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  • Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race by Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom
  • Aaron J. West
Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race.
By Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. [xvi, 456 p. ISBN 978-0-190-63593-0. $20]

Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom's Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race chronicles the extraordinary life of pianist and composer Eubie Blake. Ken Bloom has written several comprehensive works on American song and musical theatre, and each earned a Grammy Award for collaborating on the liner notes for the album, Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along in 2017. Bloom and Carlin's broad cultural and personal history of Blake is written in an easy-to-read prose style to which even a non-historian can relate. Readers are taken on a narrative adventure featuring Blake's triumphs and struggles, framed by significant historical characters and events.

Eubie Blake is a fascinating and unique character in music history for several reasons. Engaging with ragtime, Broadway and classical composition, and jazz, Blake's career spanned nearly one hundred years. Moreover, he saved everything. A historical treasure trove of receipts, contracts, and notes provided researchers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view primary documentation from an era in which documents were rare. This is particularly important in determining where African American composers stood within the publishing and performing industries. Carlin and Bloom write, 'Reading his account books from several Broadway shows reveals the sad truth that major composers–particularly African American composers–were often paid far less than what was called for in their contracts' (p. xii). In many cases, Blake expected to not be paid for compositions, even if he owned the performance rights.

Blake's story begins in Baltimore in the late nineteenth century. There was a thriving African American community that supported music and musicians, and Blake had ample opportunity to refine his pianistic skills in local dance halls, social clubs, and bordellos. In fact, providing music to patrons of prostitution was the primary musical environment for Blake. As with many of his contemporaries, he developed a remarkable level of dexterity in both hands largely because of the extraordinarily long hours he was asked to perform. Blake notes that he played from four to midnight virtually non-stop on most evenings. Despite taking advantage of the plentiful musical opportunities in the African American neighborhoods of Baltimore, Blake still had to negotiate with a dominant white class but never allowed himself to become resentful. The authors write, 'faced [with] considerable prejudice, Blake was not bitter, and could turn potentially difficult racial stereotypes on their heads by refusing to accept common cultural norms. He never wore blackface when he performed . . . he donned a tuxedo when he played to white audiences to indicate his pride in the music that they performed' (p. ix). Indeed, Blake remained a prideful performer and composer throughout a career that was embedded within a racist system.

By 1915, Blake had developed a remarkable work ethic, resulting in a busy career as a songwriter and performer. Nevertheless, his success was limited until he met lyricist and vocalist Noble Sissle. Sissle and Blake form a composing and performing duo, and this partnership would be integral to their musical legacy. Their newly formed duo, The Dixie Duo, performed minstrel-derived material such as 'Gee! I'm Glad I'm from Dixie', but they refused to wear blackface and shied away from using dialogue that was typical of minstrel performances. Their decision to forgo the most demeaning aspects of the minstrel tradition would be a hallmark of their Broadway work as well. During the discussion of The Dixie Duo, Carlin and Bloom provide a contextual examination of other duos that shared the [End Page 183] same name. This may appear to be a minor sidenote, but this short discussion led to a nuanced description of how this sort of name attracted stereotypes of the American South in which Noble and Sissle refused to participate. This was surely a laborious process and reflects the importance and depth of the authors' research throughout the book.

In 1920, Blake and Sissle paired with the comic duo of Flournoy...


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