Monday, May 21, 2012

“I Come With Dulcem Strain” – Early Negro Minstrelsy

 George Christy
“It is now recognized by the scholars and students of American music that the only true American music is that of the Indian and the Negro, with the latter in predominance. This seems to indicate that the Caucasian of these shores is bordering on the soulless; for what is music but the expression of the soul? Or, if he is not soulless, he must then possess the soul of the Negro, by his own admission, for Negro music has so permeated the nation that it has become a national characteristic. It has overridden the Indian type because its author has persistently forced it upon the American public, while the Indian has kept his own among his own.

The “Plantation Melodies” and “Jubilee” songs as sung by the Fiske Jubilee singers and other similar organizations all over the country, the religious hymns as sung by the Negro church congregations and “Camp Meeting” gatherings, and the latter introduction of Negro “ragtime” and “coon” songs upon the  stage of vocal and instrumental music to such an extent as almost to monopolize the popular fancy, have exerted powerful and lasting influences upon the American musical profession. The Caucasian has taken up the strain and imitated the Negro in music, so that it is now declared upon good authority that the future music of our country must necessarily be tinged with the soul and characteristics of the darker components of its population.  Not only has this effect been most pronounced in America, but it has lately been felt in Europe. Even the southern Caucasian of the United States, who hates his darker brother, and who knows no native music, has no immediate soul response to any music but that of the race he despises. 
But, indeed, his must be a soulless soul which would fail of response to such stirring, tear-bringing words and melodies as “Suwanee River,” “Old Black Joe,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and others of Negro origin.*”
— Who’s Who in Philadelphia; a Collection of Thirty Biographical Sketches of Philadelphia Colored People, by Charles Frederick White, c. 1912
[*The author is fully aware that white men put into readable musical form, or even composed, the first three songs named, but he is also aware that these songs, as well as those spontaneous outbursts of the Negro’s soul of music and pathos, could not have been created if there had been no American Negro slave. – C.F.W.]

Negro minstrelsy, an entertainment where whites blacked up faces and hands and sang Negro melodies, probably had its beginnings in Boston. Gottlieb Graupner (in blackface) sang a ballad titled ‘The Gay Negro Boy’ in the drama “Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave” at the Federal Theatre on December 30, 1799.

Andrew Jackson Allen, called “Dummy” because of his deafness (he had a speech impediment as well), is supposed to have authored the next historically important song, ‘The Battle of Plattsburgh.’ Sol Smith, in his 1868 Autobiography, says Andrew Jackson Allen produced a drama called The Battle of Lake Champlain at the Green Street theatre in Albany in 1815. The drama was a spectacle drama, with real ships floating on real water. Allen played the part of a Negro sailor and sang his own composition of ‘The Battle of Plattsburgh’ in Negro dialect. The song was swiftly put into the public’s hands through newspapers and songbooks. The Columbia Harmonist printed the lyrics in dialect in 1815 while it was given in straight English in the 1834 United States Songster.

The song was popular enough that two other men are recorded as singing the song – “Hop” Robinson and a moonlighting cook known as “Pot-pie” Herbert.  Al. G. Field, owner of the famous minstrel show, wrote that Herbert “painted his face with black paint, the use of burnt cork being unknown at the time.”

Andrew Jackson Allen, self-styled “father of the American Stage,” was born in New York in December 1776. In 1816 he became the proprietor of the Shakespeare Hotel adjoining New York’s Park Theatre where he played villains and clowns.  In addition to the “Battle of Plattsburgh” Allen “got up” the ‘The Battle of New Orleans at a benefit staged for himself. Another staged was the “Battle of Lake Erie.” Allen traveled with Edwin Forrest for sixteen years as his costumer.

‘The Battle of Plattsburgh’ is a strange song to be considered one of the first popular American war ballads. On September 3, 1814, the British sent an army and navy along Lake Champlain into New York State where they were soundly trounced and retreated to Canada. The song is long at fourteen verses, and the 1834 United States Songster version begins

Sir George Prevost, with all his host,
March’d forth from Montreal, sir,
Both he and they, as blithe and gay,
As going to a ball, sir;
The troops he chose, were all of those
That conquer’d Marshal Soult, sir,
Who, at Garrone (the fact is known)
Scarce brought them to a halt, sir.

The song ends with George in the lead, his men running after

To hide their fear, they gave a cheer,
And thought it mighty cunning –
He’ll fight, say they, another day,
Who saves himself by running.

Most accounts of the singing of ‘The Battle of Plattsburgh’ suggest the song was sung in dialect, with different verses. The song supposedly sung by Pot-pie Herbert begins (*quoted from Tambo and Bones, 1930)

Backside Albany, ’stan Lake Champlain,
Little pond, half full o’ water;
Platte-burg dar too, close ’pon de main,
Town small, he grow bigger herearter.
On Lake Champlain
Uncle Sam set he boat,
An’ Massa McDonough he sail ’em;
While general Macomb
Make Platte-burg he home,
Wid de army, who courage nebber fail ’em.

The song sung at the Green Street Theater was probably a comic dialect corruption of an already popular topical song. The verses given above may owe some of their incomprehensible nature to Allen’s speech impediment. 

In Native American Balladry (1950) G. Malcolm Laws, JR. records a version of ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ collected in 1935. 

’Twas on the eighth of January,
Just at the dawn of day,
We spied those British officers
All dressed in battle array,
Old Jackson then gave orders,
Each man to keep his post,
And form a line from right to left,
And let no time be lost.

Columbia country artist Johnny Horton recorded Jimmy Driftwood Morriss song ‘The Battle of New Orleans which was released in May 1959 and was one of the year's hits.

In 1822 London songwriter Thomas Dibdin wrote a ballad for a Negro character in a drama performed at Drury Lane Theatre.

Ribal King he make great strife,
Gumbo dad, him life to save,
Sell pickaniny, crown and wife,
And poor Gumbo for a slave!
Cruel ting of dam ole King,
But Gumbo dry him tear, and sing
Dingle, jingle, Tangaro.

Despite the grotesque appearance of white song and dance men with burnt cork faces the music was, at its core, music based on Negro songs and instruments (banjo, bones, and tambourine). Wherever Negros gathered, on plantations, the waterfront, or city streets, songs and dance were performed in public. Blackface minstrels gathered in the crowds as well, soaking up ‘authentic’ tunes and bits of song. During slavery the plantation owners would send for slaves for entertainment, a practice recalled in Stephen C. Foster’s ‘Ring, ring de Banjo!’

Early in de morning
Ob a lubly summer day,
My Massa sent me warning
He’d like to hear me play.
On de banjo tapping,
I come with dulcem strain;
Ole Massa fall a napping
He’ll nebber wake again.

George Washington Dixon was the first burnt cork performer to reach a wide audience with songs titled ‘Dandy Jim from Caroline,’ ‘My Coal Black Rose’ and ‘My Long Tailed Blue.’ His first appearance on stage was at the Amphitheatre, at North Pearl Street in Albany, N.Y. in 1827.

Kane writes that ‘My Coal Black Rose’ was first sung in New York by Tom S. Blakely but George W. Dixon “stole Blakely’s thunder and made a fortune by singing the song.” Al. G. Field, owner of the famous minstrel show, wrote that “there was another singer, a native Albanian, Thomas S. Blakely, who is buried in St. John’s graveyard, and who created a furor in the Park theatre, New York, in 1828 by his singing of ‘My Coal Black Rose.’”

Although Dixon claimed authorship of every song he sung he was a terrible liar. Barney Burns, an actor and comedian “known from Quebec to New Orleans,” first sang ‘My Long Tailed Blue’ which was written and composed by another clown named Joe Blackburn.
Dixon claimed authorship of the most popular early minstrel song, ‘Old Zip Coon,’ sung by him in Philadelphia in 1834. He wasn’t alone, George Nichols, a circus clown attached to Purdy Brown’s Theatre, also claimed the song and the title of first Negro minstrel. Nichols arranged a hit called ‘Clare de Kitchen’, learned from overhearing Negro steamboat firemen singing the song on the Mississippi river. Robert Farrell, an equestrian performer went both better by claiming to be the actual original ‘Old Zip Coon’.

Going down Sandy Hollow ’tother afternoon,
Going down Sandy Hollow ’tother afternoon,
The first man I met was old Zip Coon.
Oh, Mister Coon is a very fine fellow,
Plays on the banjo down in Coney Hollow!

George Nichols was a man of little education but a skillful composer who often wrote songs minutes before his performance on stage. Apparently Nichols based ‘Old Zip Coon’ on a “rough jig dance” called ‘Natchez under the Hill’. Colonel T. Allston Brown, author of ‘A History of the New York Stage,’ wrote on February 29, 1912, in the Clipper

His “flights of fancy” and “flashes of wit” were truly astonishing and highly amusing. Nichols first sang ‘Jim Crow’ as clown in 1834, afterwards as a Negro. He first conceived the idea from a French darkie, a banjo player, known from New Orleans to Cincinnati as Picayune Butler – a copper-colored gentleman who gathered many a picayune by singing ‘Picayune Butler is Going Away’ accompanying himself on his four stringed banjo. An old darkie of New Orleans known as “Old Corn Meal” furnished Nichols with many airs, which he turned to account. This old Negro sold corn meal for a living; he might be seen from morning till night with his cart and horse. He frequently stopped before Bishop’s celebrated hotel and sang a number of Negro melodies.

One of the earliest Ethiopian minstrels, S.S. Sanford, was interviewed by the Washington Republican in October 1874.

REPORTER – As the banjo is so inseparable from a minstrel performance, when and where was it first used?

Mr. S.S. SANFORD – The first trace we have of the instrument in public is at the old Tremont Theatre, Boston, in 1799. This is only traditionary, however, as there is no written account of it. The idea of the instrument undoubtedly had its origin from the gourd, which the negroes South used to make into a kind of a banjo.

A newspaperman wrote in 1883 for Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times that George Washington Dixon, “the celebrated American boffo singer” was a “mulatto barber” who “paved the way for a long line of imitators” introducing “the only distinctive melodies produced by native born brains.” One acquaintance (who was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe by George Washington Dixon) described him thus:

He was born in Maryland (*actually Richmond, Virginia); had a suspicion of a drop of the warm blood of Africa in his veins, but too little for identification; he had a musical voice, and a talent for mimicry; and was at one time patronized by Mr. Clay and the magnates at Washington … gave concerts with songs, imitations and ventriloquism; but the passion of his life was to be a journalist and man of letters. There was one slight obstacle to the realization of this ambition, which was that he could not write … In spite of his deficiencies, George was unwearied in starting newspapers and publishing sensation extras. He indulged in second and third editions; he delighted in a crowd of noisy newsboys. On the other hand, as he could not write, nor often pay for others to write, and seldom had money to pay rent or printers, his publications soon came to grief.

Dixon started a paper in Connecticut and when that failed moved to Lowell, Massachusetts where he started another short-lived paper. Another failure and he was off to Boston where “finding a vacant shop in Washington-street, he got possession of the key on a pretense of examining the premises; but he concluded to remain and began to issue a newspaper.” He fed himself by conning bakers and milkmen, paid his writers with whiskey, and got his paper from a burning warehouse, burned down it was said, by Dixon himself. In Philadelphia he published the Cholera Gazette, which gave a day by day account of cholera deaths in the city.

The Boston Courier wrote in May 1838, when Dixon had been jailed for forgery

This fellow, the notorious ‘boffer singer’ and humbug, who has been vagabonding across the country for many years … will be remembered by many of our citizens as the competitor of Mose Chabert in the fire-eating business and for the ignominious manner in which he retreated from his dangerous victuals when the glowing meal was placed before him. He succeeded no better in his attempt to take poison for a living. He is the most miserable apology for a vocalist that ever bored the public ear. Any hearer of taste would much prefer a dose of Ipecacuanha to hearing him sing.

George Washington Dixon led a colorful life as a rambling confidence man. He once raised a brigade for a filibuster in Yucatan and was editor of a “blackmailing sheet” called the Polyanthus. The newspaper work led to a public caning, a shooting, and imprisonment for libel before Dixon was finally run out of New York on a rail. Trouble followed in New Orleans where, it was reported on February 22, 1859 that

A fortune teller by the name of Eliza Randolph was burned to death in New Orleans last week, in consequence of her clothes having been set on fire. She said, before she died, that the fire was set by George Washington Dixon, a fellow tolerably well-known around the city of New York, where as few years ago he published a dirty sheet called the Polyanthus.

Dixon’s last occupation was as proprietor of a coffee-stand in Poydrass market. He died of yellow fever at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans in March 1861.

Following Dixon was Thomas D. Rice, known as “Jim Crow” Rice or “Daddy” Rice, who was born in New York May 20, 1808. Rice was an extra on the Cincinnati stage in 1829. Rice’s first appearance in blackface was at Ludlow’s Amphitheatre in Louisville, Kentucky.  His signature tune ‘Jump Jim Crow’ was borrowed from a crippled slave belonging to a stable-owner in Louisville named Jim Crow.

I wish I was the president
of these United States,
I’d lick molasses candy,
And swing upon the gates.

First on de heel tap, den on de toe,
E’bry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
Wheel about, an’ turn about, un’ do jis so,
An’ e’bry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.

‘Jump Jim Crow’ debut was at the Bowery Theatre in New York on November 12, 1832. In 1866 a writer for the N.Y. Tribune recalled

from that moment everybody was “doing just so,” and continued “doing just so” for months and even years afterward … the most sober citizens began to “wheel about, and turn about, and jump Jim Crow.” It seemed as though the whole population had been bitten by the tarantula; in the parlor, in the kitchen, in the shop and in the street, Jim Crow monopolized public attention. It must have been a species of insanity, though of a gentle and pleasing kind, for it made hearts lighter, and merrier, and happier: it smoothed away frowns and wrinkles, and replaced them with smiles. Its effects were visible alike on youth and age.

Rice went to England in 1836 where his performance at the Adelphi and other London theatres set off a fad for Negro music and the banjo that lasted into the nineteen thirties. S.S. Sanford recalled Rice as “very patriotic.” Rice “wore on his coat and vest, and pants even, American gold coin for buttons – eagles, half-eagles and two-and-a-half gold pieces.” After suffering a bout of paralysis Rice died in New York on September 19, 1860. For many years a wooden statue of Rice in character as Jim Crow stood in front of New York’s Chatham theatre. The Clipper reported that at one time wooden figures of Rice stood in front of numerous New York cigar stores.

Daddy Rice” as Jump Jim Crow
Dan Gardner and William Whitlock performed Negro songs at the Patriot House in New York in 1835. In 1836 P.T. Barnum was with Aaron Turner’s traveling circus. When the Negro minstrels decamped Barnum corked up and performed ‘Old Zip Coon,’ ‘Gittin’ up the Stairs’ and ‘The Raccoon Hunt; or, Sitting on a Rail’.

Colonel Brown wrote

During the year of 1838 E.P. Christy, Dick Sliter, John Daniels and John Perkins, a Negro jig dancer, who played on the jawbone, were giving entertainments in Child’s Alley (now Pine Street), Rochester, N.Y. they charged three cents each admission. They all blacked up and had bones, tambourine, banjo (made out of a gourd), fiddle, jawbone (horses), and triangle. The bones used were horse-rib, fifteen inches long. M.P. Christy was the originator and manager.

A reporter for the Daily Graphic (May 31, 1885), looking back at old New York, wrote that Daniel Decatur Emmett, of’ ‘I Wish I was in Dixie’ fame

was a frequenter of the store of Robert H. Elton, who will be remembered by the old fogies as a maker of (comic) almanacs and song books, and located at No. 98 Nassau Street. His shop, Elton being a genial fellow, became the lurking place of a great many semi-geniuses, poets, literary men, artists, Negro minstrels, actors and cranks. Among these I remember Thomas S. Nichols, William Wallace, at that time called the “Kentucky poet,” and professing to be a nephew of Henry Clay; Edgar Poe, McDonald Clarke, “the mad poet;” George Washington Dixon, Dan Emmett, and a host of other drolls.

In this year (1842) Dan Emmett organized the first band of Negro minstrels ever got up, and played them at the Park Theatre. For this band he composed ‘Old Dan Tucker,’ ‘The Boatman’s Dance,’ ‘Goin’ Ober De Mountains,’ and various songs that were very popular at the time, though I doubt if he wrote the words – that part, I opine, being executed by Tom Nichols and various other “poets.” I don't know what Dan became afterwards, but in those years he declared himself a Georgian of good family who were all wealthy, and threw out hints that Emmett was not his name.

Daniel Decatur Emmett
Colonel Brown said that ‘The Boatman’s Dance’ was a song composed by R.W. Pelham and was the first song sung on stage by a band of minstrels. The band, which made acquaintance in a boarding house, consisted of Billy Whitlock on banjo, Daniel Decatur Emmett on violin, Frank Brower (sometimes spelled Brewer), bones and dancing, and Dick Pelham rattling a tambourine. They formed the Virginia Minstrels and first played in Bartlett’s Billiard Room at the “Branch” in the Bowery. 

S.S. Sanford told a newspaper reporter in 1874 that he was also a member and the first stage appearance was in 1842 as a benefit for Dick Pelham. Professor W.E. Ballantine gave the date as February 17, 1843, but he was a member of the original Christy’s, and had an interest in attributing the first minstrel show to his employer.

Ethiopian Glee Book 1849
That evening the Virginia Minstrels sang ‘Old Dan Tucker,’ ‘Boatman Dance,’ ‘Jim Along Josie,’ ‘Jimmie Get Your Hoe Cake Done,’ “Massa in the Cold Ground,’ and ‘Lucy Long’The Virginia Minstrels toured North America and England. They became so popular that a mania for minstrel bands sprang up all over the United States and Europe. S.S. Sanford also recalled a Sam Johnson, “who is now a millionaire in St. Louis. He was called the Green Mountain Boy and was a fantastic fiddler.”

Another well-known troupe was the Buckley Family who also appeared in 1842 in the Tremont temple in Boston under the name “Congo Melodists.” James Buckley and his three sons Richard, George Swaine, and Frederick made up the minstrels. They visited London in 1846 then planted themselves at the Chinese Assembly Rooms in New York. After 1842 Negro minstrelsy was a permanent institution in American society.

Black performers had begun performing onstage by 1843, usually as dancers. James Western, called the “Great Western,” introduced a dance in which he gave an imitation of a locomotive getting up steam. Another well-known black dancer was “Uncle” Jim Lowe, an elderly performer in 1845 who influenced the famous jig-dancer and bones player Juba. Juba was William Henry Lane, a performer who impressed Charles Dickens on a visit to the Five Points. Juba was dancing for Charley White's Melodean in the Bowery in 1846. Banjo player Thomas Briggs and Gilbert Ward Pell negotiated him away from White and spirited him off to England where he married a white woman. In 1852 Juba's skeleton was said to have been on exhibit at the Surrey Music Hall in England. S. S. Sanford said that success and drink killed Juba.

He was fairly feted in English society; the great Jullien brought him out in connection with his monster concerts, and in Vauxhall Gardens the Duke of Wellington took him by the hand and complimented him for his talent. He went to England with a salary of $20 per week, and before he left Jullien gave him £50, or $250 per week.

Daniel Decatur Emmett was born near Mount Vernon, Ohio October 29, 1815. Emmett is credited with composing ‘Dixie,’ a song popular both North and South in the Civil War. Other favorites were ‘Early in de Mornin,’Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel,’ ‘Striking Ile,’ ‘Here we Are; or, Cross ober Jordan,’ ‘Billy Patterson,’ ‘Road to Richmond,’ ‘Go Way Boys,’ ‘Black Brigade,’ and ‘Walk, Jawbone’. 

‘Dixie’ was composed 1859 and first published under title ‘I wish I was in Dixie's Land’. Dan Emmett performed it on the stage in New York with Bryant’s Minstrels “and it is said to have been the air of a Republican campaign song in 1860.” A July 3, 1892 article, American War Songs, in the Buffalo Courier said,

The words sung to it during the war – words which quickly made it a sectional lyric – were written by Gen. Albert Pike of Arkansas. “Southrons, hear your country call you,” made the Southern pulse beat faster, and the chorus was enlivening:

“For Dixie’s Land we take our stand,
And live or die for Dixie.
To Arms! To Arms!
And conquer peace for Dixie!”

 Emmett’s other most enduring song was ‘Old Dan Tucker,’ making use of Emmett’s first name and that of a favorite dog. Dan Emmett is quoted in C.B. Galbreath’s ‘Daniel Decatur Emmett, author of “Dixie”’ (1904)

As far back almost I can remember I took great interest in music. I hummed familiar tunes, arranged to sing them and made up tunes to suit words of my own. I paid no especial attention to the poetry and thought little about the literary merit of what I wrote. I composed Old Dan Tucker in 1830 or 1831, when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, before I left Mount Vernon.

In 1874 Emmett was keeping a saloon in Chicago. His last tour took place in 1895 when he traveled south with the Al. G. Fields Minstrels. Emmett died at Ohio on June 28, 1904. Al. G. Fields supplied a band to play ‘Dixie’ over ‘Uncle Dan’s’ grave. Al. G. Fields famous traveling minstrel show was on the road from 1886 to its final closure in Cincinnati in 1928.

Daniel Decatur Emmett

Edwin Paul Christy, who had been performing with a band in Child’s Alley for pennies in 1838, formed a minstrel band in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1842 and in 1846 they took to the stage as The Christy Minstrels. The original troupe, known as the Virginia Minstrels, consisted of E.P. Christy, George Christy (whose real name was Harrington), L. Durand and T. Vaughn. Enon Dickerson and Zeke Bakers joined up and the name was changed to the Christy Minstrels. E.P. Christy died of suicide May 21, 1862 and was buried at Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn. One song made popular by the Christy Minstrels was ‘Lucy Long’

Just come out afore you
To sing a little song;
I plays it on the banjo,
And they call it Lucy Long.

A large factor in the popularity of the Christy’s was their singing of the songs of Stephen Collins Foster. Foster was born, appropriately enough, on July 4, 1826 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and spent his pennies on “commic” songsters as a boy. He taught himself guitar and, by the age of ten was putting on shows for his family and friends, playing favorites of the day like ‘Old Zip Coon’, ‘My Coal Black Rose’, and ‘Jump Jim Crow’.

‘George Christy, the noted Ethiopian delineator’
In 1846 he was working as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati when his first published song, ‘There’s a Good Time Coming,’ was printed by Peters & Field in October 1946. Two songs penned earlier, ‘Louisiana Belle’ and ‘Uncle Ned’ would be published two years later by W.C. Peters in Louisville, Kentucky. ‘Uncle Ned’ proved the most popular
There was an old nigger, his name was Uncle Ned,
He’s dead long ago, long ago;
He had no wool on top of his head,
De place where de wool ought to grow.
In later years Foster exchanged the offensive n-word for ‘darkey’ and quit writing his songs in Negro dialect. His songs were sung by Christy’s Minstrels, Campbell’s Minstrels, and the New Orleans Serenaders. At first, because of “prejudice against them by some,” Foster agreed to allow Christy’s name to appear as author. In 1852, as he wrote Christy, he “concluded to reinstate my name on my songs and to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame.” Christy consented and Foster’s name appeared on all sheet music thereafter.

After 1856 Foster’s productivity dropped but he continued to pen some classics including ‘Hard Times come again no More’. One of the last popular songs he wrote was ‘Katy Bell’ in 1863. Foster moved to New York where he lived in a boarding house with his wife and 8 year old daughter. His wife deserted him in 1861, probably because of drunkenness and poverty. Foster died on the charity ward at Bellevue Hospital January 13, 1864, and was laid to rest at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Foster was the one songwriter whose songs survived, cleansed of racial words, into the present. George Washington Dixon is noted in most histories as an embarrassment. ‘Old Zip Coon’ and the like have mostly been relegated to the dustbin. Dan Emmett is remembered chiefly through two songs; ‘Old Dan Tucker’ and ‘I Wish I was in Dixie.’ ‘Old Dan Tucker,’ adapted to modern sensibilities, is a staple among traditional country, folk and “doing just so” bluegrass singers. Many of Foster’s songs are still sung; ‘Oh, Susannah, ‘De Camptown Races,’ ‘Old Dog Trey,’ ‘Hard Times Come again no More,’ ‘Old Black Joe,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ‘Swanee River,’  and ‘Away down South.’

Another popular songwriter was Nelson Kneass, who S.S. Sanford said was (along with Foster) one of “the two bards of the minstrels.” He composed ‘Hear the Whoops upon the Hills’, ‘Wake up Jake’, ‘Ben Bolt,’ and ‘Hold Your Horses.’ Kneass was born in Philadelphia and died in poverty in Cincinatti. Sanford told an interviewer that the “publishers of ‘Ben Bolt’ made $50,000 from that one song alone, and the author often needed bread.”

Stereo Card 1860’s
Daniel Decatur Emmett lived to see a new century far removed from the steamboat whistles of his youth. When he died in 1904 it was the era of ragtime and coon songs grown out of Negro minstrelsy. The railroad and medicine show kept minstrelsy alive until the early 1930’s when radios, movies and a fresh generation killed it. The older generation kept it alive through the 1950’s although it was mostly performed in private homes and at fraternal organization functions minus the burnt cork.

Poster for Billy Kersands
The 196o’s. In the nineteen-sixties with the advent of civil rights, minstrelsy was derided as a servile ‘Uncle Tom’ activity and academics began writing about it as a disgusting form of racist entertainment. Case closed.

Up until about 1912 many black Americans saw things differently. They were proud that music based on Negro songs and dances was the predominant entertainment not only in the U.S. but around the world. Booker T. Washington hated minstrelsy and found it degrading but many blacks in the professions (particularly in the 1890s); educators, opera singers, authors and journalists, saw an opportunity to advance civil rights by entering and competing with whites in Negro minstrelsy in order to bring about change to the existing social order.

Music did help Negros in civil rights despite strong resistance from the “White Rats,” a group set up to fight against integration of the vaudeville stage. By 1906 Ernest Hogan, black comedian and singer, could firmly state in a Variety article that “there is no so-called color-line in the vaudeville business.” The borrowed music of Negro minstrelsy is the original American music, without which today there would be no ragtime, country, pop, bluegrass, blues, jazz, or rock and roll, all children of the burnt cork opera.

*Images courtesy E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Stephen C. Foster

by John Adcock


  1. John

    Another great article! Wonderful! Thanks again!


  2. According to Allston Brown, the first performance by a "minstrel band," that is, white men in blackface, was at the Chatham Theater on January 31, 1943. This seems to be the scholarly consensus. Since it was a "benefit" performance, some have confused it with their first "paid" performance which was on February 17, same year, at the Bowery Amphitheater. They did not "perform" per se, at the Branch Hotel, but were in rehearsal and preparation for their engagement at the Chatham.