Arabella Fields – The Black Nightingale

Sheet Music, photo of Arabella Fields (Partions musicales,
Nach Zigeuner Art!‘ music by Th. Wottitz, published by Josef Blaha in Vienna, 1910 – Photo of Arabella Fields.

Arabella (or Belle) Fields was an early Afro-American performer in Europe. From the 1890s to the 1920s she toured as The Black Nightingale. She was born in Philadelphia but added to her mystique by presenting herself alternately as an African, Red Indian, Indian, American, South American, German-African or an Australian. On this Austrian sheet music cover she presents herself as The Australian Nightingale. The song ‘Nach Zigeuner Art’ (In Gypsy Style) was her greatest success.


Arabella Fields, an exotic sight to her German audience, was also known to perform as the South-American Caruso. She had a beautiful contralto singing voice and was recorded prior to the First World War in Berlin. Max Chop, a contemporary music critic, described her voice like this: ‘On top of this month’s record list is a vocal phenomenon which remains a mystery to me. I would have classified her straight away as a regular tenor with baritonal colouring, had not the label informed me that it is actually the contralto of Miss Belle Fields, a coloured lady from Philadelphia. I listened to the songs again and again. Indeed at certain times, during the piano of the falsetto towards the upper notes, I thought I heard something like a female resemblance. But then again there were the deep tones of the small octave, and then my natural response was again and again: “But it ought to be a male, after all’!’
You can decide for yourself on Arabella’s voice quality by listening to this 1907 recording of Because I love you

Arabella Fields lived in Germany. She always opened her concerts with a few English songs, soon switching to her German repertoire. This amazed and revelled her audience. Contemporary reviews make it clear that she was much admired. Perhaps this success was due to the fact that Belle Fields adapted Tyrolean folklore. She even yodelled and she dressed accordingly in a dirndl, a historical dress of Alpine peasants.

Arabella Fields
Arabella Fields in Tirolean attire.

She was not the only Afro-American artist to adapt the Tyrolean style: the Four Black Diamonds dressed up in Lederhosen or leather shorts.

The Four Black Diamonds, 1906
The Four Black Diamonds, 1906

Next to singing, Arabella Fields acted in a few silent movies and at least in one sound film, Baroud (1933). This was the first and last talkie by the renowned director Rex Ingram. Arabella Fields plays the role of Mabrouka, the heroine’s servant. As was the custom then, she was stereotyped as an overweight, sharp-tongued, black mammy (a racist stereotype featured in a previous post).

A Picture (or Two) is Worth a Thousand Words (2)

We recently came across a third copy (on the right) of ‘Sérénade Divine‘ which is printed in brown and gold, using an ink pigmented with bronze powder. The moon completely faded away and Pierrot looks like shrubbery.

We continue our search for bizarre double items in our collection of sheet music. In a previous post, we showed the creativity of illustrators and/or music publishers to produce additional print runs. We don’t have the answers on the why and when of graphical omissions, additions and changes. Some were intended and crudely created. Others happened brilliantly by accident or were economically inspired. When stumbling on these trouvailles we are puzzled, disconcerted, amused or perplexed. Perhaps you’ll share these emotions with us when comparing the following pairs…

Emigrant Valsen‘ (1928): migration to America as the topic of a waltz. Harald Gelotte illustrated the dramatic experience differently for Swedish (left) and Norwegian migrants (on the right). Even the three funnels of the ocean liner had to be decorated correspondingly.
Sheet Music illustrated by R. Keuller (Reine Astrid, partition illustrée par Renée Keuller)
Both covers were designed by Renée Keuller for the 1936 commemoration of Astrid of Sweden, queen of Belgium between 1934 and 1935. She died at the age of 32 in a car crash, and was mourned in Belgium (left cover) in a different style than in Sweden (right edition).
'Paris-Berlin, 1915' sheet music, march by A. Hannay (partition illustrée)
Both these covers seem to make reference to an (implausible) automobile race during WWI. The right copy is a bit more joyous.
In the Forties the publisher relaunched Hannay’s march of WWI, with a makeover of the cover.
Newspaper seller, illustration by Candido de Faria
The drawing by Faria of a running newspaper seller has been reused, and enhanced with an additional bed scene, by another publisher for a different song (with almost the same title). Strange.
The left cover for ‘Susie‘ is likely Roger de Valerio’s original design for the American song (‘If You Knew Susie’) that Salabert launched in France in 1925. Later, when the song became a success at the Moulin Rouge revue, it was important to put a photograph of hit-machine Mistinguett on the cover, thus spoiling the elegance, simplicity and delicacy of the first design.

If you’ve never been to the Moulin Rouge to hear Mistinguett sing Susie, here is your chance!

Perhaps you’d prefer to hear and see the American ‘Susie‘? We found this version sung by Eddie Cantor:

We close this post with a wonderful design for the cover of ‘If You Knew Susie’ by Orla Muff (1925). Classy!


The Mammy Stereotype

The sheet music for ‘Coal-Black Mammy‘ by Ivy St. Helier and Laddie Cliff (Francis, Day and Hunter, London, 1921).
The cast of the Co-Optmists revue at the Palace Theatre of London. Author Laddie Cliff stands third from the right.

Coal-Black Mammy was written by comedian Laddie Cliff and composed by actress and singer Ivy St. Hellier in 1921. Although the author was born in Bristol (UK), he adapted the American South’s archetypical Mammy for the successful ‘Co-Optimists’ London revue.

A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and the obituary in the Glasgow Herald
A photograph of author Laddie Cliff when young, and his obituary in the Glasgow Herald of 1937.

The Co-Optimists revue combined in its name two political keywords of the time, optimism and co-operation.  It was a sequence of short sketches, performed by musical comedy and variety artists dressed in pierrot costumes. The show ran for six years at the London Palace Theatre and went on tour along British seaside resorts.

View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910
View of the Palace Theatre across Cambridge Circus, London, 1910

In 1929 it was made into a film, co-directed by Laddie Cliff.  A filmed extract from the stage musical brings the photo on the sheet music cover literally to life.

Salabert published Coal-Black Mammy in France and Roger de Valerio illustrated its cover. Mammy characters were a staple of minstrel shows, so they were certainly known in Europe at that time.

Partition illustrée par R. de Valerio
Coal-Black Mammy‘, illustrated by Roger de Valerio (Francis Salabert, Paris, 1921)

But, in picturing the mother with her own baby de Valerio proves that he did not correctly grasp the Southern archetypical meaning of the Black Mammy. Unlike the happy mother on the cover, she did not have time to care for her own children. The Mammy in these shows and comedies is a racist stereotype: usually an overweight, large-breasted, maternal woman. Moreover she is a neat and clean, domestic, non threatening to white people, and always busy attending to the needs of the master’s children. She is the one person on whom all (white people) depend when in need.

American illustrator Dorothy Dullin on the other hand, understood perfectly well how to draw a Mammy for the cover of the 1922 song Carolina Mammy: the Mammy is nurturing a white boy.

Carolina Mammy‘, by Billy James, cover illustrated by Dorothy Dulin (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1922).

The two songs mentioned above were also performed by black face par excellence, Al Jolson. In 1927 Walter Donaldson composed the ultimate Mammy song for the film The Jazz Singer: My Mammy. The song became a classic in Al Jolson’s version. For the French edition of the song the illustrator Deléage made a strong caricature of Al Jolson’s black face character.

My Mammy‘, by Walter Donaldson, sheet music cover illustrated by L. R. Deléage (Publications Raoul Breton, Paris, 1929).

The persistent Mammy stereotype extended well into the twentieth century in literature, films and TV series. In the cartoon Scrub me Mamma with a Boogie Beat from 1941, we see another archetypical image of the Black Mammy, kerchief on her head. Of course the entire cartoon is the epitome of stereotyping: black men living in Lazytown, doing nothing else than, well… being lazy. It is only when a sexy light-skinned woman appears, that they jump into action to dance and play their instruments.

Or to say it with a good old sheet music cover…

Lazin', Sheet music (Lazin', partition illustrée)
Lazin’‘, composed by Charles Tovey (illustrator unknown, Lawrence Wright, London, 1934).