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Hero. Legend. Good Bloke.
John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



The English Music Hall Connection
by Max Haymes
(converted to web format from the original typescript by Alan White)

Chapter II:
From Bermondsey To The Deep South

So how did English music hall songs, themes, etc. reappear on the other side of the Atlantic, in some cases over fifty years later? One of the possible routes for these songs to the Southern states, is via New York City.

Many English music hall artists travelled to the U.S.A. and toured extensively; some of them were a great success and featured as top of the bill. Performers such as Jenny Hill, Nellie Power, Fannie Leslie, Marie Loftus, and Little Tich toured in America between 1870 and 1887. Although Russell says that "It is difficult to determine which characteristics of music hall were purely American and which English (and which shared),"(1), music hall in the U.S.A. "... had existed from the seventies. Tony Astor in New York had brought acts from London and a constant exchange had always taken place."(2). Both music hall and variety shows coming under the label of vaudeville in the U.S. But music hall had evolved in England in the 1840's (see chapter 1). As early as the 1820's, Sam Cowell, "one of the earliest music-hall performers and the first star of the Canterbury Music Hall."(3), arrived in the States as a young child. "He later toured with his father playing Shakespearian roles ... entertaining between the acts by singing negro songs."(4). Cowell returned to England in 1840 to become a leading comic-vocalist and at the height of his career he returned to the U.S.A. for an extensive tour, "opening on 28 November, 1859 at the French Theatre, New York. During the next 20 months he toured with a small variety company throughout the U.S.A. and Canada."(5). Russell agrees that "...each country sent popular ideas to the other, "(6).

An author's note on 'Read 'Em And Weep’ (1926) by Sigmund Spaeth runs (in part): "The emphasis is primarily on the social history of the United States, but some credit is given to "English influences". The interesting revelation is that American versions of most of the songs of the Lions Comique of the sixties appear with backgrounds adapted to Central Park and Broadway, and seemed to be claimed as Americana."(7). Pulling's evidence for this statement seems to be hinged on one example, "The Dark Girl Dressed In Blue" by Harry Clifton, written by George Ware, from the 1860's. One verse is quoted:

"I went in a sixpenny omnibus

To the Exhibition of Sixty-two;

On a seat by the right-hand side of the door

Sat a dark girl dressed in blue."(8). 

The second line refers to an International Exhibition in South Kensington in 1862. In a footnote Pulling says "This song also caught on in America,"(9). In New York the lyric was 'acclimatized':

"I jumped into a Broadway stage, The Central Park going to;

On a seat by the right-hand side of the door

Sat a dark girl dressed in blue."(10).

Possibly, Clifton's earlier song "Polly Perkins of Paddington Green" published in 1863, was a precursor of "The Dark Girl Dressed In Blue". Like the latter, one verse has a reference to a girl and a bus; only in this case he loses her to "a bow-legg'd Conductor"(11). In any event, Pulling may well be right in his hypothesis; and I will be citing more than one example of English influence in the U.S. as a whole, including of course New York (see chapter III). Pulling con­tinues "We are apt to think of the 'American invasion' of popular music as dating from about 1912, but it becomes clear that there was a flourishing two-way traffic fifty years or more before that."(12). The 'Lion Comique' that Pulling referred to was a comedian/singer who was larger than life and was always seen as the most successful of the genre, in dress, style of transport, social engagements, etc. The 1912 'invasion' was of course a musical one represented by ragtime. Pulling's last comment would take us back to c.1860 and as has been pointed out, the English music hall tradition had been going for at least 20 years before then. However, one of Russell's "popular ideas" which came to Britain from the U.S. was that of minstrelsy and the phenomenon of 'coon songs'. 

The most durable and consistent feature of these phenomena was 'blacking up' or adopting a 'blackface' whilst engaging in often exaggerated, sometimes grotesque dance steps and singing 'plantation melodies' which parodied common white misconceptions of 'the happy darky' on Southern cotton plantations. Originating with a dance called "Jim Crow", by a white, Thomas Rice in 1828, who based it on studying "...the curious step of a deformed Negro stable-hand in Louisville..." (13), in Kentucky, these characteristics were soon to be picked up by white minstrel groups who would travel throughout the States in the 1830's and '40's. In an increasingly complex process of multiple parody, within three decades, black versions of these groups appeared. By 1910 two of the most famous were in operation; the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and Silas Green's from New Orleans. The former was run from Port Gibson, Mississippi, and both featured Blues singers in their entourage. On a smaller scale were the medicine shows which also featured Blues singers, often used to trump up business for the 'Doctor' selling his bottles of medicine and other so-called remedies. There were also tent-shows, circuses and 'second companies'. The latter were "...often for Negro audiences only and were called the 'dirty shows' in the circus business itself"(14). All of these sources of entertainment often featured, besides Blues singers, jugglers, magicians, acrobats and blackface singers; including black artists themselves. (see Fig. 1 below). 

Fig. 1: Medicine show c.1935. Includes ventriloquist, 'Indian Chief', and black in blackface waiting to go on.

"In his pioneering study, "Blacks, Whites, and Blues", Tony Russell has posited a "common stock" of songs on which blacks and whites drew."(15). Although both Oliver and Russell are referring to Americans, it is becoming ab­undantly clear that many contributions of this "common stock" came from the English music hall tradition. By their own admission, Blues singers Furry Lewis and Poor Big Joe Williams used to do blackface routines in the medicine shows, which were going "as early as 1906"(16). "We work blackface comedian you know. Just take lamp black, some grease, put it all over your face like in those vaudeville shows... ---we all used to do that. Take flour and soot to make you dark; we had wigs we wore sometimes; we had them old high hats and them long coats and a walking cane and them button-type spats"(17). If this was "the typical minstrel show attire" as Oliver says, it was also typically English music hall. 

The travelling minstrel groups influenced music hall early on. A star of Evan's Supper Rooms, prior to 1860, who was lured to Charles Morton's New Canterbury Hall was E.W. Mackney, "the Great" Negro impersonator"(15). Following in his footsteps were artists of the 'burnt cork' such as Sam Redfern and in 1868 Herbert Campbell "...made his music hall appearance at Collins's..."(19). But overshadowing these were G.H. Chirgwin ("The White-eyed Kaffir") with “....his one-string fiddle and his high falsetto voice,(20), the blackface American Eugene Stratton and "G.H. Elliott ("The Chocolate-coloured coon") who continued the tradition...”(21). 

By the turn of the century, music hall numbers of the 'coon song' variety were being recorded in ever-increasing quantities. In 1903, Phil Ray recorded "I'm Not A Coon" and two years later "The Wail Of The Coon Singer". 1906 saw Ella Retford's "The Sun Am Shining" while in 1908 Billy Williams offered his "All Coons Look Alike To Me" (written by a black in 1896). Bessie Wentworth, though she didn't record, from 1894 featured "Looking For A Coon Like Me" "both on the halls and in musical comedy".(22). As Manders & Co. said "From the earliest times blackfaced artists had great success on the halls, and often came from the minstrel troupes which had started in the 'forties."(23). This was of course referring to the 1840's in the U.S.A. The aforementioned Eugene Stratton had come to Britain "...with Haverley's Minstrels, 1881, migrating to the halls in 1892."(24). 'Coon songs' he became famous for included "The Lily Of Laguna" and "My Little Octoroon" both recorded in 1903 and his earliest disc "Little Dolly Day Dream" as early as 1899. Back in the 1850s a Punch man told Mayhew that "A drama or dramatical performance (sic) we calls it, of the original performance of Punch. It ain't a tragedy; it's both comic and sentimental, in which way we think proper to preform (sic) it. There's comic parts, as with the Clown and Jim Crow, and cetera--" (25). Around 1856, coster mongers informed him "We are fond of music. Nigger music was very much liked among us, but it's stale now."(26). Interestingly, the coster mongers interest in 'nigger music' coincided with music hall's move to the West End of London. Perhaps casting the East End into some sort of trend-setting role! 

Although the early music halls were mainly featured in the East End and the two main sources of talent were Cockney and intriguingly, performers from Lancashire, people from all over the country and indeed the world, became music hall acts of varying degrees of quality, fame and success. These included some American singer-performers, as well as Stratton, such as May Moore Duprez, 'Happy' Fanny Fields, and Nora Bayes, who made their first appearance in London between 1900 and 1906. In 1915, three years after ragtime had become the latest craze in England, "coloured artists began to come to this country..."(27). Fannie Leslie, "though English, first appeared in America in 1872"(28), and performed in London the following year. 

Fig 2: The Versatile Three in UK, 1915

The point being that there were many opportunities for minstrelsy to make its presence felt in English music halls, and clearly there is much evidence it did so, and to some extent these visiting Americans would in turn be influenced by English music hall songs. This is even more true when we consider the case of English visitors to the U.S.--to complete the two-way traffic suggested by Pulling. Unlike the earlier English touring performers, some of these artists recorded in the States. 

This English influence had every opportunity to be felt in every nook and cranny in the U.S. via the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, etc. As Oliver said "Traveling minstrel, carnival and circus shows enabled people in even the smallest townships and remoter rural areas to hear the current songs of the day, as well as the older favourites of the minstrel tradition and from the ragtime era. In particular, with a number of the major jazz-blues and vaudeville-blues singers performing under canvas with traveling companies, there would appear to have been many occasions when songsters were able to hear them and to learn their numbers. Such singers had been recording for a few years before the songsters made records, and these issues would have offered additional opportunities for them to memorize the words and tunes."(29). Oliver here is referring to the vaudeville (nee Classic) female Blues singers who started to record in 1920; and included such luminaries as "Ma" Rainey, Bessie and Clara Smith (no relation) and Rosa Henderson, amongst scores of others. The song­sters, predominantly male, which included the rural Blues singers, did not get on record until the spring of 1924, commencing with the sole coupling by twelve-string guitarist, Ed Andrews. The latter singers were generally unable to read music (indeed Blues of this more 'raw' variety could not be accurately notated) and so could only pick up or learn songs and reshape them by oral transmission. Of course access to records greatly enhanced this process. 

By the same token, many of the English music hall singers who passed through the various towns and cities in the U.S. would have made some contribution to this oral process. Recordings by some of these singers were made in New York City as early as 1907 and would in turn have been heard by the vaudeville-blues singers, thus reinforcing what could still (in the early days of recordings) be regarded as oral transmission. The rural Blues singers, Oliver's 'songsters', would have also heard the latest songs, etc. via the medicine shows, including Big Joe Williams, Furry Lewis, (as already stated), Jim Jackson, Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon, and countless others.

In the minstrel and carnival shows, as well as the medicine shows, many Blues singers travelled the country, the former usually working in a large tent. Famous Blues pianist Leroy Carr's 1930 record of "Carried, Water For The Elephant" "...was supposedly based on a teenage interlude as a waterboy in a circus,"(30). This would have been around 1918 at the earliest. These entertain­ment phenomena were ideal for cross-fertilization of folk songs, blues, broad­side ballads, sheet music songs, vaudeville/music hall numbers, etc. 

White names in American show business were also involved in the med­icine shows in particular. As well as many early country singers, including the famous Timmie Rodgers, Oliver informs us "The comedian of the silent movies, Buster Keaton, was born of medicine show parents, the Joe Keatons, who worked the Dr. Hill's California Concert Company selling Kickapoo Magic Snake Oil; their companions on the show were Bessie and Harry Houdini. Before his "white-face" act, Buster Keaton himself played in blackface in 1896."(31). The 'product' just referred to would also be featured in the Kickapoo Medicine Show which included Gid Tanner (1885-1960) and his Skillet Lickers from north Georgia. Tanner and some of his contemporaries like Ernest V. Stoneman and Charlie Poole "were authentic countrymen, and so they sounded; but these music hall songs had a place in their repertoire just as much as the ballads and dance-tunes."(32). As Russell says "if Stratton and his disciple, G.K. Elliott, 'The Chocolate-Coloured Coon', made one kind of Americana appealing in England, there was certainly an enthusiastic response to such gems of the music hall era as "Champagne Charlie Is My Name", "If You Were The Only Girl In The World" and "She Was Poor But She Was Honest"(33). Two of these titles were popularised by 'Lion Comique' George Leybourne including "Champagne Charlie" which will be discussed at some length in the next chapter. 

As I have said, some English music hall singers, serio-comics, etc. recorded in the U.S. not long after the turn of the century. These included Vesta Victoria who did four sessions from June to August in 1907. Alice Lloyd, sister of the more famous Marie, also recorded in the same year, having three sessions in May and June. Over two years later, Albert Whelan did one title in November, 1909, and George Lashwood cut one session in the following January. Between 1909 and 1923 artists such as Harry Lauder and Joe Hayman also cut discs in the States. All of these records were made in New York City. Lauder also made records every two years from 1916-1928 in Camden, New Jersey. Julian Rose seems to be the ear­liest recorded artist in New York, in 1903 and did several later sessions up to 1921. 

Many more performers from the English music halls visited the United States in the hey-day of the music hall (1890-1914), even if they did not record there. These included Albert Chevalier, Bessie Bonehill, Cissie Loftus and Lottie Collins. The latter toured the U.S. in 1891 where she first heard the song "Ta-ra­ra-BOOM-de-ay" with which she was always to be associated. Busby tells us "The American origins of the song are obscure, having its roots in the negro folk music of the deep south."(34). It was heard in St. Louis, Missouri, "with the re­frain "Tin-a-ling-a-ling boomderay".(35). St. Louis was to become one of the major Blues centres in the first decades of the 20th. century and some Blues by St. Louis-based singers invoking earlier music hall themes will be discussed in Chapter III. 

Bessie Bellwood "one of the greatest music hall comediennes,"(36), visited "America in 1895, scoring a great hit at Koster and Bial's Music Hall, New York,"(37). She "...started out as a rabbit skinner in the New Cut near Bermondsey, singing Irish ballads at night in obscure free-and-easies; later she became best known as a singer of comic Cockney songs."(38). Her most famous song was "What Cheer 'Ria" from 1887. In 1893, Ada Reeve "...first went to America as a star..."(39), and subsequently included the States in a series of world tours, starting in 1906. G.H. Elliott (1882-1962) spent most of the first seventeen years of his life in the U.S. until 1899, while on her several tours in the U.S.A., Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) "was perhaps the greatest success of any English artist either from our theatres or the music halls."(40). As well as her New York rec­ordings, Vesta Victoria's "...first great success was in 1893 when the song 'Daddy Wouldn't Buy me a Bow Wow' established her at the top of the bill both in the U.K. and the U.S.A. In America she toured in vaudeville for a total of six years, sing­ing her numbers with an audacious mixture of coy innocence and innocuous innuendo." (41). If Vesta's touring commenced with her New York recording sessions, she could have been in the city when vaudeville-Blues singer Mamie Smith who was borne in 1884, was first there; as at the age of "...twenty-nine, in 1913, she had arrived at Harlem" (42). 

In addition to this English 'invasion', well-known ventriloquist (at the time) Walter Lambert, was also a painter and one of his greatest achievements was his "wonderful composite picture, entitled "Popularity". It contains faithful portraits of every variety artist male and female at all known or popular at the time of the painting, namely 1903."(43). Newton adds that this painting "...has also penetrated to the United States, as so many artists depicted therein have been known, and have become more or less popular."(44). 

It is readily apparent, from the foregoing, that the influence of English music hall songs had plenty of opportunities to make itself felt, not only in New York but throughout the U.S. including the Deep South. This would be partly achieved by recordings and also live performances by visiting English artists. This influence is reflected in an advertisement for Victor records in their catalogue c.I903. (see Fig. 3.). The latter lists two songs "If You Love Your Baby, Make Goo Goo Eyes" and "Just Because She Made dem Goo Goo Eyes", both recorded by blackface singer Arthur Collins. The second song with 'Them' substit­uted for 'dem', was recorded by "Belle Davies & Her Picannines" (sic) in London in March of the previous year. It may well be, as Russell postulates, that songs such as these were picked up by whites in the States, from travelling English music hall artists, and then become part of the 'common stock' shared with black singers; as with the leader of the illustrious Cannon's Jug Stompers (1928-30), Gus Cannon. The latter, in his "Can You Blame The Colored Man" of 1927, which is a light-hearted dig at black leader, Booker T. Washingtom's visit to the White House in 1901 with President Roosevelt, utilises the Belle Davies title:

"Now Booker T. he left Tuskegee (sic)

to the White House he went one day,

He was goo' to call on the President in a quiet and sociable way.

He was in his car? sure was feelin' fine."


"Now of Booker knocked on the President's door,

of Booker he began to glimpse.

Now he almost changes color when Roosevelt said to come in;

"we'll have some dinner, in a little while."

Now, could you blame the colored man,

for making them goo-goo eyes?"(45). 

Fig 3: Victor Catalogue, 1903. Only Bert Williams is a black artist

But if the main routes of English music hall songs to black communities in the U.S.A. were via New York recording sessions and nationwide tours in the States, they were not the only routes. Another possible one was back in London, on the River Thames, in fact. In the easier nineteenth century there existed a particular type of trader known as river beer-sellers or 'purl-men'. According to Mayhew, the ... river-dealers boast of an antiquity as old as the naval commerce of the country."(46). Using skiff-like craft, the purl-men serve a diverse range of customers with alcohol, on the river. This is mainly to customers who need a drink while performing their tasks. Much refreshed, this then gives them the inner strength to finish the job. A list of these customers includes ... the 'lumpers', or those engaged in discharging the timber ships, the 'stevedores', or those engaged in stowing craft; and the 'riggers', or those engaged in rigging them; ballast-heavers, ballast-getters, corn-porters, coal-whippers, watermen and lightermen,"(47). Mayhew adds that although coal-porters unloading barges or ships moored at the river side, where there are pubs, "nevertheless, when hard worked and pressed for time, frequently avail themselves of the presence of the purl-men to quench their thirst, and to stimulate them to further exertion." (48). 

The name 'purl' apparently comes from the seventeenth century and was applied to a mixture of wormwood and ale, "to make it sufficiently bitter, or for some medicinal purpose."(49). But by 1856 the wormwood had disappeared from the recipe and purl became "...beer warmed to nearly boiling heat, and flavoured with gin, sugar and ginger."(50). There were two or three other river-vendors who did not possess a skiff or were not granted a licence, who just walked on to a ship or barge selling mainly spirits from a "flat tin bottle". One of these was well-known to captains and crews alike. An Irishman referred to as "'old D--­(Dan?) the whiskey man', as he is called,"(51).. It is tempting to link 'old D--' with a character in a Bo Carter song recorded some 85 years later.

"I taken my baby to the whiskey stand,

She fell on 'er face about the whiskey man.

I'm talkin' about the little sweet girl of mine."(52).

But it is more likely that this Blues from the Mississippi singer uses the term 'whiskey man' by sheer coincidence--or does it? Be that as it may, these unofficial river-sellers were known to the purl-men but the latter never interfered with them. 

Mayhew confesses he could not find any purl-men who knew what the term meant. Apart from one definition which reads "mixture of hot beer and gin."(53), there is another in the form of a verb "flow with gentle rippling sound”.(54). A check with Roget's reveals that 'to flow' is to "...meander; gush; pour;... stream, overflow, ... babble, bubble, purl, gurgle .... "(55), amongst many others and clearly reveals that a 'purl-man' is literally a "flow-man" or "man of the river". Intriguingly, Roget's work originally came out the year after Mayhew first published his epic "London's Labour and London’s Poor" in 1851. 

In any event the purl-men would have been in the habit of frequenting the early music halls, free-and-easies and sing-songs in the East End. Just as much as the costermongers, the chaunters and various other groups of street traders and entertainers. The purl-men, "...sitting in their boat and rowing leisurely about... "(56), would have had the time and inclination? to sing snatches of the ditties they picked up in the music halls and would have been overheard by their customers. Some of the latter would have been from foreign ports including the United States. These customers, by definition, included sailors "...on board the corn, coal and timber ships;"(57). By oral transmission, songs would have been carried back to the U.S. This would be a possible avenue for the sea shanties and indeed Hugill in his study of the latter says "According to Sharp the pop­ular Victorian song 'Champagne Charlie' was often utilised as a capstan shanty." (58). Sharp is the famous folk song collector at the turn of the century, Cecil Sharp. The case for the shanties will be considered in a further dissertation "Blues At Sea". 

Whichever route they took, English music hall songs and their themes, made their presence felt in the Blues in the earlier decades of the twentieth century; as we shall see in the next chapter. 


1.Russell.T. p.12.
2.Mander & Mitchenson. ibid. p.38,
3.Busby. ibid. p.41.
4.Ibid. p.42.
6.Russell. ibid.
7.Pulling. C .p,132.
8.Ibid. p112.
11.Amis.K. & J. Cochrane. p.212.
12.Pulling. ibid. p.132.
13.Oliver. P.p,13. "The Story etc.
14.Ibid. p .58.
15.Oliver. P. p.95. "Songsters etc.
16.Ibid. p.99.
18.Pulling. ibid. p181 .
19.Ibid. p.187.
20.Ibid. p.p.203-204.
21.Ibid. p.204.
22.Manders & Mitchenson. ibid. No.106.
23.Ibid. No.104.
25.Mayhew. ibid. p.454.
26.Ibid. p.43.
27.Mander & Mitchenson .ibid. No.227.
28.Ibid. No.111.
29.Oliver. ibid. p.81. "Songsters etc.
30.Calt & co.
31.Oliver. ibid. p.89.
32.Russell. ibid. p.p.13-14.
33.Ibid. p.p.12-13.
34.Busby. ibid. p.38.
36.Ibid. p.23.
38.Vicinus. ibid.p.262.
39.Mander & Mitchenson. ibid. Nos.98,99, p100.
40.Newton. ibid. p.123,
41.Busby. ibid. p.176.
42.Stewart-Baxter. ibid. p.11.
43.Newton. ibid. p.184.
45.Cannon. G.
46.Mayhew. ibid. p.269.
47.Ibid. p.268.
48.Ibid. p.269.
51.Ibid. p.272.
52.Carter. B.
53.Dictionary. p.571.
54.Ibid. p;570.
55.Roget. P.M. p.111.
56.Mayhew. ibid, p.270.
57.Ibid. p.268.
58.Hugill. S. p.562.


Fig.1. Oliver.P."Story etc. p.56.
Fig.2. Mander & Mitchenson.
Fig.3. Russell. T. p.19.


Chapter III - The English Music Hall and The Blues

Website © Copyright 2001-2008 Alan  White. All Rights Reserved.
Text (this page) © Copyright 1992 Max Haymes. All Rights Reserved.
For further information please email: alan.white@earlyblues.com