domain
Courtesy of the British Library.

Last week, Susi introduced the latest exhibition to take place in and around the Anderson Room : Cads, bounders, and unbecoming women. The genesis of the exhibition went back to a post on Trinity College Library’s blog earlier this year. I was particularly amused by a picture of Zazel, the human cannonball, one of Trinity alumnus, Arthur Munby’s “unbecoming women.” The blog post led to some banter around the (largely female) music office as to what exactly constituted an “unbecoming woman”? Within minutes this led on to what might be the male equivalent – perhaps a cad or a bounder; and the germ of a new exhibition was born.

It was a great deal of fun looking up instances of naughty ladies and gents from the world of music, but while browsing through a selection of 1920’s songs in our extensive collection of sheet music, looking for some further inspiration, I uncovered a rather darker side to the story.

Given the more serious nature of this post, we felt we should warn our readers in the way that the Library of Congress wisely does on its National Jukebox site – “These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users”. 

Previous posts on  MusiCB3 have talked about the importance of sheet music when looking at social history. From dietary fads to the latest sports wear, the lost buildings of London (such as the Royal Aquarium), health and safety (or, the lack of it), and Victorian mourning practices. There’s a wealth of social commentary that is also embedded in popular song, which can propel a reader forcibly into the period in which the song was created, whether or not they want to be there…

Picture the scene – me sitting on the floor in a rather chilly basement with a box of songs beside me; flicking through them, humming away, and trying to assess whether any might be suitable for the Cads and Bounders exhibition. And then I came across She wouldn’t do (what I asked her to). With the toothy grin of George Olsen, band leader, on the cover, it looked like your average comic song of the period, but on closer inspection it turned out to be jaw-droppingly misogynistic.

She wouldn’t do what I asked her to, but at first I wasn’t sore,
She wouldn’t do what I asked her to, so I asked her just once more,
She wouldn’t hug or kiss, she wouldn’t hold my hand,
She wouldn’t even let me buy a wedding band,
She wouldn’t do what I asked her to, so I socked her in the jaw.

If you think the chorus is bad it gets worse – the inference from the verse is that the song  refers to a black couple, so adding racism to its list of negative attributes. Although I’ve found a couple of recordings of the song online, none of them include the verse, suggesting that even by 1920’s standards it was considered unpalatable. Another less than charming side to the song is that it seems to have been primarily recorded by white bands, suggesting that live performances often involved “blacking up,” a form of entertainment still very common during this period.

She wouldn’t do
(What I asked her to) /
Gottlieb, Boutelje, Burt

You accept to a certain extent that the past is a different country, but what especially shocked me was the blatancy of the misogyny and racism. Seeing the printed copy unmasked by the jaunty (and annoyingly memorable) tune, the crudity of the text is evident. There is no real attempt to turn it into a comic song – stereotypical racial attitudes are treated as self-evidently correct, and the misogyny itself is (presumably) deemed to be hilarious in its own right.

What makes the publication even odder is the advertising content with which it is juxtaposed. There are no comic songs here, just love songs and ballads from the “Richmond-Robbins Gold Seal Series (the seal of superior songs)”. This song wasn’t aimed at a particular audience, just the popular music fan, suggesting that the publishers, at least, felt that the lyrics would be acceptable across society. So, it can be inferred, that these views were widespread, or at least generally went unquestioned at the time.

Of course there are more positive views of society in popular music too. Increasingly, black musicians are seen on sheet music covers, though, in the mid-’20’s, they are still outnumbered by blacked-up white faces.

So, next time, you’re feeling nostalgic and open a box of old sheet music be a little wary. It may bring back happy memories, or it may make you realise that it wasn’t always better in the “good old days”. Keep the case for the rose-tinted specs handy…


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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