Darktown Strutters Ball . . .where context is important

The song Darktown Strutters Ball has always puzzled me. Not so much the song itself, which we’ll get into, but rather the term “Darktown.” Yet context makes a difference as you’ll hear when you start my show (click the arrow in the box below).

First, thank you Azizi Powell, a blogger that chronicles African American culture, for her hard work in pulling together the information about this song that allowed me to be comfortable enough to feature it on my show. Here’s her article.

Shelton Brooks

Shelton Brooks, a Canadian-born composer who settled in Detroit, wrote some great hits, back in the day when music success was measured by how many sheets of the music you sold. Darktown Strutters Ball sold over three million copies. But coming out at the infancy of recorded music, the song was an early hit for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — the all-white New Orleans band that capitalized early on what is not-so-arguably an African American creation.

Ms. Powell’s research indicates that there most likely really was a “Darktown Strutters Ball” and it was, as the lyrics suggest, a coveted ticket to have. Like any good song, the listener can find many reasons to associate with it. The opportunity to get dressed up and go out on the town. The date night. The dancing.

Using the word “darktown” to refer to a community of color is not appropriate. But in the context of this song it seems to be okay, though some bands have chosen to not use the term in the song. Which is okay too. It’s a song with a catchy melody, danceable beat and the chorus has a great vibe to it. I won’t belabor this point because you should either listen to my show or read Ms. Powell’s article (or both!).

You will hear five versions of the song. And I was showing some restraint. I feature Treme Brass Band, Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Young Olympians and Lena Prima. But you’ll also hear other songs, several about dancing, as well. Thanks for tuning in and consider subscribing. Cheers.


Author: Tim Sweeney

Host of Sweeney's Gumbo YaYa - a two-hour radio show that featured the music of New Orleans. It aired from September 2014 through March 2022, broadcast live on KAOS in Olympia and as a recording KMRE Bellingham and some Pacifica Network stations. Maintaining blog for a while longer.

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