Gussie Lord Davis
American songwriter and composer, 1863-1899.
Gussie Davis was one of the first black Americans to achieve any real success in the songwriting side of the popular music industry when it was referred to as Tin Pan Alley. Some of his songs are still being played today, including "Irene Good Night", which was later adapted to become the signature song of the legendary blues artist Leadbelly, "Good night, Irene" (sometimes called "Irene"). Sadly, his career and his life were both tragically short, and even before his death, many of the financial rewards for his work were reaped by others.
Not much detail is known about his early life, but it is safe to assume it was far from a life of wealth or privilege. Born in Dayton, Ohio sometime in 1863, he was probably still in his childhood when the half-hearted efforts to improve the status of black Americans during the Reconstruction era were cut short by the political forces that led to the rise of segregation and the social forces that led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is known that Gussie Davis worked at a number of different jobs in his youth, making the most of the limited opportunities available to a young man of his ancestry. His experiences while working as a railroad porter found expression later in the song that turned out to be his single most popular composition. He gained his musical knowledge at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but he was never allowed to enroll as a student. He worked there as a janitor. At first he learned through his own efforts to apply what he learned by overhearing the classes, then later he convinced some of the instructors to give him private lessons. This was the only formal instruction he ever received.
He began writing ballads before reaching the age of 18. The record of his published work begins in 1880, with the publication of "We Sat Beneath the Maple On the Hill." His career really took off after he moved to New York City in 1890. By the end of his career, he had published over 300 different songs.
Many of his songs fit perfectly into the "tear-jerker" style favored at the time, and had other qualities well suited to the vaudeville stage. He became one of the top songwriters in popular music. In an 1895 contest to find the top ten songwriters in the United States, Davis took second place. His songs became known and admired internationally. His biggest hit, published in 1896, was a song called "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" which he said was based on a real incident. Unfortunately, he had sold all the rights to the publisher for only a few dollars, so none of the profits from its popularity went to him.
When Gussie Davis died in New York in 1899, he could not have been more than 37 years old. I have been unable to find out any details about how he died. Perhaps it was a scandal worthy of one of his songs, kept quiet by his friends out of respect. If so, his friends must have admired him a great deal. The scent of celebrity has always tended to bring out the vultures. But this is only speculation. For all I know, he may have died from causes quite ordinary at the time, such as one of the influenza epidemics that used to sweep through large cities back in those days.
Whatever the reason for it, his early death was truly a loss to the American musical heritage. Some of his lyrics would be considered extremely offensive today, but who knows where his artistic inspiration may have led him in the wiser years of maturity?
A few selections from his body of work, with year of publication:
1880 "We Sat Beneath the Maple On the Hill"
1886 "The Lighthouse by the Sea"
1887 "Wait 'Til the Tide Comes In"
1892 "Irene Good Night"
1893 "The Fatal Wedding" (his first 'hit' song)
1894 "Get on Your Sneak Shoes Children!"
1894 "Only A Bowery Boy"
1895 "Down In Poverty Row"
1895 "Sadie's a Lady"
1896 "If I Only Could Blot Out the Past"
1896 "In The Baggage Coach Ahead" (his biggest hit)
1896 "When I Do the Hoochy-Coochy in the Sky"
1897 "She Waited at the Altar in Vain"
1898 "Have Pity Judge She's My Mother"
1898 "My Creole Sue"
1898 "The Old Church Door"
1899 "One Little Word"
1900 "My Little Belle Creole"