Look at my blue eyes, look at my brown hair, look at my color. What color do you see?” he demand [sic] to know. “My mother was 100 per cent white,” Jeffries said, his blue eyes glinting in the New York sun. “My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?” – Herb Jeffries
So, it’s Memorial Day here in the U.S. I’m enjoying a long weekend that still has another day after this to go. Long weekends are lovely.
I was thinking that, for today’s music video, I’d go with something related to my novella “To The Edges,” which Crossed Genres published this past Friday. The protagonist, Zed Bleakstead, is a fan of cowboy movies, including some really old ones, even though most of the heroes in those films are all men and all White. At one point in the story, though, she sits down to watch (and fall asleep to) a film called Bronze Buckaroo. The film’s from 1939 and is one of the first westerns in the sound era to star an all-Black cast. Herb Jeffries (credited as Herbert Jeffrey) plays the lead. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube, if you like. It’s an interesting bit of history as well as being a silly, old cowboy movie. And have there been all-Black westerns since then? I know, in my research, just finding westerns with people of color as protagonists was a disappointing task.*
What does that have to do with music, you ask? Well, Herb Jeffries didn’t just play a cowboy, he was a singing cowboy with a beautiful voice. And he’s an interesting person (still alive at this writing–he’s 99) who I want to learn more about. Louis Armstrong discovered him performing in Detroit and suggested he try his luck in Chicago. When he was asked for his background by a prospective employer, Jeffries stated he was “a creole from New Orleans,” choosing to pass as a person of color instead of as a white man, which he could easily have done.
Interesting choice. When he performed, he darkened his skin further. Which is, well, it’s hard not to think “blackface” and wrinkle my nose, but the thing is, he lived as a Black man offstage when American apartheid was in full swing, and he could have done otherwise.
“In those days, my driving force was being a hero to children who didn’t have any heroes to identify with,” Jeffries says. “I felt that dark-skinned children could identify with me and, in “The Bronze Buckaroo,” they could have a hero. Many people don’t realize (to this very day) that in the Old West, one out of every three cowboys was a Black… and there were many Mexican cowboys, too.” —herbjeffries.com
Jeffries succeeded in becoming a hero to a lot of people. Herbie Hancock‘s parents named their son after him, for example. But then, when he married Tempest Storm in 1959, he labeled himself White on the marriage certificate. Jet magazine asked Jeffries about that, which is where the quote at the beginning of this post comes from.
Identity and race are complex things, especially during periods of time when the folks with the most power would prefer that they weren’t.
Hm, has there ever been a time when that wasn’t/isn’t the case? I don’t know.
But I do know that, after he was done playing a singing cowboy, Herb Jeffries went on to sing with Duke Ellington‘s orchestra. Yes, indeedy. Here he is singing his hit “Flamingo.”
And here’s a clip from Bronze Buckaroo with Jeffries and the Four Tones singing “Got the Payday Blues.” Pardon the skipping, please; it’s the best I could find. Beats the hell out of Roy Rogers, though, doesn’t he?
*I didn’t discover this site until after “To The Edges” was done.