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Performing "Stormy Weather": Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham

From: South Central Review
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2008
pp. 93-113 | 10.1353/scr.2008.0013


"Performing 'Stormy Weather': Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham": This essay demonstrates how an African-American modernist impulse and racial critique could be posed and circulated through the sounds, movements, and mises-en-scène of popular and mass performance. Examining the dramaturgical dimensions of the song "Stormy Weather" in key performances in the first half of the twentieth century reveals expressions of African-American modernism in some unlikely places: Tin Pan Alley standards, Cotton Club Parades, and Hollywood all-black movie musicals. Performances by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham help us to see how popular song might have stood in excess of—even as it was embedded within—the standardizing and rationalizing impulse of corporate musical production and the universalizing abstractions of the mass public sphere. As a case study, "Stormy Weather" provides an example of how a fugitive black modernism transported itself on the byways of popular musical thoroughfares, remapping the cartography of American culture in the process. Seen in the context of performance, this otherwise sentimental popular standard stands instead as a highly self-reflexive engagement with and critique of the course of black American performance history.

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