When Shuffle Along premiered on Broadway in 1921, it was groundbreaking. It wasn’t just the music or the performers, although being the vehicle that launched the careers of theater greats like Paul Robeson, singer/dancer Florence Mills, and a sixteen-year-old Josephine Baker didn’t hurt. Shuffle Along made history as one of the earliest successful musicals written, composed, and performed entirely by Black artists.
But another of its most enduring legacies came years after its Broadway run. One of its biggest hits, “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” found a second life as the campaign song for Harry S. Truman in 1948.
The music for the show came courtesy of two long-time collaborators, lyricist Noble Sissle and composer Eubie Blake. Early in their partnership, as Blake explained in a 1970 interview, “[We] had found it impossible to sell our songs; and mind you, we knew they were good.” A chance meeting with comedy team Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles led the four to start working on a project that Miller had been toying with for a while. Miller and Lyles would provide the comedy, Sissle and Blake the music.
They managed to scrape together the funding from theater owner John Cort, using sets and costumes from old shows and a few songs that Sissle and Blake had written years earlier. As Blake told his interviewer, “[W]hen we hit on Shuffle Along, what we actually did was to take those same songs that no one had wanted to publish . . . and fit them into our own show.” The musical had its New York debut on May 23. It was a hit, running for 504 performances (some sources have it at 484, but both were long runs for the time), followed by a national tour.
“I’m Just Wild about Harry” was one of those recycled songs that endured even after the shine of the musical had faded. As J. W. McCormack writes in The Baffler, the song was originally a love song, “a profession of love between African Americans, something that had been forbidden on stage up to that point.”
Truman’s use of the song much later was hardly the first time it found itself displaced from its roots, though; plenty of versions by other artists had appeared in the meantime. Truman’s use propelled the song back into the spotlight after decades away. More versions were released, and the renewed interest even prompted Sissle and Blake to reunite for Shuffle Along of 1952, which, unlike its first iteration, closed after four performances.
The song had lived a full, and unlikely, life, and Blake acknowledged the role it played in making his life more secure: “’I’ve been very fortunate, I think, and I’ve never been completely down-and-out, thanks to some good luck with a few really big songs, like ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry.’”