The format of the song
The absence of sheet music makes it difficult to reconstruct the format of the song. However, its original title, “The Chef de Orchestra of Mickey Rooney’s Band”, and the fact that it was a piece sung by an individual performer, suggests that the singer was the leader of a band, who used the song to introduce individual band members, who would be encouraged to present their instruments. This is also suggested by lyrics of the secondary version “Mickey Rooney’s Ragtime Band”, where the band-leader does just this:
Flynn, Flynn plays the violin, Root-toot! Fagan on the flute
Keeps time with Dooley on the drum, Tiddle-id-dle-um!
This is reinforced by newspaper references. In the Sligo Champion of 27 January 1894 “Mr Meldon, amid great laughter and applause, gave a comic song, “Mickey Rooney’s Band”, to which he played his own accompaniment”, which was typically on the guitar or banjo. Similarly, the Tyrone Constitution of 13 January 1899 records that “Mr E Jordan (Omagh) … sang in character “Micky Rooney’s Band”.
Occasionally we find more explanation, for example in the Quorn Mercury, a South Australia newspaper, of 6 December 1901:
“Not to be outdone Mr. McCard followed with a song entitled “Mickey Rooney’s Band”; this song relates to a family named “Rooney” possessed of remarkable genius, who play pieces on 16 flats and 20 sharps with wonderful effect, their instruments include the cornet, trombone, vegetable marrow, nicknacks &c &c, they play every evening, and as the song says “you’re welcome every evening to Mickey Rooney’s band.”
The comic effect is clearly produced by the performer singing the lyrics and accompanying himself on a series of real and makeshift musical instruments, played discordantly.
The popularly of the song led to variations. Joyce builds on this atmosphere, freewheeling through “Rehearsing his band part. Pom. Pompedy. Jolly for the wife. Asses’s skins. Welt them through life, then wallop after death. Pom. Wallop.
The variations were present in the late nineteenth century, as the song developed. The writer of the words, John Mitchell, had moved to America in 1884, and died himself in New York in 1888.6 Music-writer and performer Paddy Feeney died in London in 1889, and was no longer available to represent the authoritative form. In the absence of the song’s originators, and also driven by opportunities the song itself suggested, variations of the song’s name soon appeared on the music-hall circuit. The title “Mickey (or Micky) Rooney’s Band” was mimicked as “Andy Rooney’s Band”, “Paddy Rooney’s Band” (1889), “Michael (and Mike) Rooney’s Band”, “Mr B. Rooney’s Band” (1890), plain “Rooney’s Band” (1890), and even “Mike O’Rooney’s Band”. In addition, it became common for amateur performers to use the opportunity to present a full band, and not simply an individual performer, and this was particularly frequent in school and other local performances, where everyone could have a go at producing the sound of the instruments without needing to adhere strictly to the tune.
By the early 1890s “Mickey Rooney’s Band” could be a real band, a party turn for several performers. In 1894 the Linlithgowshire Gazette of 10 March reported that “the most ludicrous feature of the evening was decidedly Mickey Rooney’s band in character, where the elegance of attire of those representing the female characters was something never to be forgotten”. In 1896 “’Mickey Rooney’s Band’, represented by Mr. Nelson, as an Irish bandmaster, and his irregular squad of eleven scions, amused the company as they from a discordant collection of instruments played the greatest medley imaginable”, according to the Clarence and Richmond Examiner from Grafton, New South Wales. By 1903 it could be the name of a dance band: “The proceedings were enlivened by songs, recitations and dances by Mickey Rooney’s band” (Todmorden and District News), as the meaning of the expression drifted yet further away from its original.
The Waterford Standard of 16 December 1903 has Mickey Rooney’s band play the song, and provides a description: “The programme opened with a selection by the band entitled ‘Mickey Rooney’s Band’, from which the orchestra took its name. The band, the members of which were dressed as pierrots, was led by Captain Fowler, and consisted of a rather varied assortment of what appeared to be cardboard instruments, and the wonder was that harmonious sounds could be produced in them, yet in this, and various other selections the performance elicited laughter and applause”.
Sheffield, in particular, took to the music, and for several years their “Rooney’s Band” would turn out to enliven processions and other entertainments. At a sports carnival Hillsborough Football Ground, in 1917, the band of the 2/5 Norfolk Regiment was “in attendance”, and “Rooney’s band in fancy dress” provided “plenty of fun”.7
Even as late as 1935 people remembered the band: it was remembered as much for the band as for the song. The Offaly Independent of 5 January reported that “the return of ‘Mickey Rooney’s Band’ was an event which brought cheers from all parts of the house. The band, which consists of pupils of St. Brigid’s Boys Schools, played some entertaining items, on a variety of instruments.”
Not everyone approved of the chaotic music, for, as noted in New South Wales’s Manilla Express of 18 January 1911, “music can only soothe and not betray, and a town or hamlet without a band – not a Micky Rooney band – was very much behind the times.”
The publication and performance of Mickey Rooney’s Ragtime Band in 1913 appears in context as something of a distraction on the historical trajectory of the song. Like the original song, it was very popular, principally for a two-year span into 1914, but with references trailing off into the early 1920s. At a St Patrick’s Day “Hibernian Concert” in aid of St Francis’ School in Chester, held in March 1913, the schoolchildren’s Irish reel was followed by Mr. A. Ouzman singing “Mickey Rooney’s Rag-time Band”.8