Gussie Lord Davis (1863-1899)
"Little is known of Davis's early life except that he was a quiet, unobtrusive individual who grew up in poverty and never finished high school." (Library of Congress, n.d.)
Like so many of his contemporaries, recorded information of Gussie Lord Davis’s life are rare and hard to find. It is known that Gussie Lord Davis was born in Dayton, OH; that, at some point, he moved to New York where he became the first black songwriter to become famous on Tin Pan Alley, and that he published more than 300 of the over 600 songs he wrote by the time he died at the age of 36 (“Gussie Davis,” n.d.; Southern, 2013). When his application to study at Nelson Musical College in Cincinnati, OH was rejected due to his race, he worked out a deal with the college to receive private lessons in exchange for janitorial services. In his early twenties he organized the Davis Operatic and Plantation Minstrels that would continue to perform and tour until shortly before his death. In 1895 he placed second in the New York World’s ten best songwriters of the nation contest with “Send Back the Picture and the Ring” (“Gussie Davis,” n.d.).
His songs included comic minstrel songs, art songs, choral music, and highly popular sentimental ballads.
"Gussie Davis reached for the tender spots that lurk deep within all of us, no matter how thick or tough our outer crusts may be. In an era of 'sing-em-and-weep; melodies, Davis did more than his share to open up the tear ducts of America." –Maxwell F. Marcuse, Tin-Pan Alley historian (Wright & Lucas, 1978)
However, his critics would point out that his talent went hand-in-hand with an opportunistic-ness that aimed at popularity over substance:
“Almost all of Davis's songs devolve on hackneyed melodramatic situations, and many of them make use of racial stereotypes offensive to many Americans even before the turn of the century.” (“Davis, Gussie Lord,” 1999)
He would also be condemned for catering to prejudiced white tastes. Davis would seem to have been operating toward the goal of popular composition and popular career, alone, regardless of what his fellow musicians and composers may have felt. In an interview piece featured in the Cleveland Gazette on February 4, 1888, “‘Irene, Good Night” the composer of this beautiful song talks,” Davis says:
"They tell me that all song writers, as a rule, die in the poorhouse, broken down in health and empty in pocket. ...I was thinking what a fickle old jade fortune really is and as a topical song aptly puts it, 'I remember, I forgot,' that when I first gained an inspiration to follow the stage as a profession, I was just eighteen years old, and not caring to enter in the rear, I set to work to study music, and before long I managed to get together a pretty air and had it arranged. It was the 'Maple on the Hill,' and became quite popular throughout the West. Music publishers are not over generous in taking to publishing or even handling music from an unknown person, and I found a great deal of trouble, but I gave one publisher money to get it out, and he took pity on me. The song proved a great go." – quoted in Wright, 1978
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: