We see three couples dancing a foxtrot. From the academic gown and black cap we can assume that they are students. Possibly the building in the back is their Alma Mater. But the French illustrator Würth failed to draw the essence of the American song. Fortunately the original cover reveals what ‘Doin’ the Raccoon‘ is about, namely dancing gaily in a thick raccoon coat.
The flashy full-length fur coat was the trend in the 1920s and 30s. Especially American college boys —and even some young women— adopted this fashion in the Roaring Twenties.
College men, knowledge men, Do a dance called raccoon; It’s the craze, nowadays, And it will get you soon. Buy a coat and try it, I’ll bet you’ll be a riot, It’s a wow, learn to do it right now!
The raccoon fur coat craze became identified with affluent students at the Ivy League colleges and universities:
Oh, they wear ’em down at Princeton, And they share ’em up at Yale, They eat in them at Harvard, But they sleep in them in jail!
The coats were particularly popular among the playful students on campus: fun seekers or male jazz enthusiasts who got nicknamed collegiates or Joe College. These cheery types would drive dilapidated old cars, wear a straw hat or fedora and carry a hip flask of illicit booze. They made it very clear that you didn’t need to go to class to become collegiate: slip into your huge fur coat and dance the raccoon!
The raccoon coat became a fashion symbol of the Jazz Age. It was popularised by celebrities: football players, actors, singers, …
… and even by avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp.
While the raccoon coat originally appealed to a white clientele, the modern and rich black American man and woman followed suit. James VanDerZee, recording Harlem’s growing middle class, took this beautiful photo of a couple dressed in similar raccoon coats in their luxurious sleek Cadillac. They embody sophistication and wealth during the Harlem Renaissance.
I had never heard of raccoon coats before. I only remember Walt Disney’s romanticised version of Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap in the series from the 1950’s.
But well, that wasn’t the real Davy Crockett. Neither was this stereotype of Davy Crockett on the cover of a 19th-century sheet music. In fact it is the actor Frank Mayo with moustaches and a dead animal sitting on his head. From 1872 until his death in 1896, he frequently played the role of Davy Crockett, the 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman and politician.
The cover for the Parisian Francis-Day sheet music doesn’t sparkle with happiness and joy. It rather illustrates the miserable yearning in the song’s lyrics.
You left me sad and lonely Why did you leave me lonely? For here’s a heart that’s only For nobody but you!
Walter Donaldson probably didn’t have exquisite poetry in mind when he wrote these verses. But happily he transformed the persistent melody in his brain into the song You’re Driving Me Crazy that became an instant hit in 1930. Later, any jazz singer or crooner —from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra— had to have that song in their repertoire.
I’m burning like a flame, dear Oh, I’ll never be the same, dear I’ll always place the blame, dear On nobody but you.
Not familiar with the tune? As a reminder, here is the delicious, sexy version by Betty Boop in the cartoon Silly Scandals:
Another copy of the sheet music in our collection, is most likely the original American one. Frederick Manning designed a large passionate hart, blazing in a fire of love. Somewhat pompous in my opinion.
Yes, you, You’re driving me crazy! What did I do? What did I do? My tears for you Make everything hazy, Clouding the skies of blue.
For the Francis-Day cover at the top, illustrator Florent Margaritis chose another approach. He took the title and lyrics quite literally and drew a couple: she regretful but displaying resolve, he apparently thinking What did I do? They share their romantic agony on a cloudy bumper ride in a weird electric car of the type that I’ve never seen before. My perfect excuse to start digging into the history of the bumper cars or dodgems.
The New Yorker, James Adair, was the first to receive a patent for an electrically propelled vehicle in 1890. His patent drawing shows a tricycle connected to the ceiling by a trolley pole. This idea, which was never built, became the basic concept to build the first bumper cars thirty years later: a conductive (metal) floor and ceiling, each with a separate power polarity. Contacts under the vehicle touch the floor while a pole-mounted contact touches the ceiling, forming a complete circuit. I remember my childhood fairs, looking fascinated and thrilled at the sparks produced by the car’s poles grating the ceiling’s wire mesh. Electricity was literally in the air.
The first patent for an electrically powered bumper car was issued in 1921 to father and son Stoehrer from Massachusetts. They had invented a novel amusement car that “in the hands of an unskilled operator will follow a promiscuous, irregular path to not only produce various sensations but to collide with other cars as well as with portions of the platform provided for that purpose. It requires the utmost skill of the driver to cause the car or vehicle to dodge other vehicles.” Hence the name of the company that the brothers created: Dodgem. Dodgem is also the generic name for what they call in the US a bumper car, in France auto-tamponneuse and in Belgium auto-scooter.
Similar to the bumper car illustrated by Margaritis on our cover, the first Dodgem cars were round and seated two people. Between and in front of them a horizontal steering wheel was mounted on a vertical post.
These cars equipped with large bumpers indeed drove crazy because they were rear-steered. According to a test in 1921 by Scientific American these first bumper cars were highly unmanageable and only allowed erratic steering.
Lusse Brothers from Philadelphia spent nine years solving the unsteady steering problems that plagued Dodgem cars. By the 1930s, new front-wheel drive bumper cars were introduced: the Lusse Auto Skooter. They could easily reverse backward and the drivers could now target who they wanted to collide with.
In France electrically powered bumper cars were not produced before the 1930s. But I found two pictures from primitive precursors. Both show auto-tamponeuses that look like a wicked or wooden seat attached to a thick board on wheels. In front there is a crude steering wheel. I imagine that the fair attraction’s track was slanted so that the cars glided or rolled down from their own. The first photograph was taken around 1900 at the Neuilly Fair near Paris. The second one shows us Battling Siki, a French-Senegalese boxer sitting in a bumper car at a Parisian Lunapark in 1922.
Another forerunner of the bumper cars was one of the most popular attractions at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. I confess that I haven’t the faintest idea how this entertainment device works…
What a coincidence. The fun fair is in town. Really, they are. I went to the autoscooter stand, to check some of the above facts. And guess what, they are still playing our tune ❤️
Yes, you! You’re driving me crazy! What did I do to you?
The illustration for the piano music Youyou is not the most captivating one. But its dedication “Au commandant du ‘Camille’ Madame Camille Du Gast” caught my attention. A youyou is a small boat or a dinghy used to tender passengers between a ship and the shore. Here is a photograph of Mme Camille du Gast climbing from a youyou onto her motorboat, the Camille.
The adventurous Mme du Gast took part in the 1905 Algiers to Toulon race organised by the Paris newspaper Le Matin. Sadly, it would be the last time she boarded the Camille.
To ensure the safety of the seven competing motorboats, each one was accompanied by a torpedo boat destroyer. Moreover, two cruisers followed the race. Sixteen hours after leaving Algiers the Camille arrived in second place at Port Mahon, a harbour on the Spanish island Minorca.
In the second part of the race the participants tried to reach Toulon, but this ended in disaster. All competitors and their crew had to be saved from the fury of a storm-swept Mediterranean. The Camille was engulfed by the violent sea. In a perilous operation led by the cruiser Kléber, the crew of the Camille was pulled aboard. But not before an exhausted Mme du Gast fell into the sea and was heroically rescued by a sailor. The Camille was left to the mercy of the waves.
Two months later, Mme du Gast was declared the winner of the Algiers to Toulon race having come closest to finishing before sinking.
The 1905 Algier-Toulon race was not Mme du Gast’s first valiant exploit: she loved fencing, tobogganing, skiing, rifle and pistol shooting, ballooning, parachuting and horse training. She rode her first automobile around 1900 and participated in glamorous capital-to-capital car races, such as Paris-Berlin in 1901, Paris-Vienne in 1902 and Paris-Madrid in 1903.
Mme du Gast’s sobriquet, the Valkyrie of motorsports, elegantly expressed her buxom figure, as seen on these photographs.
It is said that she had a very upright position when driving her motorised vehicles because of her corset. Looking at the picture with her at the rudder of her ‘canot‘, I find her silhouette mesmerizingly disturbing. I then imagine that she just donned a corset for official pictures, and immediately tucked the hindering girdle into a corner when going for action.
Disappointingly, it seems that du Gast’s perfect hourglass shape is but the result of photographic retouching. Look at the telltale pencil corrections around her waist, belly and hips on these magnifications.
The composer of Youyou was Carlos de Mesquita, a Brazilian-born concert pianist and composer. In 1877, aged 13, he left Brazil to study piano and organ at the Conservatoire de Paris where he took lessons with Jules Massenet and César Franck. In the 1880s and 1890s he would introduce their work in Brazil, together with those of Delibes, Bizet, Gustave Charpentier and Saint-Saëns. Through his Concertos Populares, de Mesquita not only introduced a new repertoire in Brazil. He also tried to musically educate and appeal to a growing middle class. His noble intention was undoubtedly inspired by his colleague Gustave Charpentier, who founded in 1902 the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson for the musical schooling of working girls.
We found another Carlos de Mesquita’s sheet music in our Images Musicales collection. It is also dedicated to Camille du Gast and portrays her profile in a tangled Art nouveau floral design. A sign of respect, or was there also un peu d’amour..?
To prove her more artistic accomplishments, Mme du Gast who was a talented singer and piano player, gave charity recitals accompanied by Carlos de Mesquita. The newspaper La Presse describes one of her performances: “When Madame du Gast appeared, a flattering murmur ran through the audience. One was curious to hear Mme Du Gast, who yesterday was an intrepid automobile driver, who will be an aeronaut tomorrow, and who was revealed to us this evening as an excellent musician. Accompanied by M. Carlos de Mesquita, she has performed two pieces of this delicate composer. We celebrated both of them.”
The mondaine Camille du Gast got entangled in a scandal following the trial against her brother and father whom she had accused of embezzlement. Maître Barboux acting for her relatives, hit below the belt when he showed the court a picture of a painting of a naked lady. Barboux claimed that the lady, only clad in a mask, was Mme du Gast (as he had been told by Mme du Gast’s father and brother). Oh my god!
Mme du Gast’s libel action against Maître Barboux caused a sensation in Paris. Both the artist Henri Gervex and the girl who had stood model for the painting, Marie Renard, corroborated du Gast’s case. Still they were not given a hearing. Maître Barboux refused to apologise and moreover won the case on a legal technicality.
It is said that Madame du Gast who was present in the courtroom, had hidden a horsewhip in her parasol with the intention of administering correction to Maître Barboux. However, he prudently chose to leave the Palais de Justice by a private way, as he knew that Madame du Gast and her friends were in a very excited state after the decision of the Court.
But that is not the end of the story, as the prince de Sagan, a friend and admirer of Mme du Gast, followed the lawyer to his house with the firm determination to avenge the honour of Mme du Gast. He slapped Maître Barboux in the face calling him an insulter of women. An hour later, following impeccable manners, the prince sent his card to Barboux’s house. The Australian West Gippsland Gazette (september 1902) further reports: “Maître Barboux, as already noted, is no longer a young man, although very active, and he has, in any case, passed the fighting age, so he prefers the legal way of obtaining satisfaction.“ Another lawsuit followed. Although the court accepted that the prince had acted in good fate, he was condemned to pay a 500 francs fine.
Each sheet music tells its own story. But we also found another truth: one Youyou may conceal another…