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Davis, Gussie Lord(1863–1899) - Composer, lyricist, entrepreneur, Early Career Path, Songwriting Successes, Chronology

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Gussie Lord Davis’s professional career covered less than twenty years (roughly from 1880 to 1899). Arguably the first black songwriter to have great success on Tin Pan Alley, New York City’s foremost center for the publication and circulation of seemingly unending streams of popular songs, Davis wrote over six hundred songs in a standardized formula that was very well received by music lovers at the time. Davis’s standard fare featured sentimental ballads, often in waltz time that stressed a sweet sadness. Usually, they were melodramatic songs with a lyrical twist that was capable of bringing tears to listeners’ eyes. The stories fueled harmonic tension followed by a consequent relaxed mood, expressing the song’s texture. The themes often sprang from ordinary experiences shared by his audience, as is clear from their titles: “Beneath the Maple on the Hill,” “Down in Poverty Row,” “Irene, Good Night,” and so on.

Early Career Path

Davis’s path to achievement was arduous; he started with little preparation as a lyricist, but a driving urge to express his thoughts and learn his craft well. Initially, he met resistance when he applied and was refused admission to study music formally at the Nelson Musical College. In a compromise, he took a job at the college as a janitor for a nominal salary and worked several years in return for private music lessons. An able student, he soon became proficient as a pianist and composer. Davis’s first published song, “Beneath the Maple on the Hill,” was very promising. Confident in its merit, he agreed to pay for its initial publication. Published in 1880 by the firm of F. W. Helmick of Cincinnati, the song was successful enough to encourage Davis to continue writing, and many new songs followed.

One of his first professional acquaintances was James E. Stewart of Cincinnati, composer of “Cricket on the Hearth,” and “Jenny, the Flower of Kildare” (composed about 1884). Davis credits Stewart as an important influence, passing on valuable knowledge of the craft of songwriting to Davis. Stewart, unfortunately, died soon after they became colleagues.

Songwriting Successes

An important success for Davis came with the publication of “The Fatal Wedding” in 1894 by Spaulding, Koruder, & Co. of New York, with words by William Windom, a popular singer of the day. Fitting Davis’s thematic model, “The Fatal Wedding” tells the story of a young mother intervening at a wedding to protest that the groom-to-be is the father of her child and asking that the wedding be cancelled. Events take a tragic turn with the announcement that the baby has died, followed by the suicide of the child’s father. The tragedy has an ironic resolution, however, as the two women (the wife and the bereaved young mother) leave together in the company of the abandoned wife’s parents. The song remained popular well into the twentieth century, being recorded on both OKEH and Edison labels in 1927 by country music artist Ernest Stoneman.

A somewhat similar plot is used in what was probably Davis’s biggest success, “In the Baggage Coach Ahead” (1896). The lyrics tell of a baby crying aloud on a train, causing anxiety among the passengers. On inquiry, the travelers learn that the baby’s tears are shed for his deceased mother, who is in “the baggage coach ahead” lying in a coffin. Davis, working for the railroad at the time, was told the story by a porter. The song was published in New York by Howley, Havilland and sold perhaps a million copies.

Another prominent songwriter who was very influential in Davis’s development, George Propheter, published numerous songs by Davis, including “Irene, Good Night” (1886), “’Neath the Maples Long Ago” (1886),“The Court House in the Sky” (1887),and “Do the Old Folks Miss Me?” (1887). Incidentally, “Irene, Good Night,” is similar in structure and lyrics to a song with the same title sung by several major artists, including Hudie Ledbetter, Josh White, and many others in the folk revival of the 1950s, 1960s, and later. This later song is also a waltz, and the overall theme is similar, but the melody is not the same, and the song speaks to a different era.

Chronology

1863

Born in Dayton, Ohio on December 3

1878

Moves to Cincinnati

1880

Publishes first song, “Beneath the Maple on the Hill”

1886

Begins work as staff composer for George Propheter

1893

Publishes first hit song, “Fatal Wedding”

1895

Wins second prize for “Take Back the Picture and the Ring,” in New York World songwriting contest

1896

Publishes his biggest hit, “In the Baggage Coach Ahead,” which sells about one million copies

1899

Writes and directs own show, A Hot Time in Old Dixie ; takes show on tour in Midwest; dies in Whitestone, New York on October 18

Davis worked under contract for George Propheter for about seven years, moving to New York with his wife, taking up residence there, and becoming well known as one of Tin Pan Alley’s best composers. He was among the ten top songwriters named to compete in a song contest in 1895, sponsored by the New York World . Davis took second prize in the contest, winning $500 in gold for his song, “Send Back the Picture and the Ring,” published in 1896 by New York Music.

Davis published several other songs, including “The Dear Folks at Home” (1881); “The Light House by the Sea” (1886); “We Never Meet, ’Tis Better So” (1897); and “Down in Poverty Row” (1896), the cover of which featured one of the divas of the day, Bonnie Thornton.

In addition to his songwriting, Davis was also an entrepreneur. He formed the Davis Operatic and Plantation Minstrels and toured with this company successfully several times during his career. His last endeavor, in fact, was a staged musical, “A Hot Time in Old Dixie.” The show was rehearsed in 1899 and successfully launched on a national tour. Unfortunately, though, Davis fell ill and had to leave the remaining performances in charge of his partner, Tom McIntosh. Davis died at his home in Whitestone, New York, on October 18, 1899.

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1928–) - History of France and Early Modern Europe [next] [back] Davis, Gordon J.(1941–) - Lawyer, business executive, Chronology

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