Keep a Song in Your Soul revisits the black vaudeville circuit
The Old Town School of Folk Music dips its toe into theater with this new commissioned piece on black vaudeville.
As white vaudeville circuits launched the careers of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a black circuit was shaping the formation of jazz and blues. The latter is the inspiration for Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville, the Old Town School of Folk Music’s first theatrical commission.
“Old Town School is constantly seeking grant funds,” says executive director Bau Graves. Several years ago, the school applied for the Joyce Foundation’s Joyce Award, a grant for the commissioning of new performance work by artists of color in the Midwest. “We’ve got quite a few artists of color that participate in events at Old Town School, and we got to thinking that some of them might have an interest in developing a full-on evening-length performance.”
Graves approached folk string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, composer and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Reginald Robinson and tap dancer Reggio “The Hoofer” McLaughlin to conceive a musical tracing the rise of black vaudeville through the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities. Although the proposal was initially passed over, Old Town School received the grant the following year.
As in the entertainments of the day, music and dance take priority over plot. “The music and dance acts are the things we are emphasizing the most,” music director and Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons says by phone from New York. “Oklahoma! was one of the first musicals that had a score that directly affected the script, where those things were interlocked. We’re doing a musical in the style of what came before that, of having a bunch of songs and then a narrative that links it all together.”
The story follows a country girl who becomes seduced by city life after meeting a traveling performer, finding herself among the black entertainers who populated venues owned by the Theater Owners Bookers Association. The T.O.B.A., which stretched from the East Coast to Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas, gave black audiences a safe environment to enjoy music, dance and comedy, and helped start the careers of musicians like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
“The music comes from the late 1860s all the way into the early 1930s, and this musical shows how these different kinds of music are all interrelated,” Flemons says. “There’s the roots of jazz and the blues. There’s old-time music, country music and ragtime. We want to show that a lot of the commercial music in the ’20s is informed by the folk music that came before it.”
Producing a musical has posed a new set of challenges for Old Town School. “It’s a lot more intense than preparing for any sort of concert,” Graves says. “Part of vaudeville is the split-second timing on how things happen. The dialogue and music and dance tumble over each other, and that’s part of what makes that whole performative style work.”
As producer, the 54-year-old institution is taking on most of the financial and technical responsibilities but does not own any rights to the piece. While there are no plans for future theater pieces at Old Town School, that may change depending on the success of its inaugural production.
“American culture owes such an enormous debt to African-American culture, and it’s easy for us to lose sight,” Graves says. “This is an important chunk of entertainment history, and credit should be given where credit is due.”
Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville runs Thursday 3–Sunday 6.