Punch, July 8, 1903
[Every summer a “song-spotter” is sent to the seaside by the music-publishing firms. His duties are to listen to all the songs sung by the nigger minstrels, and to note which succeed.]
He stood on the beach with a haggard air,
As the niggers sang their lays;
And I asked him the cause of his look of care
(I had marked it on previous days).
“Cheer up,” I said. “Oh, never despair;
Perchance I may heal your wrongs.”
“Alas,” said he, “but it cannot be,
For—shudder!—I’m spotting songs.”
“Or ever the earliest shrimp is snared,
In the earliest shrimper’s net,
Or ever the primal bather’s bared,
Or the first toy yacht upset,
Or ever the lodgers start up, scared
At the roar of their breakfast gongs,
Here on the strand I take my stand
For the purpose of spotting songs.
“Others may ’scape to the gay hotel,
To the desolate cliffs may flee,
May, if they fear not wave nor swell,
Sail on the songless sea,
Stroll inland with a chosen belle,
Far from the vocal throngs—
I must stay through the livelong day,
My mission is spotting songs.
“That is the reason why I’m depressed,
Silent and grim and sad;
Ne’er may I fly from the noisome pest
(It’s driving me nearly mad).
Never on earth shall I find that rest
For which my whole soul longs;
Evermore must I haunt this shore
For the purpose of spotting songs.”
Unsigned verse as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 125 of Punch.
To somewhat mitigate the shock of Wodehouse’s use of a now-banned term for people of color, it helps to realize that these “minstrels” were white performers in blackface makeup. A joke in the Globe newspaper’s “By the Way” column for August 22, 1904 (PGW was editor of and a main contributor to the column) notes the paradox that “a nigger minstrel has to be thoroughly corked up before he can overflow with spirits.” “Cork,” of course, signifies the burnt cork of black makeup as well as the stopper of a liquor bottle in this pun. I have not found any use of the N-word to refer to an actual person of African descent in Wodehouse’s descriptive writing “in his own voice”; he very occasionally uses it in the speech or reported thoughts of old-fashioned, provincial, or American characters as a marker of their racism, as Mark Twain did. Wodehouse was, of course, a man of his time and used the language as he found it, but there is evidence that he saw through at least some of the racial prejudices of the day. For a discussion, see my article “Wodehouse and Racist Epithets”.