The Yellow Kid: The Latest & The Greatest

By | Tuesday, December 20, 2011 2 comments
So you're familiar with Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid as one of the original newspaper comic strip characters, right? He debuted in Truth magazine #372 in 1894 and quickly moved over to Hogan's Alley strip, published in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Outcault was hired away by William Randolph Hearst a year later, but Pulitzer retained the rights to Hogan's Alley. Outcault continued drawing the Yellow Kid, though, in comics of various names for Heart's New York Journal American.

The Yellow Kid became immensely popular very quickly, and many people tried to capitalize on that with their own marketing efforts. Mary Wood cites the character appearing on "pins, cigar boxes, sheet music, dolls, cap bombs, postcards, and a number of spin-off variety skits and theater productions." Some of these were officially licensed, some not.

One of those pieces I stumbled upon recently was a scan of sheet music. A piece called "The Yellow Kid: The Latest and the Greatest." It's adorned with Outcault drawings of the Yellow Kid, evidently done expressly for sheet music, if not this sheet music specifically. The Kid is dancing and singing around the margins, very visibly holding sheet music himself.

It strikes me as kind of an odd concept, since the Yellow Kid famously never actually spoke. Anything the character "said" was displayed on his dressing gown. So to provide music to a deliberately mute comic strip comes across as a curious pairing. But I supposed that people have always liked music, and since recordings were unavailable in the 1890s, sheet music was the way to go. Paper was relatively cheap, too, so if you already had a printing press, throwing together something like this would have been an easy way to make a buck, I suppose.

The music was written (and published) by Homer Tourjee with words by William Friday, Jr. There's a 1895 copyright on the page, but the lyrical reference to The Journal suggests it was actually 1896. Interestingly, I found another piece of sheet music dated 1896 called "The Dugan Kid Who Lives in Hogan's Alley." It's the exact same music, with slightly altered lyrics.

But what does it sound like?

So what I've done is taken the sheet music and transcribed it, note for note, into Garage Band. As I was going through, there were several things that struck me about the piece. It's written pretty simply; almost the entire song is in quarter notes and it's got what I would consider a slow pace. With that, though, there's a time change for the chorus, going from 4/4 to 3/4 and the transition between the two might be described, at best, as awkward. There were also several instances where the notation doesn't make sense -- notes that don't really make chords, rhythms that don't really fit in place, lyrics that don't line up with the music. If you take the piece as it's written, it's not all that good. I eventually found a version of this online where someone had actually arranged it so it sounds half-decent, but that's not what was written. The link below is what I put together, picking up a strictly literal interpretation of what was on the sheet music.

Play The Yellow Kid: The Latest & The Greatest

Let me reiterate: this is NOT somebody playing the music badly; this is how it was written! The chorus is meant to be played twice through each time, but it was honestly getting hard for me to keep listening to it, so I opted for just once each. The full lyrics are at the end of the post if you want to try follow along. (Like I said, though, they don't always line up with the music, so it can be a bit difficult in places.)

I would chalk the poor quality of this song up to the commercialism that allegedly drove Outcault from continuing with the character a couple years later. Recall that this was licensed, composed, written and published within a year of Yellow Kid's debut. It was most likely scribbled down hastily by Tourjee, typeset by someone else who probably had no real musical knowledge and edited quickly, if at all. Any "quirks" you might hear from someone playing would probably be attributed to the pianist and dismissed.

The song sounds very much in the style of the late 1800s, but it's almost refreshing to know that the crass commercialism we see in America today isn't entirely new.

Who doesn't know the "Dugan Kid"
He is the very latest
You'll find his pictures in the Journal every Sunday morn
He wears a mellow yellow dress
Of kids he is the greatest
Because he is the "slickest kid" that ever yet was born

Although but three or four years old
He's quite well known to fame
E'en though he has a homely face
Likewise a homely name
But he takes in all the picnics
Doesn't miss a baseball game
The "Dugan Kid" the latest up-to-datest

He's a plain little chap
From the heart of New York
Is the gay little Dugan boy
With smiles so sunny and ears so funny
He's New York's joy
When the band starts to play, is he in it?
"Well Say," Dugan's out of sight
For he's a corker a born New Yorker
And he's all right.

Some of his slang expressions
Have completely caught the city
You can hear them if you listen on the street most ev'ry day
Now though young Dugan's but a kid
His talk is often witty
And no matter where this urchin goes he's sure to have his say
When ever he gets rattled
He will holler "Hully Gee
Dere isn't any duck in town can get away wid me
For I'm a holy terror
When my fur is ruffled, see"
Says the "Dugan Kid" the latest up-to-datest

He's a plain little chap
From the heart of New York
Is the gay little Dugan boy
With smiles so sunny and easy so funny
He's New York's joy
When the band starts to play, is he in it?
"Well Say," Dugan's out of sight
For he's a corker a born New Yorker
And he's all right.
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Matt K said...

"...the crass commercialism we see in America today isn't entirely new."

No, not exactly. Have you ever read about the marketing omni-blitz which Nabisco ran for its first new product after amalgamating, the "Uneeda" biscuit? :-)

The marriage between music and the post industrial revolution as well as the mass consumerism it spawned, gave us the beginning of popular culture. The music business in the nineteenth century primarily relied on sheet music and probably traveling vaudeville for a song to become widely known. Throughout this period including the early twentieth century, just prior to Edison's mass produced Gramophone, cylinders, and records, most folks were raised with music lessons of one sort or another, usually classical. A piano was a standard piece of furniture which could be found in most middle class homes along with sheet music.
The lack luster quality of this particular song can probably be attributed to Tourjee and Friday having to churn out lots of music in timely fashion to remain competitive and earning a living. As for Outcault's commercial use, The Yellow Kid and later Buster Brown were among the earliest figures to be recognizable enough to make good product mascots, thanks to the also new market for the mass national circulation of newspapers. The fact that Outcault was so ready to license Yellow Kid to everything that came out of a factory partly stems from how readily a widely recognized symbol lent itself to all sorts of commercial piracy. This dubious activity was a fairly common practice in a world still working out a “wild west” mentality in the midst of a newly developing “modernism.”