I’ve mentioned elsewhere that while no racial group was free from animus and stereotype in the World of Soundies, African Americans bore the brunt where racist imagery and content were concerned. This subject is, sad to say, is mild compared to other Soundies.
Trust me … if I walked into the kitchen one night and saw a ghost eating at the table, or if I returned from doing errands and encountered a skeleton dancing in the hall, I would be out of there faster than you could say, well, “Delta Rhythm Boys.” My guess is the same would happen with you, too. Yet, for some reason a film stereotype developed in the silent era, and persisted into the 1950s, where African Americans were the ones frightened by ghosts and skeletons and other inhabitants of old dark houses. (This visual trope dogged the great comedian Mantan Moreland throughout the 1940s … as if the white movie goers wouldn’t also soil themselves if they were in his place.)
It was the dancing skeleton that briefly terrorizes comedian Dewey Brown that made me think of this Soundie as Halloween approaches. And while the disturbing imagery is there, so is the fabulous vocal talent of the Delta Rhythm Boys. While some compare them to the Mills Brothers, I have always felt they were an equally important musical presence, a bit less jazz-oriented than the early Mills Brothers, but in terms of sound and approach a bit more soulful and gospel influenced. The song “Dry Bones” is in fact based on a traditional Black spiritual, although composer credit is often given to James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosmond Johnson. The quartet includes Traverse Crawford, tenor voice; Clinton Holland, tenor voice; Harry Lewis, baritone
voice; and Otho “Lee” Gaines, bass voice. At the piano is the group’s long-time accompanist, Rene DeKnight.