October 18, 2021

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Black Broadway hit remembered in book

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What do the following have in common: Judy Garland, President Harry Truman, a milestone in African American culture, a singing frog?

The answer is a song. “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

The hit tune, covered by everyone from Garland to Alice Faye to Peggy Lee to Al Jolson, became the theme of Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential rallies. In 1955, it was belted out by the maddening Michigan J. Frog in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “One Froggy Evening.” Daffy Duck sang it as well. More recently, it turned up on “Downton Abbey.”

That song — and the show it came from — celebrates its 100th birthday this year. But “Shuffle Along,” the first Broadway hit written, composed and performed by African Americans, left a legacy much bigger than a couple of cartoons and a presidential campaign.

Indeed, Hackensack author Caseen Gaines argues that its fingerprints can be found all over American culture, in the hundred years since it opened on May 23, 1921.

“This show intersected with so many people’s lives, and so many significant cultural moments, and yet the show itself has been forgotten,” said Gaines, a cultural historian whose book “Footnotes” (Sourcebooks, $26.99) views “Shuffle Along” through the widest of historical lenses. 

The rise of Harlem as a Black cultural capital — through a series of dodgy real estate maneuvers — enters into it. So does World War I, and the vaudeville and Broadway of the era. So do a lot of famous names.