“Baltimore Buzz”: The Life and Impact of Black Baltimorean Musician Eubie Blake
BHW 33: September 16, 2023
In February 1941, a theatrical production titled Up Harlem Way was set to appear at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was announced that the show would star Billie Holiday, the Black Baltimorean jazz superstar. One of the production’s directors and investors was Eubie Blake, another Black Baltimorean who greatly impacted American history and music. No evidence could be found that the show was ever actually performed.  However, the very possibility that Holiday and Blake once did a show together is remarkable given them being arguably the two most influential Baltimorean musicians. Readers are encouraged to read our previous feature article on Holiday. Here, we explore Eubie Blake and his Baltimore story. Blake grew up in East Baltimore and spent the early part of his musical career in Baltimore City.  After moving to New York in late 1915 or early 1916, he reached his highest point of theatrical success as the composer for the trailblazing Black musical Shuffle Along, which opened in 1921.  The first song on the alphabetized song list for the show’s sheet music publications is: “Baltimore Buzz.” This detail reflects how Blake remained connected to Baltimore after moving to New York.  The song proclaims: “And there have been a thousand raggy draggy prances / That are pranced at ev’ry ball / But the bestest one that ‘wuzz’ / Is called the Baltimore Buzz.”  Blake’s musical influences and connections in Baltimore City provide important context for understanding his role is shaping American music history. Eubie Blake rose to fame through his remarkable musical talent, which he discovered and developed in Baltimore. His story reflects Baltimore’s musical history from his time growing up in the city, through his early career, and continuing with his late-life career resurgence. Blake was a leader in the ragtime genre and learned this style of music in Baltimore. His story also sheds light on how race relations intersected with American music during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Eubie Blake recalled the start of his life as a musician as happening at Belair Market in Baltimore City, just south of Oldtown Mall, when he was four or five years old.  This was around 1891 or 1892. While shopping at the market with his mother, the young Blake wandered into a nearby music store. He found an organ inside and began to play it. When Blake’s mother found him, the store’s manager remarked to her on her son’s evident natural musical talent. In response, she entered into a purchasing agreement for a pump organ. She paid twenty-five cents a week until paying off the total price of seventy-five dollars. Blake learned the instrument quickly, taking music lessons from Margaret Marshall, his childhood next-door neighbor in Baltimore.  The pump organ was a sizable investment for Blake’s family. His father John Sumner Blake worked as a supervisory stevedore in Baltimore Harbor and earned nine dollars per week, three dollars of which went towards residential rent. His mother Emily Blake did laundry for white Baltimorean families, a common occupation for Black Baltimorean women in this period. 
It is notable that Eubie’s father had a supervisory role at work, a career level he earned in the later years of the nineteenth century after gaining his freedom from enslavement. This shows how a measure of upward mobility was possible for formerly enslaved working-class Black Baltimoreans. These opportunities provided the incentives for large numbers of African Americans migrating to Baltimore in this period. His father also made a point of emphasizing to his son the significance of the history of slavery. Eubie recalled his father showing him the scars on his back suffered during his enslavement and emphasizing the importance of treating people with respect.  Later in Eubie’s life he toured the Tezcuco Plantation in Louisiana. Upon encountering some living quarters used by enslaved people, he experienced a moment of great connection to his family history of enslavement.  As we will see, when Blake became one of the first African American performers to perform without covering his face with burnt cork or other blackening substances, this was an empowering act of resistance against historical racial oppression.
Eubie Blake’s first job as a professional musician came at age fifteen, working as a pianist in Aggie Sheldon’s Baltimore house of prostitution. While this establishment was in a Black neighborhood, its clientele was primarily white. Blake’s formal salary was supposed to be three dollars per week but Sheldon rarely paid him. Nevertheless, he kept the job because he made good money from tips.  He snuck out of his house each night to go to work, until a nosy neighbor tipped off his mother that he was working at Sheldon’s establishment. His mother was furious, but upon seeing how much money Eubie was making and saving his father convinced her to allow it.  Eubie continued working at Sheldon’s and primarily played the popular songs requested by patrons.  He worked at other local establishments in the years that followed, including the Middle Section Club and his most prestigious Baltimore venue: The Goldfield, owned by world lightweight champion Joe Gans.  The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 burnt many of his performing venues to the ground, but his talent helped him still find regular work.  Throughout this time, he experimented with the emergent ragtime genre, with which his name later became synonymous.
Ragtime music is characterized by beat syncopation, meaning the stylistic displacement of beats to create “its irresistible, foot-tapping, rhythmic impulse.”  As Blake explained: “The way that I play ragtime is by putting the syncopation in the right hand, and the rhythm in the left-hand bass.” He also emphasized ragtime’s African roots, speaking to its significance as an African American culture contribution.  Baltimore, with its large African American population, became a hub for this emergent genre. One of Blake’s most well-known ragtime numbers is “Charleston Rag” (1899), which is named for a prolific Baltimore gambler who frequented places Blake worked and requested the song.  Much early ragtime music was performed in prostitution establishments and other houses of disrepute, the main type of venue where African American musicians could find work in this period.  Ragtime became what many patrons wanted to hear. Blake later recalled, “I don’t like ragtime—that is, for me to listen to. But I had to play it for a living.”  This remark is striking given his prominence in ragtime’s history. Blake increasingly played ragtime music after he left Sheldon’s establishment and carved out a series of regular paying gigs around the Baltimore music scene. When he moved to New York, one of his major professional contributions became bringing ragtime to the Broadway stage.
When Shuffle Along opened on Broadway in 1921, a New York Times reviewer deemed Eubie Blake’s contributions to be the musical’s greatest highlight. The review proclaimed: “The principal asset of ‘Shuffle Along,’ which arrived at the Sixty-third Street Music Hall last night with the distinction of being written, composed, and played entirely by negroes, is a swinging and infectious score by one Eubie Blake.”  The other detail mentioned here is also crucial, identifying how Shuffle Along was the first great African American musical.  It launched the careers of Black star performers Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson, while breaking racial barriers throughout the industry. The show comprised primarily music that Blake and his partner Noble Sissle created throughout their careers to that point.  By extension, much of this content was rooted in or created as part of Blake’s Baltimore experiences. The New York success of Shuffle Along also reflected the growing centrality of African American culture in Harlem. Indeed, Harlem’s Black population grew by more than sixty-six percent over the course of the 1910s.  The Black cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance followed. As historian David Krasner points out, “Shuffle Along was the most popular musical of the Harlem Renaissance.” It also drew Black and white audiences alike and became an instrument of theater desegregation as its touring companies demanded venues allow integrated audiences. 
The content and production of Shuffle Along also broke barriers for African Americans in the performing arts. One of the greatest impacts of Blake’s time as a performing duo with Sissle was that they became the first Black act to succeed with white audiences without using burnt cork or other substances to blacken their faces.  While Shuffle Along itself did incorporate some minstrel and blackface practices, in other ways it was quite progressive.  In Blake’s opinion, the biggest cultural breakthrough was the inclusion of a sincere Black romantic number.  This was called “Love Will Find a Way,” and it was one of the three songs Blake and Sissle created specifically for this show.  Blake recalled, “This was a real romantic number, and at first they didn’t want it in the show. See, the thing was that Negroes had never been permitted romance before on the stage. The song was really the first of its kind in a big Negro show. So I think that was a big step for entertainment written by Negroes.”  It is striking that it was considered radical at the time to depict Black romantic love. Prior white audiences were not willing to accept performances that encouraged them to empathize with and take seriously Black performers. Shuffle Along broke this convention with radical love.
Blake’s greatest career success after Shuffle Along came in the 1970s as ragtime surged back to significant national popularity. Back in the 1930s, he worked for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) theater project, making a lucrative for the time eighty-five dollars per week. Then during World War II, he performed for troops through the United Service Organizations (USO).  In the postwar period, many of his career opportunities dried up due to the introduction of television and the associated blow to live entertainment. However, in 1970 he released a high-quality recording titled: The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. This double-LP album had significant national success. It was further boosted in 1974 when ragtime artist Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” featured on the score for the popular film The Sting. The ensuing public enthusiasm for classic ragtime put Blake’s work back in the national spotlight. As music scholar Edward A. Berlin argues, “The resurrection of ragtime in the 1970s is a phenomenon unprecedented in America’s musical history; never before has a long-buried style been so widely and eagerly embraced.”  This included the production of a Broadway show about his life called: Eubie! When he attended its Baltimore premiere in 1979, this was a moment of great public celebration of the city’s role in his life and career. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer declared it officially “Eubie Blake Week” and attended the show alongside the Governor.  The show took place on the eve of Blake’s ninety-second birthday. A front-page headline in the Afro-American captured the celebratory mood of the day: “Happy birthday Eubie Blake!” 
Eubie Blake passed away on February 12, 1983, at the age of ninety-six. His life longevity enabled his surge in popularity in his later years, as he performed nearly fifty shows a year just about until his death.  Blake’s story is firmly rooted in Baltimore City, where he was born, raised, and enjoyed his early career successes. The city shaped the person and musician he became as he worked his way up through its music scene. It is where he learned to play ragtime, the defining genre of his career. He performed for Black, white, and integrated Baltimore crowds as a young musician, learning the challenges of race relations in the early-twentieth century.  Baltimore was also where he met his long-time professional partner Noble Sissle, when they were both hired for an event in the summer of 1915.  It was also in this city that the duo debuted their act, in July 1919 at the Maryland Theater. After leaving for New York City in late 1915 or early 1916, Blake made sure to regularly visit his hometown.  Baltimore echoes throughout his music and life experiences. It is no coincidence that he named one of the final numbers in Shuffle Along, his greatest theatrical achievement, “Baltimore Buzz.”
 “President Ronald Reagan James ‘Eubie’ Blake Speaking During Ceremony for Recipients of The Presidential Medal of Freedom in The East Room,” photograph (Washington, D.C.: October 9, 1981), National Archives, Collection RRWHPO: White House Photographic Collection, unrestricted access, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/75855833.
 Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom, Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 274, Kindle edition.
 Eubie Blake and Eileen Southern, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” October 29, 1969, in The Black Perspective in Music 1, no. 1 (Spring 1973): 50, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214125.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 66-67.
 Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyle, “Love Will Find a Way,” sheet music (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1921), 1, https://www.si.edu/object/love-will-find-way:nmaahc_2013.118.288.
 Robert Kimball and William Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 101-102, https://archive.org/details/reminiscingwiths00kimb_0.
 Al Rose, Eubie Blake (New York: Schirmer Books, 1979), 4, https://archive.org/details/eubieblake00alro; “Oldtown Mall Historic District,” Baltimore City Historical and Architectural Preservation, February 8, 2023, https://chap.baltimorecity.gov/oldtown-mall-historic-district.
 Blake and Southern, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” 53-54.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 7-8.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 8-9.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 143-144.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 22.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 20.
 Kimball and Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 42.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 32; Rose, Eubie Blake, 46.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 28.
 Edward A. Berlin, Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), xvii, https://archive.org/details/ragtimemusicalcu0000berl_e3q3.
 Eubie Blake and Bobbi King, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” April 12, 1970, in The Black Perspective in Music 1, no. 2 (Autumn 1973): 153, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214451.
 Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 55, https://archive.org/details/composersvoicesf00perl_0; Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 73-74.
 Perlis and Cleve, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, 53.
 Blake and Southern, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” 59.
 “‘SHUFFLE ALONG’ PREMIERE,” New York Times, May 23, 1921, 16, https://nyti.ms/3qpbzXV.
 Kimball and Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 148.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 74-75.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 111.
 David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 239, 248, https://archive.org/details/beautifulpageant0000kras.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 68.
 Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant, 248.
 Blake and King, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” 152.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 75.
 Blake and King, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” 152.
 Blake and King, “A Legend in His Own Lifetime,” 152; Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 253.
 Berlin, Ragtime, xvii.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 359.
 “Happy Birthday Eubie Blake!,” Baltimore Afro-American, February 6, 1979, 1, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=JkxM1axsR-IC&dat=19790206&printsec=frontpage&hl=en.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 341.
 Kimball and Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 45.
 Carlin and Bloom, Eubie Blake, 28.
 Kimball and Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 6.
 Rose, Eubie Blake, 97.