Blank Space: The Unrecoverable Voices of Florence Mills

On a cold evening in late January, 1926, the Aeolian Hall, the upper-story concert venue of a piano store on West 42nd Street, hosted an evening of performances by the International Composers Guild, an organization formed five years earlier by Edgard Varèse and Carlos Salzedo to promote new concert music from Europe and the Americas. Normally, Guild performances were low-key, sparsely-attended affairs, in which young modernists premiered advanced works to an audience of other young modernists.

On this particular frozen and flu-ridden evening, however, the hall was packed, and luminaries of the musical establishment like Arturo Toscanini and George Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue had premiered in the same room two years before, were prominent in the audience. They were not there to see Italian impressionist Ottorino Respighi, French miniaturist Germaine Tailleferre, New England avant-gardist Carl Ruggles, or British conductor Eugene Goossens, all of whom were on the bill. The hall was packed because a slender, big-eyed thirty-year-old vaudeville and cabaret star had agreed to sing a suite of songs composed by a friend she had met playing the oboe in the orchestra pit when she starred in an off-Broadway smash a few years back.

The composer was William Grant Still, today acknowledged as the foremost African-American concert composer of the twentieth century, then working his way out of the high modernism he had been studying under Varèse, and towards an idiom more inflected by the Black musical world he had been raised in and, in its theatrical expression, where he often worked to make ends meet.

The singer was Florence Mills, and in 1926 she was the supreme star of the Black theatrical world, a remarkable performer whose dancing, singing, and comedy skills stood out as remarkable in a decade when the number of Black American dancers, singers, and comedians who would collectively transform the international cultural landscape was already staggering.

Appearing at the end of the program, she sang four songs composed, arranged, and directed by Still, collectively titled Levee Land, ranging in style from the avant-blues “Levee Song” to the brief commedia “Hey Hey” to the aching vocalese “Croon” to the dialect oratorio “The Backslider.” She had rehearsed with Still for long hours on top of her nightly obligations as hostess and star at the dinner-theater Plantation Club, drilling not just in the rigorous technique of art song, but in the smallest gestures, turns and facial expressions to be performed while singing, all painstakingly notated in the score, and specifically tailored to her onstage personality, familiar to all of theater-going New York over the past several years. Her soft soprano voice and dancer’s poise made her the perfect vehicle for Still’s brief compositions, too modest to be called either opera or ballet, but structured like those art musics, while clothed in Black American demotic traditions of call-and-response, syncopation, and blues slides and smears.

It was, in every way, a triumph. She was encored several times over, and had to sing her signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird (Looking for a Bluebird),” cobbled together for her three years previous by no fewer than four Tin Pan Alley hacks, before the audience would let her off the stage. Toscanini rushed backstage to congratulate her. Newspaper reviews uniformly praised her performance, even when they belittled or ignored Still’s compositions. The highest praise came from the reviewer sent by Pulitzer’s New York World:

“Curious and elemental were the songs by the brilliant young Negro composer, plaintive in part, blue, crooning and sparkling with humor, and Miss Mills gave them perfect interpretation. She sang them sensuously and lovingly, but she did more, she rolled her eyes here and she shrugged her shoulders there, and the audience squirmed excitedly and laughed like a good neighbor. It was a pretty jolly evening for a concert hall.”

I would like to play for you now an excerpt of that performance.

But I can’t. Florence Mills never recorded it. When Still was asked about reviving it later in his career, after he had become an established contemporary composer into the 1930s, 50s, and 70s, his only answer was always, “Where can we find another Florence Mills?”

The question I want to pose for you today is, “Where can we find the original?”

I first read the name Florence Mills in 2000, when I was reading a book by Gilbert Seldes because it contained the seminal work of comics criticism, “The Krazy Kat Who Walks by Himself.” It also contained, among much else of the earliest pop-culture criticism in the United States, Seldes’ Vanity Fair article considering the early-1920s vogue of Black musical theater, “The Darktown Strutters on Broadway.” In the summer of 1922, he wrote:

“The most skilful individual player has been Florence Mills. Merely to watch her walk out upon the stage, with her long, free stride and her superb, shameless swing, is an aesthetic pleasure; she is a school and exemplar of carriage and deportment. Florence Mills is almost the definition of the Romantic “une force qui va,” but she remains an original, with little or nothing to give beyond her presence, her instinctive grace, and her baffling, seductive voice.”

As I did then whenever I heard of a musical artist that sounded intriguing, I went to Napster and searched for Florence Mills. There were no results. Surprised, I checked my parents’ dial-up connection and tried again. Nothing. So I went to the internet.

Florence Mills was born in Washington DC in late January of 1896, the last child of laborers who had been born into slavery, moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration as a child, performed in vaudeville theaters and nightclubs across the country throughout the 1910s, and came to national attention when she was hired as a replacement for the soubrette role in Shuffle Along, the show that Langston Hughes would call the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Within a year, she left Shuffle Along to perform in a series of shows built around her stage presence and performance style. Between 1923 and 1926 she starred in a new all-Black revue every year, and turned down the most prestigious job in show business, a contract with the Ziegfeld Follies, in order to provide work for the larger community of Black entertainers who she felt her fame gave her the opportunity and responsibility of bringing up with her. She headlined at the Palace Theater, the highest honor in vaudeville, and was the first Black woman to do so. She took her revues to London twice and to Paris once and met with great success and widespread acclaim in both cities. She regularly pushed her small, rather delicate body to its limits; she seems to have sincerely, if idealistically, believed in her performances as a sort of evangelism for the talent and worth of Black people, and she was dedicated to lifting up her entire race, by her own bootstraps if necessary. She died suddenly and unexpectedly in November of 1927, having ignored chronic ill health in her passion for performance, her inexhaustible desire to please, and her unwillingness to leave the other performers in her shows out of work. And she never recorded.

So, by the standards of our time, we can have no immediate experience of her. We all of us were born, grew up, and live today in the recording era, and it is nearly as difficult for us to imagine the musical and theatrical world in which those who came before it won their public as it is to contemplate literary culture before the advent of print. If we cannot see Florence Mills in motion, cannot hear her in real time, did she truly exist?

Well, someone by that name did. And she was written about. Here are some of the things that people wrote down about her, to bear witness to those who did not live in the metropolis, or could not attend the theater, or were born too late. Many thousands of words were written about her during her glory years; I have chosen only four quotations from respected critics, two white and two black, to give you a hint.

James Agate in The Sunday Times: “Miss Florence Mills is a superb artist. The notes she warbles are real wood notes, and you would say that her voice is untrained. Untrained because of its astonishing facility. This singer has taken her high C and come down again while more ponderous prima donnas are still debating the ascent.”
Heywood Broun in the New York World: “The method of Florence Mills is like that of no one else. She does not precisely sing but she makes strange high noises which seem to fit in somehow with a rapidfire sort of sculpture. Sometimes the intent is the creation of the grotesque and then it fades into lines of amazing beauty. Now I have seen grace.”
Theophilus Lewis in The Messenger: “Florence mills is incomparable. She is the most consummate artist I have ever seen on the musical stage. She has perfect control of both the technique of restraint and the technique of abandon. When she sings her song ‘I’m a Little Blackbird’ she lets herself out, and — my God! Man, I’ve never seen anything like it! I never imagined such a tempestuous blend of passion and humour could be poured into the singing of a song. I never expect to see anything like it again, unless I become gifted with second sight and behold a Valkyr riding ahead of a thunderstorm. Or see Florence Mills singing another song.”
James Weldon Johnson in Black Manhattan: “She was indefinable. One might best string out a list of words such as: pixy, elf, radiant, exotic, Peter Pan, wood-nymph, wistful, piquant, magnetism, witchery, madness, flame: and then despairingly exclaim: ‘Oh, you know what I mean.’. As a pantomimist and a singing and dancing comedienne she had no superior in any place or any race. And yet, after all, did she really sing? The upper range of her voice was full of bubbling, bell-like, bird-like tones. And there, perhaps, is the comprehensive word: ‘bird-like.’ It was a rather magical thing Florence Mills used to do with that small voice in her favourite song, ‘I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird’; and she did it with such exquisite poignancy as always to raise a lump in your throat.”

And. She. Never. Recorded.

Actually, that’s not quite true. In December of 1924, she undertook the journey to Victor’s Camden studios to make test recordings of “I’m a Little Blackbird” and another of her popular numbers, “Dixie Dreams,” with piano accompaniment. The results were unsatisfactory: the needle-etching-in-stone sound delivered by Thomas Edison’s acoustic recording process made her high, soft voice sound tinny and screechy, and she abandoned the project. Apart from an entry in a ledger, no trace of the test recordings survives.

A year later, the electrical recording process, which used microphones instead of horns, would begin to revolutionize the recording industry, transforming what had been a medium fit primarily for operatic tenors, oompah marches, and blues shouters into one where crooners, chamber ensembles, and guitarists could make themselves heard. And still, with two years between the introduction of technology that could record her and her death, she did not record. The question that haunts me today is, why not?

I have come up with several answers.

Firstly, of course, at the time no one knew she was going to die so soon. There would always be time for recording later — until there wasn’t.

Secondly, Florence was an unusual performer: a black woman who had success with largely white audiences. From the record companies’ perspective, there was not necessarily a clear market for her recordings. She was not a gutbucket blues or hot jazz performer like those who dominated the “race” market in those years, and ordinary racism would keep her out of the white pop market by default.

Thirdly, although electrical recording was an immense improvement in audio technology, it was not immediately obvious to the layperson that it was, the way that high-fidelity recording or compact discs would be in the years to come. Many stars who were unhappy with their acoustic recordings never returned to the studio, or only after a long time.

And fourthly, although she did occasional radio broadcasts at the height of her fame, both in the US and the UK, Florence was primarily and happily a live entertainer; she fed off the emotional response of the audience, and would naturally have doubted whether her multisensory performances could translate to a unisensory experience. Even today, the great live band unable to capture the magic on record is a well-documented phenomenon; in the 1920s, in a pop-cultural world which centered far more around the stage than around recorded media, it was practically a given.

All of these are reasons why she did not record. But the most important answer to why she did not record is to ask why I felt the need — still, continuously, feel the need — to ask the question in the first place.

As I noted before, we live in the recording era. But more than that, we live in the internet era. My first instinct, back in 2000, was to look on Napster. Every so often, I still search her name on Spotify, just in case the past sixteen years have been a bad dream and someone found those test recordings in an eccentric collector’s basement stash and digitally coaxed them into listenability without my having heard about it. I have internalized so deeply the obviously-false premise that all information ever is available online, that my first instinct whenever I can’t find something with a simple product search is to immediately surrender to a sleepless obsession with tracking it down. It’s led me down a lot of interesting and little-noticed pathways of culture; but it’s probably always worth interrogating first instincts. Mine, anyway.

The controlled environment of capitalist exchange within which we are all imprisoned depends very much on us believing the fiction that everything we can think of to desire is available at a market rate. That is the lie of superabundance, of overstocked supermarket shelves, of the “every song ever” marketing of streaming services, even of the pseudo-democratic megascale archiving and indexing of torrent aggregators and Wikis whether -pedia or -leaks: everything can be known, everything that can be known can be mastered, everything that can be mastered can be sold: a seamless gleaming whole, with no unsightly gaps, no opportunities missed, no profits left unmaximized. Obsessively tracking stuff down, as I think everyone here knows, generally means spending money, and making the world go round.

But surrendering to my fascination with, you might almost say my fandom of, Florence Mills has, for the past sixteen years, meant having to deal with this hole in history, of having to find ways to cope with a desire that cannot be fulfilled. What then can fill this blank space?

The three solutions I have come up with are imagination, extrapolation, and art.

Imagination is asking, What if? What if she had recorded? What if she had lived? How would the world be different?

Difficult as it is for me to admit, it is entirely possible that her vivid stage presence and deep connection with the live audience would have failed to translate to recorded media: that to modern sensibilities she would have sounded shrill, sickly, or trite on record, or looked clumsy, nervous, or insipid on film. Worse fates befell bigger stars. Perhaps her soprano voice would have ended like those of the white contemporaries she was often compared to, comparisons which were meant at the time for high praise. But singers like Gertrude Lawrence and Yvonne Printemps, immense stars of the 1920s and 30s who did record plentifully, are now almost never listened to for pleasure, only for historical interest, because the high, stately sweetness of their voices no longer sounds relatably human, but brittle, sentimental, and artificial. Even if we had Florence Mills records, history might have swallowed her up nearly as effectively as it already has.

But then again maybe, possibly — tantalizingly — her blues phrasing and sweet soprano-sax trills would have not disappointed, but astonished successive generations all over again, would have kept the channel open for authentic Black sweetness in jazz, would have sounded as a Jazz-Age prophecy of the helium R&B of Minnie Riperton or Mariah Carey. What if we could all hear Florence as a sophisticated counterbalance to the crushing narrative of “raw” “earthiness” in black music? What if history had been different, and we could hear Florence Mills and Bessie Smith as equally valuable expressions of black womanhood, as the establishment of a tradition followed by Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Salt-N-Pepa, Janelle Monáe and Nicki Minaj?

But what-if, of course, can only take us so far. The relentless contingency of history, its refusal to sort into neat narratives and convenient analogies, means that we must dig deeper. Extrapolation, then. What do we have that Florence touched, or which touched her, that can give us a clue to her?

There is an estimable biography, packed with copious endnotes and meticulous source-citing. There is a Florence Mills collection in the Schomburg Library, packed with photographs, clippings, secondary sources, and some thousands of words that she herself wrote, spoke, or sang, all written down and filed neatly. There is sheet music of the songs she sang, and cartoons and caricatures from the popular press which can hint at motion and personality in ways that the photography of the time could not. And there are the records that friends of hers made of songs she sang, and records that those who knew or admired her made in explicit tribute to her, and records that those who knew or admired her made that might well have been influenced by her style, her technique, her presence, her voice. If you are at all curious, there is a wealth of material to build up into a sort of collage against which you can, at the very least, begin to discern her outline, even if the portrait will remain forever blank.

Which brings us to art, the traditional means of memorializing the supremely gifted, the deeply affecting, or the otherwise noteworthy, long before recording or even printing. I’ve daydreamed for years about writing a screenplay, or drawing a graphic novel, or something, that could express the image I’ve lived with for years. And I’m far from alone. She has recently been celebrated in two different children’s picture books, which are probably one of the most fundamental resources for establishing knowledge about the world. A Broadway show is now playing that resurrects the vehicle that made her a star, and I am brooding over tickets and flights with every paycheck. A trickle of poetry has kept her memory like a subterranean seam in the accumulated sediment of history.

And there is music.

I mentioned, ages ago now, that William Grant Still was the foremost African-American concert composer of the twentieth century. I felt the qualification necessary because the foremost African-American composer of the twentieth century is, of course, Edward Charles “Duke” Ellington. He too was born in Washington DC, though to a middle-class family rather than a working-class one, and he first moved to New York two years after Florence Mills became a star. His wide-ranging ear, love for texture, and keen melodic sense meant that as a composer and arranger he drew as much from the glib theatrical and dance-band world as he did from hot jazz jam sessions. And in early 1928, mere months after her death, he debuted a composition which represented a new unfolding of his already considerable gifts. Generally uncommunicative about his inspirations and influences, Ellington would not publicly associate the song “Black Beauty” with the name of Florence Mills for another fifteen years, but the strutting sass of the dueling trumpet and trombone, the rhythmic delight of the piano and bass, and the haunting lamentation of the clarinet, form as indelible a portrait as any pen-and-ink drawing or oil painting. Most days, it is my favorite piece of music ever recorded, and far beyond my own meager taste, will remain an imperishable tribute to Florence Mills for as long as recorded music lasts.

However long that may prove to be.

This paper was originally read at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, April 16, 2016.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.