Al Jolson and His Signature Character Gus

J.J. Shubert had signed Al Jolson because of Jolson’s “overpowering display of energy.” Jolson never wanted to leave the stage, especially when he had the audience in the palm of his hand. During his time on stage at the Winter Garden, his favorite phrase was “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” The conductor in the pit just prayed that they all had the right sheet music for whatever came next. Jolson wowed the audience, but he wowed them not as himself but as Gus, his “signature blackface character.”

In 2018, as we look back at the practice of blacking one’s face with cork, we have to wonder: Why?

This is an important question, and we are going to spend the rest of this post trying to explain the complex reasons behind Jolson’s use of blackface.

In order to understand why Jolson might be using blackface on stage or in the movies, it is best to start at the beginning of the practice. Minstrel tunes were taken from the camp meeting songs of African-American slaves. The foremost white composer who listened to this form of African-American music was Stephen Foster, and we have played clips previously that feature Paul Robeson singing “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Gone Are the Days.” In addition, we played a clip from the 1934 movie, King for a Day, in which we get to see Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dance to both tunes in the setting of a minstrel show. The all-black cast in King for a Day corked their faces, which was the tradition when performing in a minstrel show, whether the performer was black or white, with one exception: Bill Robinson.

Many of the minstrel shows portrayed African-Americans in less than a complimentary way, but not all did this. Fred Astaire donned blackface in the 1936 movie, Swing Time, in order to perform the number “Bojangles of Harlem.” The audience may or may not have been aware that Bill Robinson was called the “Mayor of Harlem.” They certainly were aware of Mr. Robinson, a vaudeville performer who stunned audiences with his dancing ability. We only know him today, based on his movie appearances. In addition to King for a Day, he appeared opposite Shirley Temple in 1935’s The Little Colonel and opposite Lena Horne in 1943’s Stormy Weather. The song and dance routine, “Bojangles of Harlem” was Fred Astaire’s homage to his icon, Bill Robinson. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

According to film historian Eric Lott: “For the white minstrel man to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry…. To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.”

According to Wikipedia, “Historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history.” Historian Michael Alexander noted that the music from the movie, The Jazz Singer, was “an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the ‘imagined music of African Americans’ ” and that “prayer and jazz become metaphors for Jews and blacks.” In fact the playwright who conceived of the story that led to The Jazz Singer, Samson Raphaelson, stated that he had had an epiphany while watching a performance of Robinson Crusoe, Jr. “My god, this isn’t a jazz singer, this is a cantor!”

“According to Alexander, Eastern European Jews were uniquely qualified to understand the music, noting how Jolson himself made the comparison of Jewish and African-American suffering in a new land in his film Big Boy: In a blackface portrayal of a former slave, he leads a group of recently freed slaves, played by black actors, in verses of the classic slave spiritual “Go Down Moses”. One reviewer of the film expressed how Jolson’s blackface added significance to his role: ‘When one hears Jolson’s jazz songs, one realizes that jazz is the new prayer of the American masses, and Al Jolson is their cantor. The Negro makeup in which he expresses his misery is the appropriate talis [prayer shawl] for such a communal leader.’ ”

There is one other reason that could have persuaded Jolson to perform in blackface. According to Howard Pollack, in his biography of George Gershwin: “He [Jolson] did much of his most memorable work in blackface, according to one biographer, who argued that the “medium” allowed him to show ‘an elan on the Broadway stage no other performer–black or white–would dare exhibit.’ ”

Later, Pollack described how Gilbert Seldes, an American writer and cultural critic, recalled the impact of Jolson performing “Swanee” in the 1919/1920 time period: “To have heard Al Jolson sing this song is to have had one of the few great experiences which the minor arts are capable of giving…”

Seldes went on: “Five years later I heard Jolson in a second-rate show, before an audience listless or hostile, sing this outdated and forgotten song, and create again, for each of us seated before him, the same image–and saw also the tremendous leap in vitality and happiness which took possession of the audience as he sang it. It was marvelous.”

Countless people have described the unrestrained energy that flowed from Jolson to the audience; it was magic. In my personal opinion, I don’t see how Jolson could have created this powerful impact without creating Gus. In some strange way, I believe that the audience was in awe of Gus, because they didn’t really know Jolson. But there is one more element to this explanation, and it has to do with Jolson’s underlying fear and pain from his personal life.

In 1921, getting ready to go give his first performance in another Sigmund Romberg musical, Bombo, Jolson “suffered from stage fright, walking up and down the streets for hours before show time. Out of fear, he lost his voice backstage and begged the stagehands not to raise the curtain. But when the curtains went up, he ‘was [still] standing in the wings trembling and sweating.’ After being physically shoved onto the stage by his brother Harry, he performed and received an ovation that he would never forget.’ ”

I think that Jolson always had to deal with fear when facing a live audience and that he only was able to control that fear when he was playing someone else–Gus.

In the next two posts, we will explore the three forms of secular African-American music and the African-American community’s reaction to Gus and to Al Jolson.