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Tuesday, March 08, 2005
  He Simply Was Immense

Bob Roberts "Everybody Works But Father"

“Everybody Works But Father” was written in 1905 by Jean Havez, a writer of minstrel and vaudeville songs, and later a scenarist for Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Havez was also a press agent for Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels, one of the more notable blackface companies that toured throughout the country at the turn of the 19th century. Although written for Dockstader, this version of the song comes from a concert cylinder recorded by Bob Roberts in October of the year the song was written. Despite being written for a blackface performer, and recorded by a singer, Roberts, whose records were usually catalogued under the “race record” heading, “Everybody Works But Father” is pretty much free of the sort of racial stereotyping and mocking exaggeration that made up most songs of the minstrel variety. Roberts doesn’t sing in a “black” voice, he doesn’t indulge in any pre-song, “Amos and Andy” style banter, and nothing in the lyrics distinguish the subject’s race. I’ve owned a copy of this song for five years now, and didn’t realize it was a minstrel tune until a few weeks ago.

As horrible as minstrelsy may be, or may have been, I find its offensiveness far less noteworthy than its complete inexplicable absurdity. The predominant strain of popular culture, before Vaudeville, consisted of a bunch of white guys singing corny Tin Pan Alley songs with cork smeared on their face. Our great-grandparents were actually entertained by stuff like this, by white men carrying on an unrealistic charade of black culture. And this wasn’t just a Southern thing; indeed, minstrelsy began in New York, and remained popular in the North into the 1920’s. A Scottish friend told me about a minstrel program that aired on the BBC until the 1970’s. Of course you can say that today’s rappers are just modern-day minstrels, but at least they’re actually black, for the most part. Yeah, yeah, justifying racism and romanticizing slavery is awful, and everything, but the manners in which those ignoble tendencies were manifested are bizarre, grotesque, and ridiculous enough to be utterly fascinating.
 
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