Hokum’s Daddy and Dirty Blues’ Granddaddy: the Minstrel Show
When I finally listened to my mother and decided to sing Dirty Blues, the required reading took me directly into the rich vein of history that is the Minstrel Show. Those blackface variety shows, constructed of racism and vulgarity and looked upon by modern audiences with horror are simultaneously revolting, mysterious and frightening. There is so much to say about the form -- and so much has been said by brilliant people -- that imagining an examination on this little forum of mine went so far beyond daunting as to be laughable. I could excuse my discomfort on the grounds that the subject is terribly loaded emotionally... a stroll through a minefield. It's also true, though, that the little summaries I like to compose for myself (which then become the pencil sketches I hold in my mind's eye as I work on historical music) simply won't suffice for a subject so vast. You have to do the reading. There is no summarizing, really; it is, however, worth every minute. Go down the rabbit hole of links to essays, books, articles, this particularly fantastic book by John Strausbaugh, and God only knows how much stuff. You may, as I did, realize you skipped lunch entirely and actually, you just missed your train not looking up, dammit. Who knows when another B will come. Argh.
The passages that struck me and the things that occurred to me as I did the reading, drew me strongly to the historical, political and social context of this music, and I found that the landscape the form occupied was at least as interesting to me as the music itself.
I don’t believe it’s true that the United States was born fully-formed in 1776 when we declared our independence from Great Britain. Rather, it seems to me that our nation was formed as the result of a series of gestures that took place over the first hundred years of our history. This came to mind as I was reading the history of the minstrel show, and it was particularly interesting to me that the sharp corners in the evolution of minstrel show seemed to coincide with the major gestures which formed the United States.
The sketch I came up with is a crude stick figure beside all the eloquent analyses that are available, and I don’t pretend to understand or explain it in a comprehensive way. Even so, American minstrelsy is such a deep subject that I was unable to reduce even my own relatively brief thoughts to a single post.
Instead, I will examine the changes in the minstrel show’s form as they relate to the pivotal moments in our early history, in a series of related posts that will appear in this space from time to time. I hope others with an interest in history will find them engaging, and I hope that writing them will inform for me my performance of Hokum Blues and, going forward, other genres that draw from that well.
I: Minstrelsy and the War of 1812
Minstrelsy is the United States’ first indigenous musical theater performance art, developing in stages beginning in the early 19th century, when the physical comedy and musical offerings of white performers in blackface commonly occupied entr'actes or were one event on the program at a variety show. Although the full-lenth iteration of the form comes a bit later, occupying history from 1843 through 1895 or thereabouts, it's also true the "Father of Minstrelsy" Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed his character, tattered buffoon Jim Crow -- and the act itself -- in a cultural context that included the popularity of blackface clowns from 1800, and blackface on America's legitimate stage as early as 1769, in a New York City production of The Padlock (which featured, in a comic supporting role, a white actor in the role of an inebriated black manservant).
I think about this. Art is always either derivative or reactionary, usually both, and in any event, everything comes from somewhere. All things have been drawn from a well. Many times, deciding upon the impetus or knowing what was adapted, conflated or turned on its head to make something 'new', is not so difficult. But when something has an aspect that is arguably unique, one follows a less direct line looking for its parent. To say, as I was told and then reported here, that "minstrelsy is the United States’ first indigenous musical theater performance art", brings with it a challenge. What happened that this flowered? Why this, particularly? Why then? Context, as always, is everything.
I was told by a junior high history teacher that winning the American Revolution didn't make us a country. Rather, it gave us the space to try to make one. In fact, the gesture that was the Revolutionary War was only the first of several that would eventually result in our birth. With the Revolution, we achieved independence on paper; by adopting our current Constitution and ratifying the Bill of Rights, we codified our separation from Great Britain and created ourselves as a theoretical entity. But theories don't make good boundaries. Nascent international relations lurched between bad and worse, with the nation abruptly no longer under the protection of King George. Colonies no more, the new United States were instantly put to the test by Barbary pirates, British maritime aggressors' forcible impressment of US sailors into the Royal Navy, attempts by Britain to halt our expansion west, negotiations with Spain, France and Russia to buy our expansion west, and the imposition of illegal trade restrictions between the United States and France.
Here is our second gesture: After the War of 1812, our independence is no longer theoretical. We've pushed back the British, made our point globally (after a bit of mopping up in the Second Barbary War) and this bit is key: the nation owes the victory to 'the common man'. With Washington D.C. deserted by her fleeing gentry and loyalist New England considering secession, fighting was left to the era's ultimate common man: the probably-certifiable Andrew Jackson. Jackson got his victory by the service of untrained nobodies from Baltimore and in New Orleans, an army comprised of every race then found on these shores. A direct result of those events is that, after the war, voting rights for (white) men of modest means (previously, voting rights were tied to property ownership) were agitated for and won. Winning this war in the way that it was won, wins America (both in a macro and micro sense) her first day of sovereignty in practice.
In spite of laws passed which were effecting gradual emancipation, in the early 19th century, slaves were still held in most of the original states (at right, an animated gif of the changing map). In a country which built its monuments to freedom and democracy using slave labor, and in which people were so willingly entertained by the folk characters, dance forms and original or traditional music of slaves, I don't believe it's accidental the earliest iterations of the minstrel show (proto-minstrelsy?) began to take shape just after the turn of the 19th century, when the country was hip-deep in learning to become Americans instead of Colonists. Having turned away from an identity as expatriate Englishmen, Americans were staring at a vast array of breathtaking challenges and a seemingly endless wilderness. Possibility and risk must have loomed eye-blurringly large. Audiences had to have needed an art form -- entertainment -- that expressed themselves to themselves, and was nothing of England.
Prototypical minstrelsy reflects a foundational early American sensibility. As more particularly described in John Strausbaugh's Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture (and earlier in Candace Rourke's 1931 book American Humor, a Study of the National Character), in this earliest form, original characters were drawn from three American "types": the Yankee, the Frontiersman and the Southern Black. The Yankee was a dry as dust traveling salesman -- in some respects a con-man -- offering cutting wit in the deadpan accent of the Upper Eastern Seaboard. The Frontiersman was a larger-than-life pastiche of figures like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan, spinning wild stories of epic heroism and impossible scrapes. The Southern Black brought song, dance and spirituality to the mix -- and was depicted as foolish, childlike and lazy.
Very quickly -- by the 1830's -- the form that would become true minstrelsy dropped the its white archetypes, to develop into the slavery-apologism masquerading as slapstick, the mockery and stereotyping of African Americans it would exploit in the years to come. Now, a stock cast of negro archetypes was assembled, including the Slave (often called Jim Crow after Rice's character, or Zip Coon after the 1820's song credited alternatively to George Dixon and Bob Farrell), Mammy (a mother figure and an emblem of idyllic plantation life), the Dandy (the free northern black -- the enemy), Old Uncle (sober and reliable) and the Wench (light-skinned and sexually permissive), and the sketches and music became increasingly elaborate. As America began to have an identity of its own, white America took a night off and entertained itself. Looking into the circus fun-mirror showing them happy-go-lucky, foolish, sexually promiscuous, inherently musical mental children who gamboled day and night were never in need of rest, they were shown the images that would always characterize minstrelsy's depiction of the United States' black population.
All this starts to form a picture, and a useful point -- or at least a heartening one for me, is this: Even while so many at that time were enslaved, or otherwise entirely disenfranchised from justice, it's nevertheless simply true that every American contributed his portion to the creation of our national identity, and it only makes sense that, having won our revolution and created a new performer to tremble in the wings of the world stage, an art form will begin to emerge which is uniquely that performer’s own. An entirely domestic form (which on so many levels perfectly reflected the new culture's face back upon itself) is revealed, brand new and ready for growth, in and around our reaching for sovereignty and real-world recognition by Great Britain, Europe and, ultimately, our domestic landowners and oligarchy, by way of the War of 1812.
The performers want a good night's sleep and a balanced breakfast, though -- the hard part is yet to come. We'll need to be light on our feet, indeed, to continue the labor of our birth through the gesture that is the Civil War, and to look the full evolution of the Minstrel Show in the face.
From the next installment...
What got me thinking is this comment taken from Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History: Essays That Did Not Make it Into the Dissertation, But Were Too Much Fun to Discard, by Frank W. Sweet:
Slaveholders blasted the [minstrel show] genre’s sympathetic portrayal of runaways and vilified the abolitionist efforts of its inventors...Unionists said minstrel shows were divisive because they depicted happy slaves. Southerners said minstrelsy was a Yankee plot to mock their peculiar institution. Liberals said it was reactionary because it slandered the working classes. Conservatives said it was radical because it showed disrespect for social institutions. Racial integrationists (assimilationists) of all complexions complained that it mocked African-Americans. Racial segregationists (separatists) of of all complexions complained that it encouraged different groups to mingle with each other. Rich industrialists and trade unionists both were particularly disturbed. No other activity by the poor working-class so united in self-defense elite Knickerbockers, self-made entrepreneurs ... displaced artisans, middle class merchants, and even Karl Marx. Minstrel shows were a mixed-race shivaree that continued day after disruptive day. They highlighted the injustice that the whole thrust of America’s growing egalitarianism was that it applied only to White Anglo-Saxon folk. The notion of a poor Celtic underclass imitating African-Americans (or was it the other way around?) threatened the stable social order.