Mr. Madison informed me that the “statuary bit” in “My Old Kentucky Home” is one of the oldest “bits” in the show business. It is even older than Weber and Field’s first use of it a generation ago.
Therefore, it would seem obvious that the writing of the burlesque tab is not “writing” at all. It is stage managing. And as the comedy bits are in many cases parts of the history of the stage—written down in the memories of actor and producer—the novice had better not devote his thoughts to writing burlesque. However, if he can produce bits of new business that will be sure-fire, he may find the burlesque tab for him the most profitable of all opportunities the vaudeville stage has to offer. That, however, is a rare condition for the beginner.
THE MUSICAL ELEMENTS OF THE POPULAR SONG
The easiest thing in the world is to write a song; the most difficult, to write a song that will be popular. I do not mean a “popular” song, but a song everybody will whistle—for few songs written for the populace really become songs of the people. The difference between poverty and opulence in the business of song-writing is—whistling.
What is the difference, then, between the man who can “write songs” and the one who can write songs everybody will whistle? Wherein lies the magic? Here is the difference, unexplained it is true, but at least clearly stated:
There are hundreds of men and women all over the land who can rhyme with facility. Anyone of them can take almost any idea you suggest off hand, and on the instant sing you a song that plays up that idea. These persons are the modern incarnations of the old time minstrels who wandered over the land and sang extemporaneous ditties in praise of their host for their dinners. But, remarkable as the gift is, many of these modern minstrels cannot for the life of them put into their songs that something which makes their hearers whistle it long after they leave. The whistle maker is the one who can rhyme with perhaps no more ease than these others, but into his song he is able to instil the magic—sometimes.
But what is this magic that makes of song-writing a mystery that even the genius cannot unerringly solve each time he tries? Not for one moment would I have you believe that I can solve the mystery for you. If I could, I should not be writing this chapter—I should be writing a song that could not fail of the greatest sale in history. Still, with the kind assistance of the gentlemen in the profession—as the prestidigitator used to say in the old town hall when he began his entertainment—I may be able to lift the outer veils of the unknown, and you may be able I to face the problem with clearer-seeing eyes.
I called for help first from Irving Berlin, without doubt the most successful popular song writer this country has ever known; then the assistance of phenomenally successful writers of such diverse genius as Charles K. Harris, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Ballard MacDonald, Joe McCarthy, Stanley Murphy, and Anatol Friedland, was asked and freely given. It is from their observations, as well as from my own, that the following elements of the art of whistle-making have been gathered.