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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Binns

Minstrelsy in Victorian Britain - Part 2: African American minstrelsy - survival, growth & parody

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

By Anthony Binns


Fugitives North: Minstrelsy in New York


An African American outdoor celebration ( Fete de Rosalie in Brazil circa 1827) The Pinkster Parade in New York may have been similar.

In the northeastern states too, black musicians were present and active well before the emergence of the blackface version of minstrelsy. In Black Gotham, Carla L. Petersen’s study of black middle-class families in nineteenth century New York, the author observes: “Minstrelsy first emerged as an expression of alienation on the part of the city’s [New York’s] underclass – both black newcomers fleeing the South and disaffected white youths who donned black face as a gesture of solidarity against civic authority.”39


Since New York had abolished slavery within the state in 1827, there had been a notable increase not only in the size of its freed black population, but also in its appeal as a destination for those in flight along the ‘underground railroad’ from the southern states. Around this time the black population of New York City represented some 14,000 out of a total of nearly 203,000, or approximately 5%.40 For the most poverty stricken and destitute of individuals, newly arrived in a strange city, the playing of a musical instrument might offer a means of much-needed income, however meagre; if not in a formal professional capacity in a saloon bar or dance hall, then at least through performing on the street. Buskers and itinerant musicians are not the best-documented of history’s characters, but it is clear that such people were present and active in the main urban areas of the northeastern states. This would have been particularly true in the bustling, mixed community, commercial centres such as Quincy Market in Boston or the Five Points and Catherine Market in downtown Manhattan. Brian Roberts writes:


In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, Northern whites also had plenty of opportunity to hear songs of African American slaves. Through much of the 1820s after all, slavery still thrived in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. In these states and elsewhere, whites attended and watched African American carnivals. There were the annual Pentecost or ‘Pinkster’ ceremonies in New York, along with ‘Election Day’ and ‘Negro Training Day’ festivals farther north in Connecticut and Massachusetts. According to observers, these ceremonies were characterized by songs and ‘Congo Dances’. One account pictured a carnival “dominated by an incessant rhythm and drumming” with participants “beating lustily” on wooden containers and singing an “ever wild, though euphonic cry of Hi-a-bomba, bomba, bomba in full harmony with the thumping sounds.” The ceremonies were filled with “the various languages of Africa”, declared another white observer, “accompanied with the music of the fiddle, tambourine, the banjo, [and] the drum.”41


At this point Roberts goes on to question whether the white performers would have “picked up”42 any elements of this music; and he goes on to assert that blackface minstrel songs were essentially Celtic in style: “It does not take much musical training at all to recognize the obvious Irish origins of blackface songs like ‘Jim Along Josey’, ‘Zip Coon’, ‘Old Dan Tucker’ or many others.”43 This, I think, rather misses the point that the fusion of black and Irish styles represented in these songs had already taken place in the preceding decades in Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia. The tune of ‘Jim Along Josey’ for example, like many others, has been traced to a southern plantation song.44 Furthermore, the minstrel sound comes across as a style in its own right, not merely a re-hashed version of Irish “jigs and reels”, as Roberts claims. There is indeed a crossover, but a substantial part of that crossover is authentically black in origin. That is not to say that, taken as a whole, the blackface version of minstrelsy was authentic. Far from it, it’s lyric content and physical presentation were often brazenly distorted and hostile. But importantly, blackface did not spring autonomously, self-generated from white performers in the northeastern states. Rather, it emerged as a parody of an earlier form that was indeed authentic.


Improvisation & the offbeat


The Five Points area of New York City painted by George Catlin circa 1827

Furthermore, as Christopher J. Smith has pointed out, documentary evidence in the form of written scores of minstrel music, can be deceptive. By their very nature, they fail to convey the polyrhythmic and improvised nature of the African American performance of these songs. He writes:


[….] sheet music [has not] captured the totality of sound in performance […] the polyrhythmic, polymetric shifting accents that were an essential element of African American improvised performance practice. Even those pieces that in the [18]40s and [18]50s were printed in simplified and squared-out versions for bourgeois consumption were often syncopated or ‘ragged’ (as the process was later labelled) in performance. Certainly, this rhythmic cutting or ragging was an essential part of the African-Creole street performance idiom.”45


Indeed, syncopation in the form of polyrhythm or ‘ragged rhythm’ and the emphasis on the offbeat was perhaps the essential contribution of African American music to minstrelsy and indeed to the western canon as a whole. Syncopation, in itself, was not entirely new. It had been an element in western classical music since the Middle Ages, for example in works by Gabrieli, Bach and Handel. However, in typical western music, it was the first beat of the bar, the downbeat, followed by the third beat, that until this point had usually contained the strongest accents. These are the onbeats. The offbeat, by contrast, emphasizes the weak, even beats of a bar. For the first time, this effect was being applied in a sustained way to the forefront of the music as a central characteristic. It is an effect that is entirely familiar to modern ears. We can easily recognise it in ragtime and jazz and rock n’ roll and whole host of modern idioms. But in the early nineteenth century it would have offered a novel and exciting experience, and it was a fundamental technique of African American polyrhythm. We should be cautious here not to fall prey to the simplistic racialist trope of black people having ‘natural rhythm’. There is nothing racially inherent about this; improvisation and polyrhythm are cultural phenomena, highly sophisticated aspects of a newly emerging American musical environment. Mozart and Wagner might equally lay claim to ‘natural rhythm’, but of a different order.


What Northern white performers would have identified in this increasingly popular musical style, so novel and successful on the city streets, and in the markets and saloons, was an opportunity; something that they themselves could exploit, imitate, adapt and more effectively monetize in the formal, mainstream theatres. In this regard, the scholar Derek Scott has noted a whole range of elements within minstrel banjo-playing that were directly copied from black music. They include a constant pulse, a drone (on the short top string), slide notes, repeated riffs, syncopation, call and response structure, pentatonic chord shapes, third and flattened seventh notes, dance in performance and adapted lyrics.46 What these white performers could benefit from, and which the black artists could not, was access to those mainstream professional stages.


Patting Juba: William Henry Lane


‘Master Juba’ Lane from an engraving in The Illustrated London News August 5, 1848

In a similar vein, the white blackface performers both imitated and simultaneously distorted the physical and verbal aspects of black performance. Dance movements and diction, while professed to be authentic, were nothing of the kind. On the contrary, they were a deliberately exaggerated pastiche and caricature. As previously noted, T. ‘Daddy’ Rice openly acknowledged having copied his song and dance routine from “a very black, clumsy negro”. But how “clumsy” in fact was this original dancer? It is worth reiterating that Rice was hardly setting out to be objective in his portrayal. David Harewood, in his BBC documentary, references an item from The Baltimore Sun of 1837, that records a speech given by Rice at the conclusion of his popular show:


Before I went to England, the British public were excessively ignorant regarding our free institutions [slavery]. They were under the impression that negroes were naturally equal to the whites and their degraded condition was consequent entirely upon our institutions; but I effectually proved that negroes are essentially an inferior species of the human family, and they ought to remain slaves.47


Rice’s role and attitude in this regard are a matter of some debate. For example, Jenna M. Gibbs has claimed that while in London Rice would advocate abolitionism thus appealing to the artisans who frequented the Adelphi. However, when he played in Philadelphia and other cities in the United States, he would revert to a more pro-slavery stance.48 Either way, it suggests that he was an exploitative opportunist rather than a principled campaigner or even sympathetic imitator.


There, from the horse’s mouth as it were, is the stated aim of an early and prominent blackface performer. He is hardly seeking to be objective or authentic. It is worth reiterating that the emergence of blackface minstrelsy was contemporaneous with the struggle to end slavery in the United States, and constituted part of the counter struggle to maintain it. Consequently, the debasement of black people, their character, and their culture was an essential element in reinforcing and disseminating the racists’ propaganda. Appearing in England and continental Europe in order to proselytize this particular image of slavery would have been a vital element in countering the work of the many distinguished abolitionists, who were then so active, and even in preparing the ground for support of the South in the event of a civil war.


Exaggeration and caricature would infect the entire presentation of blackface performance. William Henry Lane, known as ‘Master Juba’, for example, was perhaps the finest and best recorded of the black American dancers who emerged at this time. His name derives from the black American dialect word ‘juba’, a term for communal hand-clapping and foot-tapping, traditionally used to create a polyrhythmic accompaniment to instruments such as the fiddle or banjo, or just plain communal singing. In the 1840s, he was one of the first black performers to play for white audiences on the professional stage and is widely regarded as the character described dancing on the street in Dickens’ ‘American Notes’49 His extraordinary talent, not to say genius, brought him immense popularity and fame and arguably laid the foundations of modern tap and step dance. James W. Cook has written extensively on ‘Master Juba’ and comments how Dickens depiction of the Almack’s dance hall where he first witnessed Juba’s performance became highly controversial within the conservative American press. For here was a place where white and black Americans appeared to mix freely and experience cultural exchange.50


As a member of Gilbert W. Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders, ‘Master Juba’ toured Great Britain for eighteen months between 1848 and 1850, the earliest known black performer to appear onstage with a white minstrel troupe. However, he had honed his craft, not on the mainstream stage, but in the brothels, dance halls, and saloons frequented by the working-class black community of New York, often taking part and winning ‘challenge’ dances against white competition. In fact, in his highly polished routines, Lane was offering what we today would call a ‘world fusion’ interpretation of popular dance. He blended classic patterns with Irish jig and reel and black dance steps from the plantations and his own dynamically improvised invention. His display defeated the vocabulary of the British theatre critics, one of whom wrote: “the effort baffles description. It is certainly original, and unlike anything we have seen before.”51 Another commentator observed: “Such mobility of muscles, such flexibility of joints, such boundings, such slidings, such vigour, such variety, such natural grace.”52


In some respects also, particularly in his ‘Imitation Dance’ whereby he impersonated not only other dancers but also himself, he appears to be reappropriating black culture, much as in later generations, Lenny Bruce or contemporary rap artists would seek to reclaim defamatory, racist language. James Cook has observed:


Lane made the racial appropriations of blackface his aesthetic subject, the very focus of his signature performance. And in this sense his ‘Imitation Dance’ served as a powerful act of defiance from someone who, more typically, would have lacked any means of representational control.53


The likelihood is that when his white impersonators took to the stage, they were simply incapable of matching Lane’s unique skills. What emerged was (literally) a pale imitation. Again, we should avoid drifting into racist tropes. Lane was clearly a prodigy, but in the hands of his imitators, stereotypical exaggeration of gesture would become the norm. These included wide-armed, waving of the hands, comically awkward leg movements and contorted facial expressions, most of which persisted long into Hollywood representations by Al Jolson and Judy Garland among others, and even into the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show. All of these parodic tools were greedily employed by blackface performers to enhance the fallacious case that “negroes are essentially an inferior species”. In truth, however, it was probably as much a reflection of their own shortcomings. What in Lane’s performance was “original” and “natural grace” became in the hands of the blackface parodists mere knockabout comedy.


Willam Henry ‘Master Juba’ Lane appears to have died a pauper in Liverpool in 1853 (although records are not clear) aged barely thirty. Like that other popular dancer, Lottie Collins, who had introduced the can-can to Britain in the form of her signature song and routine Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay, he was terminally incapacitated at a tender age by the relentless demands of his physical performance. Having fallen from grace with the professional stage managers, probably through diminished health, his final days may have been spent in the Liverpool Workhouse, and we might speculate, even busking along the Liverpool docks and waterfront. However, his contribution raises the question as to what happened to all those other black musicians, singers and dancers from the bars and dance halls, who unlike Lane had been denied any access to the formal professional theatres?


African American Minstrelsy Vernacular Dialect


Boz’s Juba announcement for Pell’s Serenaders 1848

Just as they appropriated the musical and physical elements of black performance, (however distortedly) so too the blackface practitioners made use of what they perceived as black American ‘broken English’ in their stage pronunciation. A common example of this was the simple replacement of a digraph ‘the’ with the consonant ‘d’ as in ‘dey’ for ‘they’. Likewise, the ‘v’ sound, as in ‘every’ would be replaced with a plosive ‘b’ as in ‘ebry’. Frequently occurring also were catenations or linking of words such ‘gwyne’ to mean ‘going to’. The intention was to produce the impression of a ‘broken English’, with an accompanying lack of intelligence and education, a slow-wittedness and general laziness of attitude.


These elements were a deliberate misrepresentation of what were in fact sophisticated southern black dialects. Specifically, in the Georgia Sea Islands, in Florida and South Carolina, a language called Gullah was (and remains) widely spoken among the black community. It combines phonological and lexical features of English with those of various Western and Central African languages. It also contains a wide vocabulary drawn partly from African sources – words such as benne for sesame, pojo for heron, and buckruh for white man.55 However, the performers of blackface minstrel songs would want their audiences to grasp the meaning of their lyrics, so the distortions were scrupulously chosen, largely a matter of pronunciation, not vocabulary. While some of these speech patterns were employed in black vernacular language, their simplification and exaggeration, combined with the negative lyric content, became an essential element of the blackface caricature.56 While no comparison could ever be entirely precise, one senses some analogy with the decades long prejudice at the BBC for the ‘Queen’s English’ and a ‘Home Counties’ accent in which nearly all regional accents and dialects were marginalized to the comedically inferior or eccentric. In some quarters, no doubt, this prejudice still holds sway.


A further intention of this distortion was to convey the impression that all black people spoke in this fashion, that it was a racial trope regardless of background or region. In the northeastern cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, where the blackface players first emerged, this would inevitably infuriate and antagonise the black middle-class that had for several decades been establishing itself. People like Dr James McCune Smith, who had studied medicine in Glasgow; the pharmacists Philip White and Peter Guignon; the church ministers Sam Cornish and Thomas Downing and many, many others. Smith indeed, along with his associates Philip Bell and William J. Wilson, was a distinguished newspaper columnist, classically educated, erudite and articulate in his authorship.56


This misrepresentation of themselves, led many of the black middle-class, including notably the abolitionist speaker, Frederick Douglass to dismiss minstrelsy and indeed all plantation music as “originating in the spirit of slavery”.57 This antagonism was, of course, deliberate on the part of the blackface performers. While they may have retained some residual compassion for their sentimentalised version of a well-behaved, passive, simpleton slave, their deepest fear and greatest enmity was reserved for the black middle-class. To antagonise what they regarded as a genuine threat posed by ‘upstart negroes’ by means of a generalized black stereotype was in fact their very intention.


Footnotes

39. Petersen: 190

40. Ibid: 28

41. Roberts: 160

42. Ibid: 160-1

43. Ibid: (note 12) 328

44. Smith: 39

45. Smith: 11

46. Scott, Derek Sounds of the Metropolis: The Nineteenth Century Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris and Vienna (Oxford Scholarship, online: September 2008)

47. The Baltimore Sun 21 Jul. 1837 (quoted in Blackface BBC 2 10 Aug 2023)

48. Gibbs Jenna M. Performing the Temple of Liberty (John Hopkins University Press 2015)

49. Dickens, Charles American Notes for General Circulation (Chapman & hall, London 1842)

50. Cook, James W. ‘Dancing Across the Color Line’ in commonplace.online/article/dancing-across-the-color-line/

51. Birmingham Journal 16 Dec. 1848

52. The Mirror and United Kingdom magazine Jul.1848

53. Cook, James W. Discourses in Dance Vol 3 Issue 2. (online article):13

54. Pollitzer, William The Gullah people and Their African Heritage (University of Georgia Press 2005)

55. One might also consider the profound effect this far-reaching emergence of vernacular language would have on the mainstream culture. When Mark twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1884, he placed midwestern and southern American dialect at centre stage, in the voices of both his eponymous narrator and in the figure, though clumsily drawn, of the fugitive slave Jim. “All modern American literature” wrote Ernest Hemingway in ‘Green Hills of Africa’ (1935) “comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Vernacular language had been employed in literary works for centuries past by mainstream authors from Shakespeare to Dickens – but largely as a matter of adding colour and class characterization. In Huckleberry Finn it would play the lead role as the voice of the main protagonists. This raises the intriguing question of those influences that the author Mark Twain encountered during his antebellum childhood by the Ohio River, the travelling players, the freed and fugitive slaves, the minstrels both black and white, and consequently of the widespread influence of an authentic black minstrelsy and vernacular idiom into the very heart of American literature and the birth of modernism.

56. Petersen:217

57. Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (OUP 1999): 24-5; and see Olusoga, David Black & British (Pan Macmillan 2021): 281




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