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Whistling Rufus

Song: "Whistling Rufus"
Tom Bukowski
MUS 334 Professor Sturman
October 14, 2002

Whistling Rufus is an African-American song composed by Frederick A. "Kerry" Mills in 1899. It is typically described as a march, and can be used effectively as a two-step, polka or cakewalk. An example of its popularity is given on the first page of the music sheet: "No cakewalk given in the Black Belt district of Alabama was considered worth while attending unless 'Whistling Rufus' was engaged to furnish the music. Unlike other musicians, Rufus always performed alone, playing an accompaniment to his whistling on an old guitar, and it was with great pride that he called himself the 'one-man band'." Although not verified, this quote is likely from Kerry Mills as he was both the composer and publisher of the song.

The cakewalk, an early Southern practice dating back to the 1870s, spread throughout the country with hundreds of cakewalks being published and performed by concert bands, minstrel shows and Broadway entertainers. This dance tradition started when some plantation owners would bake a cake on Sundays and invite the neighbors over and have a dance contest of the slaves for entertainment. Originally a cake was given to the winner, however the prizes changed over time. Eventually, the Cakewalk became the first American dance to cross over from black to white society as well as from the stage (Minstrel shows) to ballroom.

By the 1890's the widely popular cakewalk, with its simple syncopation, was the forerunner of ragtime and jazz. The cakewalk eventually died in the 1920's, but it opened the window for other African-American dances to enter white society in the future. Although cakewalks are no longer popular, the instrumental version of "Whistling Roofus" can still be heard. The popular melody is not subject to the same censure that we would today place upon the original lyrics, seen below, and few performers today know them or would care to sing them.

This nigger would go to a ball or a party,
Rainy weather or shine,
And when he got there was a handsome nigger
After the chicken and the wine.
And when he got through with the chicken and the wine,
Then he whistled and he sung so grand
That they thought the angels' harps was a-playing.
And they called him the one-band man.

(Chorus): Don't make no blunder, they couldn't lose him,
For perfect wonder they had to choose him;
A great musician with a high position
Was whistling Rufus, the one-band man.