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Exist Yesterday.

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1931: Wilmoth Houdini


This week I'm thinking about Wilmoth Houdini's 1931 recording of "Black but Sweet," an early calypso which also functions as a Jazz Age statement of Afrodiasporic racial pride.

Brunswick 7219 attributes the songwriting to Houdini (born Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks in Port of Spain) himself, although it's clearly composed of common folk lines — the other mule kicking in one's stall is a standard piece of blues imagery first attested on record by Ma Rainey — while the performance credit goes to Houdini with Gerald Clark's Night Owls. Guitarist and cuatro player Clark was also Trinidadian-born, a one-time medical student who chose instead to lead popular calypso bands in New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, when Afrodiasporic culture was all the rage and West Indian immigrants were nearly as common in Harlem as Southern Great Migrators, and in fact were part of the same general trend.

Although "Black but Sweet" was recorded by Trinidadian performers, the instrumentation, with its wailing clarinet and sprightly cornet, sounds a lot like New Orleans jazz: only Houdini's unmistakably island accent ties it definitively to calypso. And indeed by this time, Houdini, who had won his stripes in the Carnival cutting contests in the 1910s but had made his home in New York since the early 1920s, was being ridiculed as a bougie sellout by calypsonians who remained in Trinidad and still competed in the yearly Carnival road marches. His riposte to these accusations would be 1934's "Declaration of War", sometimes considered the first diss track in recording history, but which sounds in arrangement and instrumentation very much like "Black but Sweet" — the personnel isn't listed on this date, but it very well could be Clark and his band again.

The fact that he was based in New York (although the Trinidad-based calypsonians also recorded there; the first recording studio on the island was not built until 1947) is part of why Houdini is better remembered today than many of the other early calypso pioneers: his records attempted to aim at the larger race market rather than at the specifically Trinidadian home and emigrant markets. And he was, for his time, extremely successful, recording regularly from 1928 to 1940, with his records making a major impact in West Indian Britain and West Africa as well as at home.

Of course he borrowed his nom de guerre from the stage magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, whose unflappability and ingenuity in a 1916 movie serial had impressed him; and indeed his ability to wriggle out of a jam, whether through verbal fireworks or sheer bravado, is one of his most notable characteristics on record.  "Black but Sweet" begins, unpromisingly enough, "She's Black and homely and that is all" — but as the rest of the song goes on to detail her magnetic, even fatal attractions, the listener is forced to revise their estimate of Houdini's words. By homely, perhaps he doesn't mean ugly, but the old English version of "heimlich," homelike, comfortable. Or perhaps the first lines are meant to be the dismissive dialogue of racist whites, against which the rest of the song is a rebuke.

In any case, when Houdini sings "it is a positive fact: the sweetest women in this world are Black," and Walter Bennett's cornet blows out a hot, urgent affirmation set to a suddenly martial rhythm, it's one of the most thrilling moments in the era's pop, in its own way a declaration of war against the crushing norms of the broader society, a society which in a thousand ways both implicit and overt sent the message that Black women were less than worthless. As it continues to do; and as pop at its best continues to contest. There were pro-Black-women records before this one (in one reading, that was the entire point of recorded blues for many years), but Houdini took an early step in making the fellowship global. Négritude, remember, is also largely a West Indian invention.