Friday, July 1, 2011

A Son of Rest - Nat M. Wills

July is here, and so is my special theme for reading in July - Nat M. Wills!

Nat Wills was a popular stage star, vaudeville entertainer, and recording artist at the beginning of the 20th century. He was best known for his "tramp" persona and for performing humorous or satirical musical numbers, including parodies of popular songs of the day (that are now largely forgotten, unfortunately) - he was sort of the Weird Al Yankovic of the early 1900s. 

Wills tragically died on December 9, 1917, from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while working on his car in a closed garage. Had he lived until the talking movie/radio era, he probably would have had a career in films and/or on radio, as his humor was verbal rather than physical in nature, often relying on puns or clever wordplay (much like the Marx Brothers), and did not translate well to silent films.

I first encountered Mr. Wills a few years ago via the internet, as his music is now considered Public Domain and can be legally downloaded for free at, among other sites. I do have to mention that a few of the songs contain material that is considered offensive today, but was not unusual for the time in which it was recorded; however most of the material is suitable for all listeners and inoffensive. I love the music and recordings from this era and I loved a certain song of his in particular, so I went a-Googling for some information on him, as I'd never heard of him, and found that there was very little information about him on the internet at all. I became a little obsessed (OK, a lot obsessed), and after much research I created his Wikipedia page (linked above), a work still in progress. Incidentally, if you have ever wondered about my icon on this site, it's a drawing of Wills from an article published in 1914. 

The book that is the subject of this post was first published in 1903. It's a collection of jokes, humorous stories, and song parodies that are of course rather dated to modern eyes, but I'm sure they were very funny in their day. The material isn't overly laden with the casually racist/anti-Semitic overtones that were unfortunately common in those days, but there are a few things that make a modern reader wince. Fortunately, that is a very small part of the material and some of it is still funny today. The title is shared by a stage production Wills starred in around the time of the book's publication, so I assume this was meant to be a tie-in to that show, although the book does not mention the show, so who knows. It is also possible that Wills didn't write all of the material in the book; many well-known vaudeville performers (including the aforementioned Marx Brothers, who are another favorite of mine) paid joke writers, and this book is probably no exception. Still, he is given the credit, so I have to go with that. 

As July is Wills' birthday month, and he is credited as the author of this book, I thought it would be interesting to have a theme for my July reading, and I've been waiting (im)patiently for July to arrive - as I am not a fan of summer, this may be the first time I have ever been that happy to see July! So all month, the books I read will all be related somehow to Nat Wills. Some of the books mention him directly; others will be books about the time period in which he lived generally, or life as a performer in that era, etc. Still others will be books that he mentioned in his recorded songs or jokes, while a few will probably be tenuous links to him at best, and I apologize in advance for that. 

As you can see, I love to ramble on about Mr. Wills, so if you happen to have any information about him (or would like more yourself), please let me know, I would love to discuss! 

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