Picture this, if you dare: Ivie Anderson is on stage at the Cotton Club in 1937, backed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The production number begins and Ivie sings, “There’s an old plantation in the beautiful South. On that old plantation, the place I’m longin’ to be!”
The sound of African American vocalists singing poignant and nostalgic paeans about the Old South, as odd as it sounds, was a part of “pop culture” during the 1930s and 1940s. Remember that Louis Armstrong’s theme was “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and that black musicians recorded such tunes as “Alabamy Bound,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Dear Old Southland,” and many others. I suppose that, in the big picture, it was meant to remind people of what had been, and then subtly what could be again if you don’t watch your step.
When you throw older songs by composers like Stephen Foster into the mix, the output of this type of music is enormous. Stephen Foster’s music was especially attractive to Soundies producers since the music was in the public domain and it could be used without any royalty payments. Hence, we have the Charioteers, one of the finest black vocal harmony groups of the 1940s, singing “Oh Susannah” and “Ring De Banjo.”
The discomfort caused by the visual imagery notwithstanding, this is a fine musical performance by the Charioteers, a vocal harmony group led by sterling tenor vocalist Billy Daniels. The group had been organized at Wilberforce College in Ohio in the early 1930s. Under the leadership of Wilfred “Billy” Williams, the Charioteers originally sang gospel music. Many of the group’s early recordings were in the gospel tradition, but when the Charioteers moved to the Columbia label in the late-1930s they began recording more pop material. They had their own radio programs during the 1930s and were regulars on Rudy Vallée’s Royal Gelatin Hour. Beginning in the fall of 1942, the Charioteers were featured regularly on the Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall.
In 1950 the group disbanded, with Williams forming a new group, the Billy Williams Quartet. Williams continued as a solo artist, passing away in 1972. But dig the group, and Billy in particular. The material might not be the finest, but Billy William’s tenor lead, and the blend of the group, is quite amzing.