Under the Bamboo Tree
Writer(s): Robert Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson (see lyrics here)
First Charted: December 9, 1902
Peak: 13 US, 13 GA, 16 SM (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): 0.4 (sheet music)
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, -- video, -- streaming
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About the Song:
There is some controversy as to who exactly wrote “Under the Bamboo Tree.” While the sheet music cover lists Robert Cole and the Johnson Brothers (John Rosamond and James Weldon) – who liked to write about dusky maidens SM – as songwriters, the first page of music only mentions Cole. There are some references which don’t credit James. All three possible authors are African American, but by today’s standards, the lyrics would be “terribly offensive” M1 for their racial stereotypes.
“Bamboo” was about a dusky maiden with royal blood who lived in the jungle. She met a Zulu from Matabooloo and he would wait for her every morning underneath a bamboo tree, where he would sing to her. Eventually he asks her to be his queen. Cole said the inspiration came from a story he heard of a romance between a soldier and a Red Cross nurse under a bamboo tree. WK James Weldon Johnson then made some changes to the song. WK
Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson introduced the song in their popular vaudeville act. It grew out of a compromise. Cole wanted to perform the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” but Johnson objected. Instead, they inverted the melody and wrote new lyrics for a song originally called “If You Lak-a Me.” TY2 They intended to use it in a comic opera called Toloso, but it was never produced. WK
When Cole and Johnson performed the song at a party hosted by George W. Lederer, Broadway actress and singer Marie Cahill took a liking to it. WK She then interpolated this “African marriage proposal” TY2 into the 1902 Broadway musical Sally in Our Alley. It was so successful, that she reprised it for her next show, 1903’s Nancy Brown, and made it part of her vaudeville act for years. M1
In 1902, Arthur Collins recorded the first chart version of the song, which went to #1. Within a month of that version charting, he charted again with the song, but this time in a recording with his frequent duet partner, Byron G. Harlan. Their version reached #4. Judy Garland and her onscreen sister Margaret O’Brien delivered a “particularly delightful performance” TY2 singing the song and dancing the cakewalk in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. That same year, the song was also used in the movie Bowery to Broadway. TY2 It was included in the MGM retrospective film That’s Entertainment! WK T.S. Eliot quoted the song in his poem, “Sweeney Agonistes.” DJ
First posted 12/13/2022; last updated 9/5/2023.