Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Garber, Michael G. “Eepha-Soffa-Dill and Eephing: Found in Ragtime, Jazz, and Country Music, from Broadway to a Texas Plantation.” American Music 35 (Fall 2017): 343-74.

Despite the prevalence of nonsense syllable singing in a broad range of genres in music traditions around the globe, there is little in terms of aesthetic theory on the phenomenon. The eeph trope and eephing as a practice, found in several genres of American music in the early twentieth century, is one phenomenon that can help contextualize the larger practice of nonsense syllable singing. Unlike other nonsense syllables (such as fa-la-la), the phrase eepha-soffa-dill has a reported, albeit murky, origin with the blackface vaudeville duo Williamson and Stone in the 1890s. The phrase (in several spelling variations) first appeared in a 1902 recording by the Kilties’ Band of Canada, listed without a composer. It first appeared in sheet music in 1903, attributed to Harry Von Tilzer, Andrew Sterling, and Bartley Costello and dedicated to “the original Epha-A-Sof-A-Dill,” Frank Williamson. Five Tin-Pan-Alley songs published between 1903 and 1922 employ the eeph trope, demonstrating a fairly consistent lyrical and melodic convention. The phrase’s later appearance in Broadway tunes still suggests its origins with blackface vaudeville acts through its connotations of stuttering and baby-talk associated with offensive stereotypes of African Americans. Gene Greene’s recorded versions of King of the Bungaloos connect the eeph trope to a budding eephing practice, associating the eeph phrase with mouth percussion sounds. Imitations of Greene’s eephing style appear in several disparate recordings through the 1930s as the eephing practice diffuses into other musical genres. Jimmy Riddle’s 1963 country hit Little Eefin Annie demonstrates how Greene’s eephing practice is absorbed by country music’s nonsense syllable tradition. Riddle’s version of eephing drops the eeph phrase and attaches Greene’s eephing mouth percussion to similar syllables. Although the eephing tradition is similar to the scatting tradition in that they are both nonsense syllable practices, conflating the two practices diminishes the significance of both. The development of the eeph trope into an eephing tradition from the 1890s onwards provides the context for the broader development of scat singing as an approach to vocal jazz.

Works: George M. Cohan: Cohan’s Rag Babe (347-348, 350, 353, 355), The American Ragtime (349, 353); Maurice Abrahams (music), Grant Clarke and Edgar Leslie (lyrics): When the Grown Up Ladies Act Like Babies (347-349, 357-58); Cliff Friend (music) and Billy Rose (lyrics): You Tell Her, I Stutter (349, 357-58, 362); Irving Berlin (as performed by Gene Greene): From Here to Shanghai (361); Jimmy Riddle: Little Eefin Annie (360-64)

Sources: Kilties’ Band of Canada (no listed composer): Ephasafa Dill (Iffa Saffa Dill) (1901-1902) (346); Nick Brown: Iffa-Saffa-Dill (A Negro Oddity) (346); Harry Von Tilzer (music), Andrew Sterling and Bartley Costello (lyrics): Ephasafa Dill (346-47); Charles Straight (music) and Gene Greene (lyrics) (as performed by Gene Greene): King of the Bungaloos (354-357); Butter Boy (performer): Old Aunt Dinah (363); Harmonica Frank Floyd: Swamp Rock (363)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Popular

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
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