Impecunious Davis

Impecunious Davis

Location:             Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:      Impecunious Davis

Composer:          Kerry Mills

Publisher:           F.A. Mills

Year & Place:    1899; New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                    Music B-174

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:      hasm.b0174

Basic Description

This image depicts a male of non-uniformly dark skin standing on a boardwalk.  This is suggested by a platform of long, thin planks as well as water.  In the background is a short row of buildings with facades punctured regularly by small rectangular windows.  The man, leans against four large crates stacked vertically on top of each other.  Written in capital letters on the side of each box is the word “COTTON”.  Wearing a low-brimmed hat, a pair of striped pants and a collared, spotted shirt, Davis boldly peers at the viewer.  There is a strong visual contrast between the shirt and pants due to their dissimilar prints that gives this scene a bizarre tone.  Each of these items is worn as the pants have several patches and are unfastened at the top.  Similarly, his toes peak out of the front of his frayed shoes which have soles that are detached in some places, adding to the image’s extravagant tone.

Personal Description

While the contextual background of this image that is ambiguous., it is unequivocally a caricatured rendering of a man.  Davis’ presence on a dock, standing in front of crates of cotton suggests that his locale is a port-town with an economy that engages in trade with distant places.  If this is true, Davis’ aesthetic qualities and idle posture indicate that is not able to participate in the exchanges of these markets as he is impecunious or without money.  And if the function of this image is to reify black exclusion from turn of the century mercantilism, this image’s construction could effectively make that suggestion.  Still, this contrasts to the top of the composition which has a celebratory flavor.  The title, depicted as a graphic is surrounded by a dotted border which winds down the left side of the words to form a treble clef.  The bold font of “Impecunious Davis”, capitalized letters and light color against its black background all serve to announce the piece.  They also highlight the other elements such as the ill-matched clothing and “ridiculous” appearance of the male subject, turning this man into a material for a joke.

Reality Check

Walter Coles - First Secretary New York YMCA

Reverend Walter C. Coles, First Secretary of New York YMCA, c. 1900

Rev. Walter C. Coles was a graduate both of the College and Theological Departments of Biddle University in North Carolina.  In January of 1901 he was appointed secretary of the Colored Men’s Branch of the New York YMCA on 53rd Street.  Coles died suddenly of typhoid fever, at his home, on West 59th Street, Saturday, January 4th, 1902. Mr. Coles was the oldest son of the Rev. William R. and Mrs. Coles, of Aiken, S. C.



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