Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Ma Daffodil
Composer: Know, Paul J and Marion, Harry S.
Publisher: T.B. Harms & Company
Year & Place: 1900, New York, NY
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-872
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasm.b0872
The bust of a stylishly dressed woman, flanked by a half-a-dozen or so large, daffodil-like flowers, comprises this two color (yellow and purple) lithograph. The rendering itself is highly stylized, reminiscent of Art Nouveau, which is exemplified in the wallpaper-like daffodil design, the flat, graphic treatment of the woman’s coat, and her naturalisticly drawn face and abundant hair and hat. She smiles in a soft, simple manner, and her face exudes an attractive, inviting demeanor.
What’s especially intriguing about this image is the artist’s incorporation of this African American woman into a glamorous, Art Nouveau (re: modern) mode. With absolutely no traces whatsoever of the period’s stereotypic portrayals of black people in American commercial design and advertising, Ma Daffodil links this particular African American woman with the classic symbols of beauty (re: flowers, high fashion, and moderation in facial features) and the possibilities of representing aesthetic sophistication.
Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914)
Born in 1880 in Richmond, Virginia, Aida Overton grew up in New York City, where her family moved when she was young and where she gained an education and musical training. At fifteen, she joined John Isham’s Octoroons, one of the most influential black touring groups of the 1890s, and the following year she became a member of the Black Patti Troubadours. In 1898, she joined the company of the famous comedy team Bert Williams and George Walker, and appeared in all of their shows—The Policy Players (1899), The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1905), and Bandanna Land (1907). Within about a year of their meeting, George Walker and Overton married and before long became one of the most admired and elegant African American couples on the stage.
While George Walker supplied most of the ideas for the musical comedies and Bert Williams enjoyed fame as the “funniest man in America,” Aida quickly became an indispensable member of the Williams and Walker Company. Onstage Aida refused to comply with the plantation image of black women. She viewed the representation of refined African American types on the stage as important political work. A talented dancer, Aida improvised original routines that her husband eagerly introduced in the shows. When In Dahomey toured England, Aida was invited into the homes of the British elites for private lessons in the exotic cakewalk that the Walkers had included in the show.
After a decade of nearly continuous success with the Williams and Walker Company, Aida’s career took an unexpected turn when her husband collapsed on tour with Bandanna Land. Aida took over many of his songs and dances in Bandanna Land to keep the company together but, in early 1909, the musical closed and Aida temporarily retired from stage work to care for her husband, now clearly seriously ill. Recognizing that he would not recover and that she alone could support the family, she returned to the stage in Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson’s Red Moon in 1909, and she joined the Smart Set Company in 1910. Aida also began touring the vaudeville circuit as a solo act. After Walker’s death in January 1911, Aida signed a two-year contract to appear as a co-star with S. H. Dudley in another all-black traveling show.
Although still a relatively young woman in the early 1910s, Aida developed her own medical problems that limited her capacity for constant touring and stage performance. As early as 1908, she had begun organizing benefits to aid such institutions as the Industrial Home for Colored Working Girls. She also took an interest in developing the talents of younger women in the profession, producing shows for two such female groups: the Porto Rico Girls and the Happy Girls. Aida Overton Walker died of kidney failure on October 11, 1914.