Category Archives: Performers

Stories and biographies of singers and dancers.

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).

Mon Cul Sur La Commode

Sur la commode‘ by Moïses Simons, text by RIP & Willemetz, published by Editions Royalty (Paris, 1937) – illustrated by Guy Arnoux

The naughty song Sur la commode tells us the story of a young lady who cannot afford a holiday at the seaside or in the mountains to escape the stifling Parisian heat. But resourceful as she is, she refreshes her behind on the marble top of a commode, thus saving a lot of money.

Jeanne Aubert
Jeanne Aubert (1900-1988)

Jeanne Aubert brought the young lady to life in the revue V’la l’travail! and the song became an instant hit in France in 1937. It refers to the annual leave or congé payé that granted French employees two weeks of paid time off. The congé payé was part of the important social reform in 1936 achieved by the Front Populaire, an alliance of left-wing movements.

Jeanne Aubert, aged 75, re-enacted her rather enervating song for  French television in 1975.

The song has since slipped into oblivion but part of the chorus still lives on as a multi-purpose expression. Mon cul sur la commode (literally: my bum on the chest of drawers) can indicate a sloppy realisation or something that is badly put together. Sometimes the expression is used to cut a story short, like et cetera.  Or to express that something is meaningless gibberish, pure nonsense.


Haïti, illustrated by Ch. Roussel
Haïti‘ by Vincent Scotto, published by Salabert (Paris, 1934) and illustrated by Ch. Roussel

Last night I watched the movie Zouzou directed by Marc Allegret in 1934. Jean and Zouzou are two orphans adopted by a sideshow talker. He presents them in the circus as freaky twins because Jean is white and Zouzou is black. Very strange indeed.

baker gabin
Josephine Baker as Zouzou and Jean Gabin as Jean.

As adults, Jean (Jean Gabin) becomes a sailor and Zouzou (Josephine Baker) a laundress. Zouzou has an unrequited love for Jean who is only able to love her as a sister. A few intrigues later Zouzou, who is a talented singer and dancer, starts to work in a music hall. And this leads us to the climax of the film when Josephine Baker sings Haïti. Scantily clad in some feathers she sits on a swing in a gilded bird cage like an exotic bird, ending the song with an elegant stage dive.

Bizarrely, for the cover of the sheet music the illustrator selected another scene from the film. Was the scene in the cage too risqué? You can judge for yourself or just enjoy the talented Miss Baker.