- Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook (née William Mercer, 1869–1944) was a musician and composer best known for his work in black musicals. A student of the violin at the Oberlin Conservatory, tutored by Heinrich Jocobson at the Berlin Hochschule for Musik, and a protégé of Antonin Dvořák and John White at the National Conservatory of Music, Cook was eminently prepared for a career as a concert performer and opera composer. Because he was African American, however, the scant opportunities available at the time were in musical theatre. His talents were hardly wasted, though, as he composed some of the most enduring songs and lyrics for black and white musicals. Writing music with the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as lyricist, and teaming up with the superb musical performers Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, George Walker, and Bert Williams, Cook arranged orchestration and wrote lyrics and songs for the best musicals of his generation. Influenced by Tin Pan Alley songs and show tunes, Cook made an essential contribution to popular music in American consciousness.
Marva Griffin Carter’s book shines a long overdue light on the career of this great composer. Cook worked in several media: art songs, love songs, and spirituals, and as Carter notes, his musical styles included “a diverse range of pseudo-Africanisms, a nostalgic plantation song, tender ballads, waltzes, recitatives and operatic ensembles” (67). He was also masterful at writing the popular “coon song,” the derogatory tunes by white writers that were turned into generally positive representations once written by African Americans. Cook’s most famous song, “Swing Along,” written for Williams and Walker, is a powerful work reflecting the conditions of African Americans moving (“swinging along”) amidst a thicket of racism. During his most productive decade, 1898–1908, he composed outstanding music for shows such as Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), In Dahomey (1903), and The Southerner (1904). In his later years Cook produced choral works, especially his Southern Syncopated Orchestra.
Cook’s genius was owing to what Carter calls “his use of highly syncopated, chromatic melodies and extended song forms” (118). Despite his talent, he was a recalcitrant figure in show business. Carter notes that George Walker once said of him: “If Will Marion Cook was a white man I reckon he would pass as eccentric, [End Page 285] but, being as he’s a negro, he’s sure enough plum crazy” (91). Carter quotes Cook admitting that his failure to acquire success “was not because of color; rather, because of uncontrolled passions, too violent a resentment against real of fancied wrongs; too large and too visible a chip on each shoulder and to be sure I missed nothing, another chip on my woolly head” (110). Nevertheless, Cook had numerous admirers. His wife Abbie Mitchell, despite divorcing him, remained supportive of his musical career. He also had a tremendous influence on many important African American musicians, mentoring Eubie Blake, James Reese Europe, and Duke Ellington, among others.
The book is essentially an unreconstructed reprint of the author’s 1988 dissertation and the shortcoming of such republication is glaring. There are little to no references to the dozens of works on African American musical theatre that have emerged during the past two decades. The author seems unaware, for example, of several new biographies of Cook’s collaborator, Bert Williams, only referencing the outdated biographies by Mabel Rowland (1923) and Ann Charters (1970). Additionally, many accounts of Cook’s experiences noted in this book are stated with insufficient examination. The author says, for instance, that Cook “could not have chosen a more gifted mentor than Bob Cole to teach him the tricks of the theatrical trade” (37), then says that there was “discord between Cole and Cook” (57) that ended their relationship. But no explanation as to the substance of the discord is provided. The author says that “Cook was widely known as an advocate of Republican principles and an outspoken anti-New Dealer” (109), but then says that Cook...