Doing It and Doing It and Doing It Well

Dale Cockrell, "Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York 1840-1917" (2019, 270 pp.)

Share

Dale Cockrell is a Vanderbilt musicology professor emeritus whose 1997 Demons of Disorder is among the finest books on what it subtitles “Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World.” Although Cockrell grew up in Louisville and taught mostly in Nashville, Demons of Disorder takes place principally in New York, where in 1843 the short-lived Virginia Minstrels kicked off a fad for the laff-a-minute blackface bands that proved a staple of American show business for the rest of the 19th century and beyond. The book’s star exhibit is its extended portrait of blackface minstrel, concert singer, newspaper fly-by-nighter, marathon walker, and all-around hustler George Washington Dixon. But it’s just as memorable for how stubbornly, compassionately, and skillfully Cockrell mines court records and old newspapers to document an impoverished neighborhood in a New York where race-mixing alarmed the rich far more than it did the “common” classes, some of whom intermarried in defiance of state “amalgamation” laws and went to prison for it.

After he left Vanderbilt, border-stater Cockrell relocated to the secular humanist hellhole I call home, and wrote his Demons of Disorder follow-up, Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music and Dance in New York, 1840-1917. I began it looking forward to learning more about Demons of Disorder’s musical world, and for 40 pages or so it delivered. There’s yet more on the endlessly outrageous Dixon, who deserves it, but the revelation is three other journalists. One is future Virginia Minstrels manager George Wooldridge, who accompanied Charles Dickens on his multiple nights exploring musically happening joints in the Five Points neighborhood of the deep Lower East Side, which Wooldridge recounted in detail and Dickens would condense into a single incomparable one-page description of the doomed Black dance genius William Henry “Juba” Lane and his fiddle-tambourine-footstomp accompaniment, a high point of the fiction star’s fact-filled American Notes. Another is rock critic in potentia George Goodrich Foster, a trained flautist and born bohemian who documented the lowdown, interracial Five Points scene with equal parts colorful exaggeration and ingrained respect. And then there’s a risque chronicler who was probably pulp novelist George Thompson but signed himself “Asmodeus,” after the Zoroastrian “demon king of lust.”

Give a gift subscription

Soon Asmodeus leads Cockrell’s narrative down a more scandalous path signalled by the lead sentence of his chapter’s final paragraph: “Prostitution in midcentury New York was an obvious, even accepted, part of the New York landscape.” Sure Cockrell’s home subject remains the “wild music pouring out of brothels, saloons, and dance halls.” But as the rest of the book bore down on the sex business, I sometimes found myself zoning out. In the Five Points chapter dancing couples hop in and out of bunks that line the saloon or retire to back rooms, jolly rolls in the hay I found both warming and charming whatever their cash basis. But once vice crusaders replace ribald journalists as Cockrell’s primary sources, the pleasures he describes dry up—the sex is all about the money, because sex for money was the target of obsessed bluenoses like postal inspector Anthony Comstock and Presbyterian clergymen Charles Henry Parkhurst, both of whom campaigned against not just sexual freedom but women’s rights for four decades ending shortly before World War I.

Of course music was featured not just in relatively respectable “concert saloons” but in joints regularly designated “dives,” a newly coined noun that began its life as the verb reporters used to describe their descent into cellar bars like those Dickens explored—bars where dancing was expected to lead to the harder stuff. But in Cockrell’s rendering of the later 19th century, musical details are scant. Scattered mentions indicate that pianos usually came with the territory, singing too; violins often and accordions occasionally joined in; if not minstrel tambourines then at least foot-stomping must often have accentuated the percussive bent of piano bangers so barbaric they left vice-fighting investigators lost for words. Race-mixing among musicians certainly occurs, and white singers who specialize in minstrel material cork up as in days of old. But for the detectives Comstock and Parkhurst put in motion these details were incidental. Their job was to feign sexual interest (not, their paymasters hoped, merely suppress it, and never, heaven forfend, indulge it) in the “pretty little waiter girls” and dollar-a-dance partners they talked up until the woman named her price and the hired dick squirmed out of the deal, often by pleading VD.

Some of the statistics the crusaders came up with are dumbfounding. Supposedly 12 percent of urban Union Civil War veterans bore syphilis or gonorrhea scars in this pre-antibiotic era. And a relatively authoritative report estimated that by 1912 15,000 prostitutes turning an average of 10 tricks a day were working in Manhattan. The borough’s population in 1910 was two million, half it presumably male and let’s say a fifth pre-pubescent, although by then the subway was bringing in so many commuters we can figure a total of a million potential customers all told, maybe more. Still, we’re asked to conclude that some hundred fifty thousand of these guys, one in seven or maybe eight or even nine were buying sex every day. That’s a whole lot of rent-a-fuck. Were the Victorian mores of post-Puritan America so stifling that marital sex dried up once its procreative function was over and done with?

Submit an Xgau Sez question

Cockrell too raises his eyebrows at these numbers, and by means of sources ranging from official reports to the occasional magazine piece to Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets does what he can to humanize the specific women and girls who chose or fell into the business. But I’m thankful that when he reaches the 20th century the musical details start picking up again. By now there’s a recognizable pop music business including the songsmiths of West 28th Street’s Tin Pan Alley as well as primitive sound recording and even motion picture technology. Thought of as a theatrical specialty, the originally French cancan was a dancehall commonplace in New York, and by the turn of the century what was called “tough dancing” was all the rage in countless New York City venues, especially those frequented by the young; there’s even film of it. African-American-derived “animal dances” like the bunny hug and the turkey trot were all the rage, although Cockrell fails to note the polite and soon universal fox trot African-American bandleader James Reese Europe devised for dance superstars Vernon and Irene Castle.

In fact, although he never says as much, an underlying implication of Cockrell's argument would seem to be that the dancehall crackdowns the sex-sniffing Committee of Fourteen had succeeded in making law by 1917 (law that included severe restrictions on interracial socializing) created a virtual vacuum that made the rock and roll of the late ‘50s look more unprecedented than it actually was. To an extent, this is true, though given the Charleston craze of the Prohibition ‘20s and the lindy-hopping geniuses of the Harlem ‘30s I’d say that what distinguished rock and roll was how demotic and purely rhythm-driven it was, not how wild or even sexual. Nor do I give much credence to the Darwinian reflections on mating rituals Cockrell ties his historiography up with. But with sex and popular music joined at the hip in what looks like perpetuity, his book is guaranteed to help us parse what that means for a long time to come.