In 1897, a local band in Athens offered to play the British national anthem to a party of English volunteers in the Greco-Turkish war. Standing to attention with their caps doffed, ready to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, the volunteers were surprised when the band played ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.
Whether this story is true or not, it underlines the extent to which ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ became synonymous with British culture after it was first performed in London in late 1891.
The performer who made ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ famous was the music-hall and burlesque artiste, Lottie Collins. With an East End accent and a childhood performing in the ‘alls (she first made her name at eleven in a skipping-rope act with her sisters), she too was as British as they come. It is almost hard to believe, given this, that ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ began its days across the Atlantic as an African-American song. It was one of the innumerable numbers created by black Americans which were poached by whites and then made into a commercial success.
At the start of the 1890s, Henry Sayers, the white manager of a blackface minstrel company, was drinking at a nightclub-cum-brothel run by Babe Connors in St Louis, Missouri. According to one commentator, Babe Connors’ “resort” ‘anticipated by three decades the elegant Harlem clubs of the Jazz Age’. It offered the sight of ‘Creole’ showgirls sans their knickers, and extraordinary music to boot. Its real star was Mama Lou, a big dark-skinned singer who dressed in a comic maid’s costume (calico dress, gingham apron, red bandana) and belted out memorable songs. Among her repertoire were ‘Frankie & Johnny’, the ‘Bully Song’, ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’, and (you guessed it): ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.
Henry Sayers was just one of many white composers and showmen who hung about Babe Connors’ at the start of the 1890s to watch the girls and rip off the songs. Soon after he attended that night, a female performer in his George Thatcher Minstrels company gave a version of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a blackface farce called Tuxedo. This farce played first in Boston and then in New York at the Park Theatre, opening on 5 October 1891. While showing in New York, the song was heard by Stephen Cooney, Lottie Collins’ American husband. He quickly acquired her the English rights to the song – paying Sayers rather than Mama Lou, of course. Collins then worked up the can can-like dance which made her name on the international stage, asking a London lyricist to tailor the words to her needs. Once any whiff of blackface performance was removed, she debuted the act at the Tivoli in the Strand.
Before long, Collins was dancing ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a pantomime at the Grand Theatre in Islington and also on the stages of other London music halls. Each time, audiences cheered and whistled to the song, earning her a rapturous applause. She went on to tour America with the act and at the turn of the century came to Australasia, by which time ‘Ta-ra-&c’ was only remembered as a British music-hall song.
On the Greek performance of the British ‘national anthem’:
Ernest Short & Arthur Compton-Rickett, Ring Up the Curtain, Being A Pageant of English Entertainment… (London: 1938), 201.
On Lottie Collins & Stephen Cooney:
‘A chat with Lottie Collins’, The Era, 10 August 1895, 14
Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London: 1976), 39.
On Babe Connors & Mama Lou:
David A. Jasen & Gordon Gene Jones, Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime & Early Jazz (New York: 2002), 2-3.
David E. Chinitz, T. S. Eliot & the Cultural Divide (Chicago: 2003), 39-40.
On the George Thatcher Minstrels’ Tuxedo:
New York Times, 5 October 1891, 4.
Eugene Tompkins & Quincy Kilby, The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901 (Boston: 1908), 387.