Camping and Vamping Across Borders: Locating Cabaret Singers in the Black Cultural Spectrum
Popel Shaw Center
Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century
When historians document black popular music production, cabaret singers such as Pearl Bailey, Mae Barnes, Jimmie Daniels, Eartha Kitt, Mabel Mercer, and Bobby Short are rarely included. Other than a brief excerpt in Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans: A History, you would not know that black performers were central to the genre. Comparatively, black performers figure very heavily into James Gavin's definitive 1991 account of mid-twentieth-century New York cabaret culture, Intimate Nights. The genre, however, has a deep and underexplored role in providing professional opportunities for black performers during the 1920s to the 1950s, when the genre thrived.
This omission overlooks the significant impact of these performers as recording artists, concert performers, cabaret fixtures, actors, and political actors. Their absence from the black popular music canon reflects a perceived gap between cabaret and black aesthetics, notably the dominance of "soul" as the defining lens for framing black cultural production. In Soul Babies, Mark Anthony Neal defines "soul" as "the most vivid and popular expression of an African-American modernity." He notes how
soul challenged the prevailing logic of white supremacy and segregation in ways that were disconcerting and even grotesque to some, regardless of race or ethnicity. Premised on the construction of 'positive' black images that could be
juxtaposed against the overextended influence of Western caricatures of black
life, the soul aesthetic dramatically altered the projects of Harlem Renaissance
artist and critics by sanctioning both vernacular and popular expression largely
valued within the black community without concern for the reactions of
mainstream critics or institutions.
Stephens, Vincent. "Camping and Vamping Across Borders: Locating Cabaret Singers in the Black Cultural Spectrum." In Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Simone C. Drake and Dwan K. Henderson, 58-76. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.