“The Guy in the Glass.”
The congregation of the Whaleyville African Methodist Church had a good news-bad news problem. The good news was that the congregation was expanding. The bad news was that the building couldn’t house them all. So they did what churches do and held a fund raiser. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well and was attended, as one wag put it, “by eight people, including the dog under the stove.” When their neighbor, Pete Dale Wimbrow, heard about it, he decided to help. It was 1926 and Wimbrow was already gaining some celebrity. He was cutting solo records as the Del-Mar-Va Songster and as Dale Wimbrow and the Rubeville Tuners for both the Victor and Edison labels. Later he’d be performing on national radio and composing for such notables as Duke Ellington and Rudy Vallée. But that evening, he was just a local guy helping out his neighbors. The church heavily promoted the performance and folks came by the busload to the Whaleyville School to attend. With the auditorium packed and the crowd fifty deep outside he started “uking.” For an hour he, “sang, danced, whistled, told stories and did impersonations.” When he was done, the Master of Ceremonies asked, “What are we gonna do about all the folks that couldn’t get in?” Wimbrow told him to, “clear the hall and let in another helping,” and he performed two more shows.
Almost a decade later, the American Magazine posted a question from an eighteen year-old reader. The reader asked, “One good reason, please, why an ambitious young man should be honest.” Wimbrow, with an accomplished lyricist’s precision, answered with his poem, The Guy in the Glass.
It was an instant hit and has remained popular for eighty years. Often it’s been attributed to “anonymous” and just as often has been tinkered with by less gifted hands. One of the most frequent changes is to substitute “self” for “pelf.” Pelf is slang for money and is the word Wimbrow intended. Here’s the original:
The Guy in the Glass,
by Dale Wimbrow
When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf
And the world makes you King for a day
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that guy has to say.
For it isn’t your Father, or Mother or, Wife
Who judgment upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.
The patois may be 1930s, but it’s a 21st century message. Go ahead, take a look in the glass. —Ebert