Susie

What was Sister Susie’s Playing?

 


[5 August 1932] I remember very well your singing One of the Family and Sister Susie's Playing. You always made the same mistake in one line of the latter, a mistake prompted by politeness and encouraged by conviviality, for you sang 'would make both you and I sick' instead of 'would make both me and you sick'.

Selected Letters (1957) p. 365 [to Alf Bergan]


Joyce remembered his father’s old friend Alf Bergan singing two songs: One of the Family and Sister Susie’s Playing. The songs are not identified in Ellmann’s edition of the letters nor (apparently) in other commentaries.


One of the Family

One of the Family is not particularly mysterious or hard to track down. It was a comic song, written and composed by Fred Murray and Fred W. Leigh, and sung to acclaim by the popular George Beauchamp. The song was published in London in 1895 by Francis, Day and Hunter.

     As one of the popular tunes of the day it is not surprising to find it sung as far afield as Sydney, Australia:

An excellent programme was presented to the patrons of the Gaiety Theatre by the Australia Eleven Minstrel and Variety Company on Saturday night […] Mr. Wally Edwards rendered "One of the Family" and "Masks and Faces" with considerable effect.

Evening News (Sydney) (1897) 29 March p. 3

     The song lasted well, and part of the refrain was quoted in Sylvia Lind’s The Chorus (1916), “hailed as one of the cleverest and most distinctive novels of the day”:1

Anthony's uproarious laugh kept ringing out. He dreaded this hour. He was amazed and delighted at the ease of it.

O Jerusalem, they made me one of the family!
O Jerusalem, let them do as they like with me!2

     Copies of the song are held at the British Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. These are the lyrics which George Beauchamp, Wally Edwards, Alf Bergan and many others sang:

Not so very long ago I took lodgings, don’t you know,
        In a most select lo-ca-li-tee;
When I first went in the place, the old girl, with a smiling face,
   Said she’d make me one of the fam-i-lee.
I was fairly up the pole – thought he such a motherly soul –
   Paid my rent a twelve-month in advance;
When she’d pocketed all the tin, half-a-dozen kids came in
   And start-ed smearing stick-jaw [= sweet which is hard to chew] on my pants.

[Chorus]
    Oh, Jerusalem! They’ve made me one of the fam-i-ly
    Oh, Jerusalem! They fairly do as they like with me –
    They’ve got me for a "pie"
    They’ll have me till I die –
    For I’m one of the fa-mi-lyone of the fa-mi-lie! lie!

I’d hardly been a lodger there half a minute, I declare,
   When the landlord touched me for a quid;
His wife then said to me, "My dear, I’m glad that you live here!
   Your chivvy [= face] will amuse our youngest kid."
The eldest son, a burly chap, kids me on to play at nap –
   I never win – my luck’s a fair disgrace!
I can’t understand it quite, though I play him every night,
   He never seems to be without the ace.

Chorus. – Oh, Jerusalem! &c.

So as to make me feel at home, they use my tooth-brush and my comb,
   The sons go mashing in my Sunday clothes;
Once I ventured to call it cheek, I’d hardly opened my lips to speak
   When one of them dotted me on the nose.
The house I’ve often tried to quit, but pa won’t let me, devil a bit!
   At last I’ve tumbled to his little plan –
He’s threatened to put my eyes in a sling, if I don’t make haste and buy a ring,
   And marry his boss-eyed daughter, Mary Ann.

Chorus. – Oh, Jerusalem! &c.3

 

Sister Susie’s Playing

The second of Alf Bergan’s songs is referred to as Sister Susie’s Playing. This is not the name of any known song. Fortunately Joyce gives us a hint about how to find it, as he points out that Alf would always “correct” the wording from 'would make both me and you sick” to “would make both you and I sick”.

     This is still not plain sailing, as – in the tradition of popular song – a good line might turn up in more than one text. We find “would make both me and you sick” in “The Death of Poor Davie, the Killeigh Piper”, from James Grant Raymond’s Life of Thomas Dermody (1806, vol. 1 p. 212):

Oft have I heard your windy music
Till it would make both me and you sick,
And drunk the beer of Goody Cusack
                        Till darkness fled;
Now on your grave I must a yew stick;
                        Poor Davie’s dead!

     But an absence of any reference to Sister Susie rules this lament out of the reckoning. Similarly we can discount Laman Blanchard’s “Science and Good Humour” for the same reason:

Then rose a cry for song!
   As Science led the table,
The call was loud and long
   On vocalist so able.
But Science had – of course –
   A cold, destroying music;
And fear’d that tones so hoarse
   Would make both me and you sick.4

     Probably the most popular song to include the line was the York Waits, frequently reprinted as a popular ballad of King Charles II’s day:


[…] But, their fingers frost-nipt,

So many notes are o’erslipt,

That you’d take sometimes

The Waits for the Minster chimes:

Then, Sirs, to hear their music

Would make both me and you sick […]5


     But this, predictably, contains no reference to Sister Susie. Neither too does a poem entitled “The Finishing School” printed in 1858 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (September p. 434), though the tempo is quicker and there are sisters involved:


No shudder attacked them when man laid his hand on

Their waists in the Redowa’s graceful abandon,

As they swung in that waltz to voluptuous music;

            Ah! Did we but see

            Our sisters so free,

I warrant the sight would make both me and you sick!


     The music publishers Francis, Day and Hunter had published “One of the Family” in 1895. Seven years earlier, in 1888, the previous incarnation of the company, Francis Bros. & Day, had published a comic minstrel song called Rootity toot, she plays the Flute, written and composed by Arthur West, and arranged by George Le Brunn. This song became an instant hit. It was placed on the programme, for instance, of the Sudbury Conservative Smoking Concert, alongside “Be always kind to animals”, “A Model from Madame Tussaud’s”, and “The Merry, Little, Grey, Fat Man”, in October 1888, where it was sung by Mr Edward Mann.6

     Wider circulation saw it mentioned in the Sporting Times for December 1888:

What are the odds against Slade Murray’s song "Rootity-Toot, she plays the flute", being to the fore in the forthcoming Crystal Palace pantomime?7

     In the next few years references to the song turn up as far afield as India and New Zealand. There were also other “Sister Susies” on the music-hall circuit. Mr Eugene Stratton, by chance on display in Dublin on Bloomsday (U 6.184), would regale audiences with “She’s my little sister Susie”8, and as the First World War began ladies were invited to put their sewing skills to good use for the war effort, to the sound of Sister Susie's sewing shirts for soldiers (1914) (and its many imitations), again copyright Francis, Day & Hunter, London.

     But it was Rootity toot, she plays the Flute to which Joyce refers in his letter to Alf Bergan. The phrase that Bergan traditionally altered appears in the first verse, as does the reference to “Sister Susan’s playing” (not Bergan's “Sister Susie’s playing”):


You all know what a sister is to mend your socks and darn 'em,

Well, I have got a sister, and she ought to be with Barnum;

She was so nice and steady till she started learning music.

And now to hear her practice it would make both you and I sick.

From morning until evening at her instrument she's sitting.

And consequently all the neighbors round about are flitting,

We've lost two young men lodgers who departed without paying,

And all because they couldn't stand my sister Susan's playing.


      Refrain.

   For rootity toot, she plays the flute, in a very charming manner,

   Pinkity pong, she runs along the keys of the grand Piano;

   Rumpity pum, she bangs the drum, or else she beats the gong,

   Since Sister Susan learnt to play, we've all gone wrong!

 

She sends her compositions to the Reverend Stuart Headlam,

Since she's been a composer all the house is like a Bedlam;

And when the family circle gathers 'round the dinner table,

She beats tattoo with knife and fork as well as she is able.

She started on the banjo, too, and all day long she's playing.

Our tom-cat's given notice that he couldn't think of staying;

He went to Pa and told him tho' he knew that it would grieve as,

He wouldn't stand it longer, So he'd pay his bill and leave us.

 

      Refrain.

   For rootity toot, she plays the flute, in a very charming manner,

   Pinkity pong, she runs along the keys of the grand Piano;

   Rumpity pum, she bangs the drum, or else she beats the gong,

   Since Sister Susan learnt to play, we've all gone wrong!

 

I wish she would recover, tho' the chance I fear remote is,

She's married a professor, one whose furry overcoat is

The admiration of the kids as he walks down the alley,

He's something like a hearth-rug and a lady in the ballet.

He married her last Tuesday, and thank heaven she's departed,

Tho' now I do believe that he is nearly broken hearted;

I met him but this morning, on his mind there's something preying,

I ask’d him, what's the matter? and he answer’d me by saying.

 

      Refrain.

   For rootity toot, she plays the flute, in a very charming manner,

   Pinkity pong, she runs along the keys of the grand Piano;

   Rumpity pum, she bangs the drum, or else she beats the gong,

   Since Sister Susan learnt to play, we've all gone wrong!9


John Simpson


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1 Argonaut (1918), 19 January p. 39/1.
2 Sylvia Lind The chorus: a tale of love and folly (1915), ch. 12 p. 130.
3 The sheet-music reminds performers that “This Song may be sung in public without Fee or Licence, except at Music Halls.” Another version, recalled as sung at the time, contains similar but slightly different words (end of verse one and chorus (Dalton Gang Letter, April 1997, No. 38):

Not so very long ago, I took lodgings don't you know
In a place of fine locality.
When she pocketed all the tin, a arf a doozen kids coome in
And stook candy on me pants.
    Oh Geerusalem they made me one of the family.
    Oh Geerusalem they did whatever they liked to me.
    They put me in a pie and baked me till I died.
    I am one of the family, one of the family.

4 Ainsworth’s Magazine (1842), vol. 1 p. 99.
5 William Chappell The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time (1855), vol. 2 p. 549.
6 Bury and Norwich Post (1888), 9 October p. 3.
7 Sporting Times (1888), 8 December p. 5.
8 Era (1900), 12 May and 9 June.
9 Famous Comic Songs of England and America (New York: T. B. Harms,1891), pp. 85ff. See also "American Old Time Song Lyrics": http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/26-rootity-toot,-she-plays-the-flute.htm, citing Wehman’s Universal Songster, vol. 26.