Saturday, April 30, 2016

Victor 17222: Nat Wills “No News, Or What Killed the Dog” / Tom McNaughton “The Three Trees”

Nat Wills (1873-1917) was a vaudevillian famed for his Tramp character. He cut discs for Victor and Columbia and cylinders for Edison. He recorded “No News, or What Killed the Dog” for his first Victor session in 1908. It was a popular title and the label kept it in print for years. (James Thurber mentions it in his autobiographical essay “More Alarms at Night”, where he talks about playing the record so often as a child that its grooves locked.) It is also unfortunately solidly in the wheelhouse of the Delightful Racist Monologue that was so popular a century ago. Here’s the setup:

Once a man was honored by his position to go away to the mountains for a rest. He went home and told his members of his family what the doctor had said, and he said “While I’m away I don’t wish to be annoyed by letters or telegrams – in fact I don’t want to receive any news of any kind.” So he went away and was gone about six weeks…returned to the city very much improved in health, and very anxious for some news from home. Got off of the train at the depot, was met by his colored servant, and the following conversation ensued:

He said, “Well, Henry, how is everything at home? Is there any news?”

“No suh, there ain’t no news, suh. Everything is just about the same as it was when you all went away.”

“Nothing happened?”

“No, suh, ain’t nothing happened, ain’t no news.”

“Well you know I’m just dying for some word from home, now. You can tell me any little thing, no matter how trifling.”

“No, suh, there ain’t no news, there ain’t nothing to tell you suh…except, uh, there’s just one little thing. Since you been away your dog died.”

“Oh, my dog died, eh? Well that’s too bad. What killed the dog?”

“Well, suh, the dog eat some burnt hoss flesh. And that’s what killed the dog.”

“He ate burnt horse flesh? Where did he get burnt horse flesh to eat?”

“Well, suh, you know your barn burned down…”

Etc., etc. As the conversation proceeds, the servant inadvertantly reveals that the barn got torched because some sparks flew over from the house, because the house burned down, because they had candles all around the coffin, because his mother-in-law died, and rooty mctootie boom boom these are the jokes folks. Nat’s timing is impeccable, but one should not play this in mixed company.

I’m posting it now partially as a basic archaeological find from my collection (originally from my Dad’s collection, and before that probably from his mother’s), but mostly because I have a challenge for you, dear reader. Wills plays the servant as completely oblivious, skittering from one awful revelation to the next because he has no idea that any of it is bad news, because yuk yuk yuk, oh those charming negroes (does it surprise you that Wills cut a side for Victor in 1915 called “Darky Stories”? no it does not). But there’s another way to play the servant, and you don’t have to change a word of dialogue. Try playing this yourself, but before you start, picture the servant in the carriage on the way to the depot with his hands over his eyes, muttering over and over “Do NOT. SAY. ANYTHING.” Then when he starts talking, think to yourself “I must NOT mention the dead dog.” Then after you mention the dead dog, think: “Okay, I must NOT mention the barn burning down. Okay, I must NOT mention the house burning down. I must NOT mention the coffin…” You’ll end up with a servant who’s making an absolutely superhuman effort at diplomacy, but whose world slowly, inexorably falls apart until he cracks. Try it, and you’ll find this can actually be a beautiful bit. No doubt Key & Peele could rock it today.

On the flip is Tom McNaughton and orchestra performing “The Three Trees”, wherein through the power of storytelling we are transported back to a magical Bohemian grove and nothing happens. Karlovy Vary (a.k.a. Carlsbad) is a spa town with a hot springs that was founded in the 14th century in Western Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Local legend describes its inception in a story involving a wayward fawn, a determined hunter, a bevy of capricious nymphs, and a sympathetic water sprite who brings forth tonic water from the rocks with a touch of her wand. By 1911 the spa had 71,000 annual visitors. Heinrich Reinhardt was a Viennese composer who had helped establish a new song-and-dance phase in Viennese operetta with his hit Das süsse Mädel in 1901, and in 1909 he wrote an operetta about Carlsbad, Die Sprudelfee, wherein broke royals, moneyed royals, actors, fans, cops, and visitors with various ailments gather for the festival season at Carlsbad and wackiness ensues. Brothers Harry B. Smith and Robert B. Smith adapted it into English as The Spring Maid, and producers Louis Werba and Mark Luescher put it on Broadway where it became a smash hit that played for two years. In the Broadway production, McNaughton plays Roland, an English tragedian in love with Ursula, his fan. I don’t know the context of this routine in the play, but Roland describes a forest scene involving a spring, a rabbit, a hunter, and three trees (“There…there…and there”). The rabbit doesn’t die. The trees don’t move. If you don’t get it, you certainly also won’t enjoy “The Salt Herring” by Charles Cros.

This record is Victor 17222; the date is uncertain but Dr. Internet provides evidence of two American newspapers advertising it in 1913.

Sheet music for "Day Dreams, Visions of Bliss" from The Spring Maid (from a photo by eBay user admatha) 

Nat Wills “No News, or What Killed the Dog”
Tom McNaughton “The Three Trees”


  1. Your comment and insight on the Nat Wills piece is spot on. Always a pleasure to visit your site, keep up the great work!

  2. Reportedly, "No News" is playing during a deleted scene from Orson Welles's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, depicting the aftermath of the downfall of that family.