African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920


  • Timeline
    • 1865-1910

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The Development of an African-American Musical Theatre 1865-1910


Abyssinia (1906)

Williams and Walker's next effort was Abyssinia, in 1906. It featured music by Will Marion Cook and Bert Williams, and the book and lyrics were by Jesse A. Shipp and Alex Rogers, and is another in their series of "African" musicals.

The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1907)

In 1907, Cole and Johnson produced a musical notable for its subject matter. The Shoo-Fly Regiment concerned African-American soldiers in the Spanish-American war, and avoided the minstrel stereotyping and caricaturings still expected in the musical comedy stage. The play also included a romantic element treated seriously, rather than comically, another departure for the time.

Bandana Land (1908)

Williams and Walker's last musical together was the 1908 Bandana Land; Walker fell ill in 1909 and died in 1911. Williams went on to star in the Ziegfeld Follies for many years, and was the only African-American performer to appear in the show until many years later. Bandana Land was a departure from the usual "back to Africa" formula, in that it was set in the United States. The cast included Aida Overton Walser, Alex Rogers, and J. Leubrie Hill in addition to Williams and Walker. Many well-known African composers contributed to the score, including Chris Smith, Cecil Mack, and Tom Lemonier.

The Red Moon (1909)

Cole and Johnson's 1909 The Red Moon is noteworthy in that it involved characters of both African Americans and Native Americans. Like The Shoo-Fly Regiment, The Red Moon moved away from stereotypical conventions, and included a serious romantic theme. The bandleader James Reese Europe contributed songs to the show, which included in its cast Abbie Mitchell, Aida Overton Walker, and Sam Lucas.

After 1910, the African-American musical stage, so lively and brilliant for a few short years, suffered a decline that lasted about a decade. Many of the key players had died: notably, George Walker, Bob Cole, and Ernest Hogan were gone from the scene. Bert Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies, where he starred for many years.

However, during this time, African-American composers continued to make significant contributions to the musical theatre and to popular music in general. Ragtime songs were followed by the beginnings of jazz and blues, paving the way for the resurgence of the stage in the 1920s, with the work of Sissle and Blake, Creamer and Layton, Maceo Pinkard, and others.


Some items in this presentation are from the Historic American Sheet Music collection from Duke University, another award winner in the Library of Congress / Ameritech National Digital Library Competition.

In preparing this presentation, several reference sources were invaluable. They are:

Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. A Century of Musicals in Black and White. An Encyclopedia of Musical Stage Works by, about, or Involving African Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theatre. From Coontown to Dreamgirls. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.


Cover of sheet music

descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "I think an awful lot of you;" Shoo-fly regiment. 1907.

Cover of sheet music

descriptive record icon enlarge image icon "I'm just crazy 'bout you: novelty song." Words by Maurice Stonehill; music by James Brachman. 1904.

Cover of sheet music

descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Sophie Tucker.
[Detail] "The darktown strutters' ball." Words and music by Shelton Brooks. 1917.