"Alexander's Ragtime Band
" is a song by Irving Berlin. It was his first major hit, in 1911. It might be regarded as a sequel to "Alexander and His Clarinet
," which Berlin wrote with Ted Snyder in 1910. The earlier song is mostly concerned with a reconciliation between Alexander Adams and Eliza Johnson, but also highlights Alexander's novel musical style. It is believed by some (especially jazz-ragtime circles in New Orleans, and the Watzke family of New Orleans), that Berlin was writing about a real band and bandleader, who were popular at the time in New Orleans, and actually was known as Alexander's Ragtime Band, after its leader, Alexander Joseph Watzke (also known as "King" Watzke or Alex Watzke). From 1904 to 1911 or later, this band was one of the most popular white ragtime and jazz bands in New Orleans. Both songs employ certain word choices ("oh, ma honey," "honey lamb") and nonstandard usage ("bestest band what am") in the lyrics to indicate to the audiences of the time that the characters of the song should be understood to be African-American. The sheet music cover however clearly shows the musicians as being white, as Alexander Watzke's band was. Furthermore, when the song became the basis for a movie, the band leader and members were depicted as white, although the real name and city were inexplicably changed. There is some evidence, although inconclusive, that Berlin borrowed the melody (in particular, the four notes of "oh, ma honey") from a draft of "A Real Slow Drag" by Scott Joplin
that had been submitted to a publisher. Vaudeville singer Emma Carus, famed for her "female baritone", is said to have been largely responsible for successfully introducing the song in Chicago and helping contribute to its immense popularity, and is credited on the cover of the sheet music. It became identified with her, and soon worked its way back to New York where Al Jolson
also began to perform it.