This may well have been the first old pop song I worked out for myself on guitar, and I played it regularly on the street in Harvard Square with Rob Forbes on washboard. Indeed, it was Rob who taught me the verse and helped me work out the chords to it, following the melody he recalled — I don’t know where he’d heard it, and in those days before the internet I had no idea how to find sheet music or a recording of the verse, since all the books I found in stores or in the library had only the chorus.
“Darktown Strutters’ Ball” was one of the biggest hits of the teens, published in 1917 and composed by Shelton Brooks, who had hit back in 1909 with “You Ain’t Talking to Me,” followed in 1911 by the wildly popular “Some of These Days,” then “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” and the dance craze hit “Walkin’ the Dog.” Brooks went on to have a fairly successful recording career in the 1920s, starting with “The Darktown Court Room,” but is little remembered today in that context because on records he was primarily a “monologuist” (what we’d now call a comedian) rather than a singer, and his monologues tended to be in exaggerated blackface minstrel dialect — an even more distant affectation than usual for an African American performer, since he was born and grew up in Ontario, Canada. Brooks was also popular as a stage comedian, known for his imitation of Bert Williams, who reputedly saw him perform and commented, “If I’m as funny as that, I got nothing to worry about.” You can get a taste of his style from the one surviving film clip of him in performance, made in 1939, in which he sings a variation on the Strutters’ Ball theme, “Hole in the Wall.”
According to some reports, “Darktown Strutters” was inspired by an annual ball in Chicago that was kind of a modern equivalent of the medieval carnivals of misrule, financed by wealthy society folk but with a guest list of pimps and prostitutes. On the other hand, Brooks told Ian Whitcomb that he wrote the song after hearing a story about an ordinary working stiff who got “an invitation to an affair to be given by the local pimps. A big ball. All a mistake and he should never have been asked.” As far as I can find, this event was not called the Darktown Strutters’ Ball, but I guess that seemed like a more marketable title than “Pimps and Hookers Ball.”
Howard Armstrong, with whom I played this song for several years in the 1990s, took it back to its roots by following the straight chorus with a truly filthy parody — though he did not tend to perform that version onstage. If you care to check it out, be warned: the language is as raw as can be, an apt reminder of all the folklore of the jazz and blues world that never got recorded due to prudery, and hence the mistaken impression that modern gangsta rappers use nastier language than their great-grandparents used in the 1920s.
I haven’t performed this song in decades because it feels weird — at best — to be a white guy singing about going to the “Darktown” ball… for a while I tried changing the lyric to “Uptown Strutters Ball,” but that felt differently weird, since it’s a well-known song and that’s the title phrase. The odd thing is that in all the years I sang this on the street and sometimes in clubs, no one ever suggested it might be in any way offensive to anybody, or that I might want to think about what I was singing… which just shows how white my audiences have tended to be and what an amazingly sheltered life white people tend to lead in this great land of ours.