With the intention of getting to the most uncomfortable stuff about “minstrelsy” right at the top, Jim Crow started as a stage character before lending the name to a collection of laws that shame the United States to this day. And, hey, the guy who came up with it, Thomas D. “Daddy” (why?) Rice? He’s from my hometown (stay classy, Cincinnati). Also, guy named George Washington Dixon worked under the stage name, “Zip Coon.” (This is his title track, apparently, and…harsh start…”Do Your Ears Hang Low”? There it is, a cherished tune from my childhood, birthed as a straight racist classic.)
Without dignifying the specific creative form known as minstrelsy – e.g. stage productions featuring white performers in blackface, which peaked in popularity in the two decades running up to our nation’s only true existential crisis (so far), the American Civil War (roughly, 1840 – 1860) – context is always important. To quote Crawford:
“When characters of American Indian, Irish, or Scottish descent appeared on nineteenth-century stages, their stories were immediately ripe for elaboration because the audience expected them to behave in certain ways.”
Minstrelsy offered up stereotype as humor, basically, a long, proud tradition that limps on in (what feels like the dead form) “white people do this/black people do this” comedy. By way of live stage shows that followed a fairly standard pattern – “first a group of songs…then an ‘olio’ (hodgepodge) section including stump speeches and other novelties; and finally a large-scale burlesque skit set in the South” - minstrelsy could very well stand as the first truly popular (e.g. secular) musical form in American history, even as the sophistication of the material changed. As Crawford notes, it “proved to be the first musical genre to reverse the east-to-west transatlantic flow of performers to North America.” So, minstrelsy sounds like America’s first pop culture export. Um…
According to Crawford, the Virginia Minstrels established the first reliable company of performers. The four founders (names? nah) threw together their first audition (Crawford dubs it a “browbeat”) on the spot, using only “popular” instruments – e.g. a banjo (black invention), a fiddle (e.g. violin played sloppy), a tambourine and one more guy on “the bones” – and what sounds like an already existing tune…more on this later. The Virginia Minstrels would eventually be joined by dozens of companies and, later, surpassed, both musically conceptually, by the biggest companies of minstrelsy’s heyday.
Beyond the evolution of the form – e.g. more complex songs (more later) and more humanized themes and settings for characters who were, in the final analysis, black men, even though white performers always, always played them (and reaped the profits, and the credit) – minstrelsy occupied an uncomfortable space in the culture, one that only got more complicated as the Civil War loomed closer. And yet its evolution follows the same familiar arc as any popular musical form – e.g., 1) rough, raw original; 2) flowering of artistic expression within it; and 3) a sort of synthesis where original expression takes a back seat to giving the people what they expect/want.
The combination of racist and/or association with the low-brow actually lead to a “beef” within the minstrelsy community (hold that thought: where do you think this particular art form developed, flourished and died? If you answered, New York, you win). The split came between one of America’s first popularly famous composers/songwriters, Stephen C. Foster, and a guy named E. P. Christy, the boss of the biggest minstrelsy company of their day. The issue blew up when, after years of voluntarily keeping his name off the song-sheet, and that with an eye to keeping his distance from something sullied and “popular” as minstrelsy, Foster wrote Christy to tell him that he’d had a change of heart and that, yes, he (Foster) would like very much to get credit for the songs he wrote. Christy ignored him (if after scratching “vacillating skunk” on the back of the envelope that Foster’s letter arrived in) and kept credit for the song(s?) till the copyright expired.
It’s easy and fair to call minstrelsy racist crap and walk away, but Crawford forwards an argument that allows it to fit within the American popular musical tradition – and comfortably, too. Blackface served two purposes: one, establishing character (even if that character could play either a fool or a trickster), and, second, masking for the performer. Playing behind a mask liberated the performers to comment on politics, society and culture; basically, the actor could say whatever he wanted and blame it on the character. That little taste of the transgressive – the thing that (I’m guessing) so discomfited Foster – has both driven and defined most developments in every form of American pop music, at least in the 20th and 21st centuries. When it comes to changes in what’s popular, if you’re not at least slipping a toe over the line, or just plain telling some group of people to fuck off somehow, what are you doing?
With that brief history out of the way, and before highlighting a couple songs, I want to touch on what people heard in terms of instruments. Rather than dig into everything, I’ll focus on the banjo. First, let’s wipe away every assumption you may have picked up from the kid from Deliverance: the banjo originated in Africa. More to the point, history has named the first (known) white banjo player: Joel Sweeney, and he only picked it up in the decade before minstrelsy launched (1838, roughly; going from memory on that). Sweeney passed on what he learned to a guy who wound up in the Virginia Minstrels, and the chain continued until a bunch of white dudes sporting black faces learned and popularized the banjo to the point where it's part of some of the most "American" musical traditions. And, again, one of the defining cyclical patterns in American popular music played out: white people borrowing and profiting from black culture.
As for the songs, you know a lot of them. And most of them, especially by today’s standards, yeah, pretty goddamn racist. Blackface in song, basically. I’ll never hear the words, “way down upon the Swanee River” without “Way down upon de Swanee ribber” whispering Western culture’s dirty secrets in my ear.
As much as it feels like burying the lead, I’ll go chronologically on this. Apart from a couple (cringe-y) precedents (“Coal Black Rose” and [hurts a bit more] “Massa Am a Stingy Man” (srsly!?), and according to the tale (by Crawford), “Old Dan Tucker” is sort of the groundbreaker for the genre (and its history, instructive); it’s the audition number the Virginia Minstrels played for the guy who made the phenomenon that made E. P. Christy, The Beatles of his day. According to what I see on the song sheet, I think Pete Seeger’s version sounds closest to the original (though, let the record show that Bruce Springsteen played the song live at least once, and there’s this dude on his back porch with his banjolele (or, actually, banjulele or banjo uke) playing a thinner version of the same). All three of those videos don’t track the lyrics I’m seeing on that old song sheet (“I come to down de udder night, I hear de noise an saw de fight, De watch-man was a run-nin roun', cry-in Old Dan Tuck-er’s come to town, So get out de way”), but times change, people come to realize that some traditions…wear better with time than others. (And some just suck.)
Lacking an original version of that song (I tried to find one…for a while; and between things), I’m going to round and close with two of the most famous songs of this era, both of them composed by Foster, with ultimate credit. The most famous of the two, “Camptown Races” (or, for those who want offending, “Gwine to Run All Night”), is probably the most famous. I found a purported “original version,” so there’s that, but, due to its popularity, you can find a pretty wide read on this one, classic (#hero), something you can’t make fun of (maybe; pending further research), and double racist (blackface!). Crawford, though, flags the song as a significant departure from the Virginia Minstrels’ stuff, with a better melody, use of harmony and, in a call-back to a direct borrowing, the call and response of “doo-dah.”
Crawford likes (proper name?) “De Camptown Ladies,” but he’s clearly a bigger fan of “Old Folks at Home.” He’s right to…uh, too: the tune really does play artfully with pitch and it still feels natural to boot; it sounds like a breaking voice (e.g., heartbreak). Also, as much as it’s a black stage character singing the song, the theme (homesickness / displacement) is as universal as it gets. As Crawford points out, jesus, no, no slave pines for the plantation (popular idea back then), but, for all that, home is still home, wherever a person finds it. If you’ve ever wandered away from the anchor spot in your life, the aching absence sang in “Old Folks at Home” should strike a chord.
Due to the song, I expected to find better versions of this one, but instead found misplaced, boring, probably something like a dramatization of the original, and, yeah, I think this one’s close.
In closing, if you tie some of the antecedents noted in the first two chapters of this series (and hinted at in Crawford’s book), it’s possible to trace at least a line through both the kind of music Americans would listen to, but also the potential for the commercialization of that commodity – aka, music. As for minstrelsy, specifically, I hinted at a concept that I think keeps driving America’s pop culture forward – or least up until the goddamn copper-topped troglodyte lurched it back – i.e., the idea of transgression. First, it feels safe to assume that white people playing “black instruments,” never mind doing “black stuff” generally, crossed some kind of line in the culture.
Crawford found an example that feels like it goes a little deeper. In case you don’t study the video linked to above, “Coal Black Rose” tells a tale of courtship, specifically, two men wooing the same woman. In the song, Rose keeps one suitor outside while she’s entertaining the other inside. She eventually brings the dude standing outside in from the cold, but, before he come in, he sings this quick lament (and, quoting, again, excuse the racism):
“Make haste, Rosa, lubly dear / I froze tiff as a poker waitin here”
All in all, minstrelsy, and the time and place it occupies, at least makes sense of what it did; it might even excuse it. (Al Jolson, though, 60 years later, and everything…less so; like a lot less so.) Tasteless as it was, it took a genuine, if fleeting interest in black music and culture. That might seem like a small, exploitative step, but does it seem more or less likely that those first tendrils of contact blossomed into a big part of where white and black culture find their easiest common ground?
And, yeah, that’s all good and well. Still, it’s worth thinking about who originated what. So credit can go where it’s due.