The amount of talent found in Soundies is astonishing, and even more so when one recognizes that many of these performers are totally unknown today. In our Soundie, Sleep Kentucky Babe, the African American vocal trio, Day, Dawn and Dusk overlays parody upon parody, turning a minstrel-style song into something subversive and hip.

The performance by Day, Dawn and Dusk, with its complicated arrangement, and impeccable and precise presentation, would be hard to recreate today! The trio was active throughout the 1940s, and into the 1950s, and was an audience favorite on the black variety circuit. Dancer Mable Lee told me, “Day, Dawn and Dusk, they were wonderful and so very professional. I worked with them at the Apollo and other clubs in New York…. They showed up ready to work, everything set for the show. People loved their classical routines, but they could also do other material, and when they did, they would really swing.”

While most black vocal harmony groups followed the lead of the Mills Brothers, Day, Dawn and Dusk headed in another direction. They did sing popular tunes, of course, but their forte was comic interpretations of classical, operatic, or “traditional” themes. “Sleep Kentucky Babe,” by white songwriters Adam Geibel and Richard Henry Buck, was part acknowledgment, part parody and caricature, of an African American lullaby. The song was performed by Blacks and Whites alike and was a hit in 1896. The sentimental nature of the song, however, is undercut by the use of such words and phrases as “coon” and “kinky woolly head.”

But not so in this version. Set in a well-appointed living room, with the group members nattily dressed – this includes “Bot” Simons, the baby – the trio overlays parody upon parody, making a mockery of the original lyrics. Our “Kentucky babe” does not want milk! He wants “some kosher corn beef … Chinese chop suey, Irish stew, chili beans, and bacon.” 

The words and presentation of this subversion of minstrel-style performance are important to recognize. They clearly show how Soundies could ridicule an element of white culture that would not be acceptable in most Hollywood commercial features. But also pay close attention to the intricacy and artistry of the performance. As I said earlier, it would be hard to recreate today!