Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 3: Uh...Minstrelsy, The First Real Pop (on All Levels)?

Yeah. Master race. Sure.
“The title of one study of early blackface minstrelsy captures in an arresting phrase the white entertainer’s relationship to blackness: ‘love and theft.’”
- Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History

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.)

It's uncomfortable to like at a creative form like 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) – but 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 makes a case as the first original and truly popular musical/entertainment 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. Yay?

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 (i.e., violin played sloppy), a tambourine and one more guy on “the bones.” Minstrel often borrowed already existing tunes - more on this later - and just told different stories over them. A dozen companies would join the The Virginia Minstrels and they surpassed them, both musically and conceptually, in not much time.

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. By the time the Civil War actually loomed over national politics, minstrel acts did what they could to talk around...the unavoidably topical nature of their work, and the whole thing likely shifted from being a renewing genre of any kind to parody. And yet its evolution follows the  same arc as most popular musical forms: 1) rough, raw original; 2) refinements, expansions, extrapolations, and enlargements of the art-form; and 3) the whole thing winds up a lever some animal hits to get what it expects/wants.

That gets ahead of things a bit, because minstrelsy struggled against a dingy reputation. Respectable society did the usual - cluck disapproval, avidly watching and participating - and that didn't always sit right. One snafu 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 Stephen C. Foster (who kinda founded the pantheon of American popular songwriters), and a guy named E. P. Christy, the boss of the biggest minstrelsy company of their day. Things came a head when Foster, who wanted his name a good distance from minstrelsy, abruptly asked to put his name on a song-sheet - and after years of demanding his name be kept off. Christy blew off Foster's letter, but not before scratching “vacillating skunk” on the back of the envelope that Foster’s letter arrived in. And then he kept credit for the song(s?) till the copyright expired. Beef is old, the end.

It’s easy and fair to call minstrelsy racist crap and walk away, but Crawford puts in the work to make sense of it – and comfortably, too. Blackface served two purposes: one, establishing character (identifying the character as black filled in the backstory), and, second, masking for the performer. I'm almost paraphrasing Crawford here, but playing behind a mask liberates performers to comment on politics, society and culture in someone else's skin; as in, the actor to make something up, call the pope gay, and blame it on the character. To project that forward, pop culture has always lingered behind that little taste of the transgressive – the thing that (I’m guessing) so discomfited Foster – but it's funny to see how far back it goes. Changes in what’s popular comes easier if you slip at least one toe over some line. (Also, if not that, what are you doing?)

That's the best background I can manage, so I want move on to mechanics - the instruments people played. Or, because I don't have the chops to dig into everything, let's focus on the banjo. First, let’s wipe away the broad/likeliest cultural frame you have for the banjo - e.g., the kid from Deliverance - because 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.
As for the songs, you probably know more than you think. 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 precedents (“Coal Black Rose” (ouch) and “Massa Am a Stingy Man” (really?), “Old Dan Tucker” is sort of the groundbreaker for the genre. It’s the number the Virginia Minstrels played in their audition, according to Crawford, and that made E. P. Christy something like The Beatles of his day. According to what I see on the song sheet (not read, SEE), I'd guess 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 their senses. Mostly. Or most people. The times...

Lacking an original version of that song (tried to find one), I’m going to round up and close with two of the most famous songs of this era, both of them composed by Foster. 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. Due to its popularity, however, 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 - better melody, use of harmony and, in a call-back to a direct borrowing from black tradition, the call and response (the “doo-dahs,” basically).

Crawford likes (proper name?) “De Camptown Ladies,” but he’s clearly a bigger fan of “Old Folks at Home.” And he’s right: the tune plays artfully with pitch [ed. - over my skis] 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, though), but...where is home when you're effectively homeless? There are things you can't fix, but, once you have a home, the aching absence sang in “Old Folks at Home” should strike a chord.

The song's fame made me think I'd find slick versions of it all over, but I found misplaced, boring, probably something like a dramatization of the original instead. Still, 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, but "transgression" overstates it. It's closer to the idea of loosening up, taking baby steps toward the deep end until you want to stop (individual results do vary). With that in mind, think what it felt like in American society at the time to see white people playing “black instruments,” never mind doing “black stuff” generally. Whatever you think of it today, I'm damn sure it was new to all involved back then. And maybe a little transgressive.

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 has the merit of taking a genuine, if fleeting interest in black life and culture...yes, while stealing the music. That feel a small step for such an exploitative exchange, 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 continue find their easiest common ground - and to this day?

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.

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