African American Composers and Conductors: Ford T. Dabney

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
May 18, 2012
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Ziegfeld follies of 1910.,Ziegfeld follies. That minor strain. Vocal score.,That minor strain / words by Cecil Mack ; music by Ford Dabney., Digital ID g00c121_001, New York Public Library

The exhibition, The Great American Revue, focuses on Broadway revue series, 1907–1938. But they were not the only shows on Broadway. During those three decades, dozens of musical comedies by African American songwriters, featuring African American casts were presented successfully in Broadway theaters. They were musical comedies, not revues. They were written for (and, frequently by) the African American character comedians and had complicated plots setting them in comic situations.

These shows had a huge influence on the revue series, primarily through their songwriters and arrangers who moved between the two worlds in ways closed to most performers. This occasional series in the weekly blog will focus on those major figures.

Ford Thompson Dabney was one of a generation of trained musicians from the D.C. area who wrote, conducted and recorded music for musicals in the 1900 – 1930s. His “That is Why they Call Me Shine,” written for Aida Overton Walker en travestie, in His Honor the Barber (1910) is a jazz standard, although now without the Cecil Mack lyrics. He also wrote for Bert Williams, including “That Minor Strain,” for the 1910 Follies. He became associated with Vernon and Irene Castle’s exhibition ballroom dance act and composed, recorded and published many of those works. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. provided Dabney with the greatest visibility of his generation by engaging him and his orchestra to accompany the Roof Garden shows and serve as the house musicians when it hosted social dance events. The 24-piece Orchestra included strings, woodwinds, brass, piano and a rhythm section. It recorded extensively for Aeolion on its own and accompanying Billy Murray. Dabney remained with Ziegfeld until 1922, when Prohibition took down the Frolics and other roof gardens. A full discography can be found on