Andy Razaf, Race, and Double Consciousness

A bully with a gun doesn’t always get the art he orders.

New York gangster Dutch Schultz invested in a show at Connie’s Inn, a Harlem nightclub catering to wealthy whites and serving booze during prohibition. Gangsters profited enormously from such clubs during prohibition, and nothing brought in the profits like famous entertainers on the bill. The show at Connie’s Inn was called “Hot Chocolates” and it featured the biggest names in jazz – Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Edith Wilson. The show contained the soon-to-be-famous Waller-Razaf composition “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, but Schultz wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a song that allowed the audience to laugh at the expense of black people. Perhaps he imagined that such a reaction from the audience would generate more profits; perhaps he was just mean-spirited. He ordered Razaf to write “a song about a ‘colored girl’ singing about how hard it is to be black.” [Singer]

Andy Razaf, like his grandfather John Waller (no relation to Razaf’s writing partner, Fats Waller), made the most of his opportunities for advancement. John Waller had worked his way from slavery to become U.S. consul to Madagascar. Andy Razaf had worked his way from elevator operator in the Brill Building to become a significant lyricist in Tin Pan Alley at a time when few blacks worked on Broadway or in publishing. He wasn’t about to demean himself, but he couldn’t ignore the gun Dutch Schultz shoved in his face.

Razaf wrote:

Brown and yellows / All have fellows
Gentlemen prefer them light

Old empty bed / Springs hard as lead
Feel like old Ned / Wish I was dead
All my life through I’ve been so black and blue

Even the mouse / Ran from my house
They laugh at you / and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I’m white inside / But that don’t help my case
‘Cuz I can’t hide / What is in my face

How will it end / Ain’t got a friend
My only sin / Is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

These lyrics offer a double message – one for patronizing white audiences, another for blacks and sympathetic whites. The first stanza furnishes the narrative context for the song, a woman’s lament over lost love. Louis Armstrong deletes it, thus changing the meaning of the song so that it only makes sense as a commentary on the plight of blacks in general. The line, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” refers to being very black (color) and very blue (mood). But it also means, What did I do to get the shit beaten out of me?

The next verse, “Old empty bed/ Springs hard as lead/ Feel like old Ned/ Wish I was dead” means My lover is gone from my bed, but it also means, I’m so poor, my bed has no sheets and blankets.

The rest of the song offers similar double messages. When Armstrong performs pop songs, he “doubles” the messages in his performance just as Razaf does in his lyrics. Louis had a gun pulled on him too (in Chicago) and he knew what to say to keep his skin, but he never stopped communicating to his core audience.

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