USF Libraries | Special & Digital Collections | Exhibits

Swing Along! The Music of Early African American Composers

The performing arts included some of the few professional avenues available to African Americans before and after World War I. African American performers and musicians who participated in the popular vaudevillian and minstrel blackface numbers, that mocked the experience of black people in America, would often strive to layer on irony, humanity, and depth to the depiction of black life on stage.  African American musicians of this era would sculpt vaudevillian ‘novelty’ music into new forms, jazz and blues, that would reshape the history of music.

A number of the metropolitan vaudeville theaters opened from the 1900s to the 1920s catered mostly to black audiences, giving African American artists greater opportunities for performing their music and acts.  However, African American composers producing songs that would be performed by multiple races, on stage and in living rooms, were often visually absent from popular music.  The covers of published sheet music by African American composers mostly featured portraits of white performers instead of the song writers themselves (Booker, 2015 p234). 

Bob Cole, one half of the Cole and Johnson song writing and performing duo, would remark on the absence and prejudice of the depiction of African Americans on the stage in his essay “The Negro and the Stage”:

“The Negro has been left out of the history of the drama for the same reason, I suppose, that he has been left out of other recorded things, historiographers and instances where he does accidentally appear are noticeably marked by active prejudice.” (Cole, 1902)

This exhibit was created to showcase a selection of music that was digitized from the USF Libraries African American Sheet Music Collection to celebrate African American History Month in 2019, and to illuminate the authors behind the music.  Digitization for our 2019 celebration includes work by Shelton Brooks, James Tim Brymn, Dr. Charles Cooke, Will Marion Cook, Gussie Lord Davis, William Christopher Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, Cecil Mack, Maceo Pinkard, Tom Wiggins, and Bert Williams.