Alexander's Ragtime Band

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For the film of this name, see Alexander's Ragtime Band (film).
Cover, 1911 sheet music

"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a song by Irving Berlin. It was his first major hit, in 1911.

It might be regarded as a sequel to "Alexander and His Clarinet," which Berlin wrote with Ted Snyder in 1910. The earlier song is mostly concerned with a reconciliation between Alexander Adams and Eliza Johnson, but also highlights Alexander's novel musical style.

It is believed by some (especially jazz/ragtime circles in New Orleans, and the Watzke family of New Orleans), that Berlin was writing about a real band and bandleader, who were popular at the time in New Orleans, and actually was known as Alexander's Ragtime Band, after its leader, Alexander Constantin Watzke, Jr. (also known as "King" Watzke or Alex Watzke). From 1904 to 1911 or later, this band was one of the most popular white ragtime and jazz bands in New Orleans.,[1][2]

Lyrics[edit]

Both songs employ certain word choices ("oh, ma honey," "honey lamb") and nonstandard usage ("bestest band what am") in the lyrics to indicate to the audiences of the time that the characters of the song should be understood to be African-American.

Although, the sheet music cover clearly shows the musicians as being white, as Alexander Watzke's band was. Furthermore, when the song became the basis for a movie, the band leader and members were depicted as white, although the real name and city were inexplicably changed.

The often-omitted second verse describes Alexander's band's nonstandard use of traditional instruments:

There's a fiddle with notes that screeches
Like a chicken, like a chicken,
And the clarinet is a colored pet

In fact, Alexander Watzke the bandleader did play the fiddle, or the bass viol, and there was always at least one clarinet player in the band, oftentimes Larry Shields.[3]

Controversy[edit]

There is some evidence, although inconclusive, that Berlin borrowed the melody (in particular, the four notes of "oh, ma honey") from a draft of "A Real Slow Drag" by Scott Joplin that had been submitted to a publisher.[4]

History[edit]

Vaudeville singer Emma Carus, famed for her "female baritone", is said to have been largely responsible for successfully introducing the song in Chicago and helping contribute to its immense popularity, and is credited on the cover of the sheet music. It became identified with her, and soon worked its way back to New York where Al Jolson also began to perform it.[5]

The song has been recorded by many artists, including Byron G. Harlan & Arthur Collins, Victor Military Band, Ted Lewis & his band, Boswell Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Johnnie Ray, Bee Gees, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, George Formby, Judy Garland, Al Jolson, Liberace, Billy Murray, Liza Minnelli, Sid Phillips, Don Patterson & Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstine, Jorgen Ingmann, Bessie Smith and Julie Andrews.

The song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek Magazine:

The tune of the song was played in Broadway Folly, 1930 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film.[8]

A 1938 film of the same name was loosely based on the song.

In popular culture[edit]

The song is referenced in the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song "Karn Evil 9".

A version of the song set to a disco beat was recorded by Ethel Merman for her infamous Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979.

A snippet of the chorus of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" can be heard toward the end of Taco's 1982 cover of "Puttin' on the Ritz", a number 4 hit in the United States.

The song was used in Tennessee politics by Lamar Alexander, a trained pianist, Governor of Tennessee and U.S. Senator, who performed the song for campaign events, including during his 1996 run for the Republican presidential nomination.

The song was in the White Star Line Songbook on board the R.M.S. Titanic and was played in the 1st Class Lounge early on in the sinking. This is portrayed in James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.

The Georgia Tech Pep Band plays the song before every men's and women's home basketball games.

In 1998, this song was added in Kidsongs Adventures in Biggleland: Meet the Biggles.

Nowadays,[when?] Liza Minnelli tends to open her concerts with the song.[citation needed]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ See also Wikipedia article "Alex Watzke" or "King Watzke" This information is a long-standing oral tradition in the Watzke family of New Orleans. Refer also to the family genealogy websites www.watzkeandduncan.tripod.com and www.david.watzke.tripod.com
  2. ^ Hardie, Daniel (2002), Exploring Early Jazz: The Origin and Evolution of the New Orleans Jazz Style, Writers Club Press, pp 178-9, available on Google Books.
  3. ^ See Hardie, Daniel, op.cit.
  4. ^ Berlin, E. A. King of Ragtime, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 210.
  5. ^ Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (Viking, 1990) p. 67.
  6. ^ Guest. "song listing for Bee Gees appearances on The Midnight Special". Ioffer.com. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  7. ^ Dodd, David. "The Annotated "Ramble On Rose"". University of California at Santa Cruz. Retrieved June 20, 2013. 
  8. ^ "The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia: 1930". The Walter Lantz Cartune Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 14, 2011. Retrieved April 24, 2011. 

See also[edit]

External links[edit]