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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Binns

Minstrelsy in Victorian Britain - Part 1: Reclaiming an Authentic African American contribution

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

By Anthony Binns


Who were the original, authentic black minstrels?


Introduction

'Uncle' John Scruggs plays banjo

In a recent documentary1 on BBC television, the actor David Harewood examined the phenomenon of ‘blackface minstrelsy’, a form of popular musical entertainment once ubiquitous throughout the United States and the United Kingdom that reached its zenith in the mid to late nineteenth century. In an exploration that was sometimes understandably emotional, he lifted the veil on a musical form which, though increasingly studied in the academic world, has been largely ignored in the selective amnesia of public discussion; this, despite the fact that at one time, blackface minstrelsy ranged in its stereotypical racism from the aggressively abusive to

the casually, almost unconsciously, offensive, and even to the seemingly harmless.


From its modern origins in 1830s American vaudeville, through its frequent representation in Hollywood musicals and animation, to its ultimate incarnation as the long-running BBC television series The Black & White Minstrel Show, it pandered to a sentimental and debasing image of black people that extraordinarily survived into the 1970s and beyond. At its height, from the mid-Victorian to the Edwardian periods it became a standard and widespread form of popular seaside entertainment in Britain with the likes of homegrown minstrel acts such as the Burgess & Moore Minstrels and the Mohawk Minstrels and many others.


It is now clearly understood that this style of entertainment owed its origins and its subsequent popularity to the misrepresentation by white performers of black culture, often in a deliberate effort to undermine the status not only of that culture but of the very nature of black people with caricaturist imagery depicting a fallacious indolence, slow-wittedness, unreliability, and general negativity. This is further underlined when we consider that, historically, the emergence of blackface minstrelsy is contemporaneous with the struggle to end slavery in the United States, and with the regressive counter struggle to maintain it. In this context, the debasement of black people, their character, and their culture was an essential element in reinforcing and disseminating the racists’ propaganda for ‘the peculiar institution’ as it was then called, and in helping to bond and unite those activists and practitioners who defended it.


It is not my intention in this article to focus on the various historical strands of white theatrical culture that fed into the construction of blackface performance, such as for example, the masked harlequin figure of commedia dell’arte or the representations of black characters in medieval and early modern European drama. That topic has been well explored by Jenna M. Gibbs,2 Michael Pickering,3 and Tony Lidington,4 among others. Nor am I especially focused on the meaning or intention behind the white portrayal of black culture in this genre. This in itself is a subject of academic contention and has been vigorously debated in, for example, Michael Pickering’s Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain5, Brian Robert’s Blackface Nation6, Nicholas Sammond’s Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation7 and Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.8


My emphasis will be on something which, up to now, has perhaps been less widely examined: the nature and origins of the authentically (i.e., non-parodic) black (and white) minstrel form that preceded this blackface version. After all, if there was a form to be misrepresented and parodied in such a way, it rather begs the question as to what exactly was the musical style that was being so cavalierly appropriated and debased. As Christopher J. Smith observes:


Some modern analyses of blackface have tended to prioritize unpacking the signification intended by white performers and understood by white audiences; sometimes neglected have been African American perspectives, traditions and performance practice – and thus African American contributions.9


Historical Sources

The Banjo Player by William Sidney Mount

My enquiry will focus on four major questions which in turn form the main themes of the four parts of this article:

  1. Who were these original, authentic (i.e., non-parodic), black minstrels?

  2. Once blackface had appeared in the 1820s, did this earlier strand of minstrelsy survive and continue to be performed in parallel alongside its more prosperous imitators who had been granted privileged access to white theatres and the professional stage?

  3. Was this genuinely black minstrelsy perhaps the first form to cross the Atlantic to Great Britain?

  4. If so, when exactly did it make this journey and evolve into such a prevalent form of entertainment in the burgeoning seaside holiday resorts of the Victorian era?

The very existence of blackface minstrelsy, the bowdlerised form of its earlier progenitor, puts these questions into sharp relief and these in turn form the basis of my enquiry. In this regard, it is necessary to state that I have found myself largely dependent on secondary sources, primary evidence being by its very nature relatively rare with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. However, I hope that from these various secondary works, which are often focused on one particular area of study, I have brought together and synthesized a more comprehensive and coherent argument for a genuine African American cultural thread within minstrelsy; one that runs from the West Coast of Africa to the West End of London; from Dahomey (now the modern day People’s Republic of Benin) to In Dahomey of 1903, the first major musical produced on Broadway and in London, by black only artists. It must be for the reader to judge.


Regarding primary sources, as James W. Cook writes in his essay on ‘Master Juba’ Lane, the celebrated African American dancer:


Like most non-elite African Americans born into the racial caste system following northern emancipation, Lane left behind no personal letters, diaries or interviews, no recorded traces in U.S. census sheets, city directories or court records.10


This is also the case, if not even more so, for those many hundreds or thousands of fugitive African Americans who fled to Britain between the last decades of the eighteenth century and the second half of the nineteenth; migrants and itinerants who not only lacked official records but had every incentive to avoid officialdom in an era of slavecatchers and repatriation. Throughout history, the poor and disenfranchised tread a much less well documented path than their better-off and well-established contemporaries. Hence, part of my motivation in publishing this blog is to encourage any readers with family history or relevant records that relate to African American migration to Britain in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras to please get in touch.


Why should any of this matter? Because I think, the attitudes prevalent in blackface minstrelsy have left a corrosive legacy within society; something that has been reflected in a general unwillingness to discuss a phenomenon that persisted well into living memory. It also matters because, as I hope to demonstrate, beneath the veneer of blackface performance is the kernel of a genuine (non-parodic) African American musical tradition, one that represents creativity, resilience and resistance. The minstrel show on both sides of the Atlantic has largely been regarded as a white creation, however I believe it is possible to reclaim an authentic African American contribution.


“I too owe them a debt of gratitude”


Minstrel on the Beach by Owen Dalziel , 1883

My initial interest in this subject began during my research into the life of the Edwardian impresario and composer H.G. Pélissier for my recently published biography The Funniest Man in London.11 It was while exploring the origins of the pierrot seaside entertainers (of which his company The Follies were one example among many) that I came across their immediate predecessors and inspiration - the mid-Victorian minstrel troupes. This was a subject and a phenomenon entirely new to me and at first, I had some difficulty distinguishing references to those performers who were black from references to those who were white but wearing blackface, burnt cork make-up.


The illustrations and cartoons of the time do not always make this obvious – theatrical disguise and exaggeration of appearance and dress being common features of such depictions. Added to this, unfortunately, even photographs of the period, such as there are, can be grainy and unclear. This problem is compounded when one learns that some genuine black performers quite shockingly suffered the indignity of having to wear burnt cork themselves in order to appear the requisite deeper shade. Indeed, the whole subject could at times be so perplexing that by the time we enter the 1840s, that period when blackface minstrelsy began to flourish, particularly on the professional stage, one might easily presume that all but a few black performers had ceased to operate, or even worse, to doubt that they had ever existed at all.


But then a brief quotation from a magazine article of 1906 featuring an interview with H.G. Pélissier, himself at one time a regular performer at the same seaside resorts, stirred my curiosity:


“Years ago, when entertainers in pierrot costume were a novel feature at the seaside, I heard a mater-familias remark, ‘What a pity they don’t blacken their faces! People always laugh so much at the dear old n*****s’.” 12


When Pélissier responds, echoing the woman’s choice of language -which was sadly common parlance at the time - let it be noted that he does so with clear disdain and umbrage, for The Follies themselves never performed in blackface and indeed mocked the whole concept of blackface minstrelsy with their own satirical compositions. He continues:


The dear old n*****s!’ I too owe them a debt of gratitude. I’m afraid the n*****s have had their day. As one of the best of them remarked to a pierrot reproachfully, “‘Taint as if you were content to rub off the bloomin’ burnt cork. No. you must go whitewash yourselves.” 13


This is an intriguing remark on several counts. On the one hand, it clearly contains a sardonic reference to the brilliant white pancake make-up that was a feature of the moon-faced pierrots’ act. And the implication of Pélissier’s response is that it was from the genuine black minstrels that the pierrot troupes took their inspiration and that it was they, rather than their blackface imitators, who were initially at least more prevalent in the resorts.


On the other hand, even some of the white blackface performers, particularly those in humbler circumstances, begging and busking on the promenades and streets, referred to themselves as ‘n******’, using the expression as a generic term for the music.14 However, in this instance, the remark only seems to make sense if it comes from a genuine black performer. For white performers, the application of a layer of white pancake would present little problem. Many blackface minstrel troupes made the simple transition to pierrot costume and the wearing of whiteface make-up with hardly a change in repertoire. The Waterloo Minstrels, for example, simply changed their costumes and their name to Waterloo Pierrots.15 So, the intriguing question remains: Who were these original, authentic, black minstrels?


Many things hamper precise investigation, among them, as previously stated, a paucity of documentation wherever the poor and disenfranchised are concerned. Bear in mind that these were itinerant performers often with no permanent abode, many of them of African American and therefore of overseas, unregistered origin. And they would have operated in a period spanning the 1820s to the turn of the century, mostly without the benefit of more advanced photography or film reel. Nevertheless, it may be possible to piece together a trail that sheds some light on at least the possibility, if not the probability, of a vibrant, thriving, genuinely black minstrel presence in Great Britain from the early nineteenth century until its closing decades.


A Typical Blackface Minstrel Show

'The Virginian Minstrels'

Although, blackface musical performance had been in existence since the 1820s, the term ‘minstrel’ was not applied to this genre until Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels took to the stage in 1843. Despite the use of the term ‘minstrel’ for centuries past in reference to itinerant musical troupes in general throughout Europe and America, from this time on, it came to be employed specifically in relation to American blackface performance. The Virginia Minstrels also set something of an early template for minstrelsy with their quartet of banjo, fiddle, tambourine and percussive bones. They sat onstage in a semi-circle, with the tambourine and bones placed on either end, and they gave an informal, lively and partially improvised performance in a three-act structure.


First, there would be brief introductions, followed by a ‘walkaround’, based on the plantation cakewalk, along with a selection of jokes and songs in a blackface style; songs such as ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘Jim Crack Corn’ or ‘Arkansas Traveller’. The second act, sometimes called the ‘olio’ comprised of variety and specialty acts, acrobatics and juggling, and a ‘stump speech’ on a topical theme, full of inane grammatical errors and puns in a parody of black American vernacular language. Finally, a slapstick musical skit would be performed, a burlesque of high art or opera often set on a fantasy plantation.16 In the ensuing decades, with troupes such as the Ethiopian Serenaders and the Christy Minstrels, the size of cast would increase to include an interlocutor, without burnt cork make-up, and dressed in formal attire who would act as a kind of MC, seated centre stage. It was a genre and a format brilliantly satirised by the American poet and playwright Dave Harris in his 2022 work Tambo & Bones.17


The Banjo


Drawing of a Gourd Banjo by Hans Sloane

The banjo is key to the birth and development of what would become minstrel music. It is the instrument that, above all others, is its trademark. More than the fiddle or the tambourine or bones, those other ubiquitous elements of the style, it provides the quintessential character of minstrelsy with its rapid, free-flowing melodies and rhythms, its distinctive ‘twang’ and vibrant undertones, its thin, sharp, staccato. And it remains somehow fundamentally American, a standard component even today of American country and Appalachian bluegrass music, despite having also been thoroughly absorbed into the British music hall and Irish folk music traditions. So, for the beginnings of minstrelsy, we should look to the origins of the banjo itself.


Towards the conclusion of his documentary, David Harewood lays out some tantalizing clues as to the authentic beginnings of the minstrel phenomenon. During an interview conducted with Rhiannon Giddens, the American musician and musicologist, she plays an excerpt from the Hans Sloane Collection18 of 17th and 18th Century manuscript scores - an archive gathered from the Caribbean slave islands and now kept at the British Library in London. They represent just a few “scraps”, as Giddens affectionately refers to them19, yet dexterously playing her replica 1858 banjo, she provides the most spine-tingling moment of the documentary. For here, hauntingly, is quite possibly the recaptured sound of those earliest of black minstrels.


Recent research20 has revealed that the prototype of the banjo was a family of instruments variously called a banza in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Haiti, a banshaw in St.Kitt’s or a bangil in Barbados. These were constructed of dried gourds for the soundbox, either from melon, watermelon, squash or pumpkin - fruits commonly available in both western Africa and the Caribbean - then covered with stretched animal hide to form the sound table. A carved wooden neck with a flat fingerboard passed through the body of the gourd, with variously a fixed or a floating bridge and tuning pegs in the fashion of the Hispanic guitar. Traditionally these instruments featured three long strings and a short drone string for the thumb. Their forebears lay in western Africa, in Benin and along the Guinea Coast, like the ancestors of the people who played them. Musicologists believe they can find their origins, or at the very least a related instrument, in the ekoting lute, for example, among Jola people. These would be played to accompany the telling of stories such as that of Anansi, a folkloric trickster spider and might often be employed at funeral rites - skills and traditions that crossed into the Caribbean on the slave ships of the imperial powers.21


When these same slave ships arrived in mainland America, either directly from Africa or further transporting their human ‘cargo’ from the Caribbean islands, these traditions and skills moved with them. Together with percussive instruments, these humble, prototype banjos, along with a range of percussion instruments such as the tambourine and bones, formed the staple components of black music in the southern plantations. One can only imagine that they must have provided spiritual solace and an essential cultural memory for the enslaved populations – perhaps the only, almost intangible, memory of their former lands, families, and ancestors that they could retain. But one can equally imagine how these skills might provide a morale-lifting, community-bonding, source of creative expression on these barbaric and brutalizing colonial plantations. The former slave Louise Jones once recalled in an interview: “Sech dancin’ you never seen before. Slaves would set de flo’ in turns, an’ do de cakewalk mos’ all night.”22 Spirituals and the Blues were to develop as totemic musical styles from these traditions, but here too, in the banjo and its antecedents, were the seeds of another more raucous, secular style, one that would develop into authentic minstrelsy.


A Musical Migration

'Old Plantation'

Beyond the Caribbean and the southern plantations, this secular music, along with its characteristic prototype banjo, further migrated into the more westerly and northern states. From the late eighteenth century onwards, but especially following the Emancipation Act of 1827 in New York State23 and in Great Britain in 1833, there had been a substantial migration both north and west by fugitive and freed slaves. This was particularly true of Virginia and Maryland, where indentured whites and freed slaves had for decades past mixed and socialized freely. George R. Gibson has uncovered evidence of a substantial population in Appalachian Kentucky where players of both the banjo and the fiddle were to be found.24 By the 1820s this music had been effectively borrowed and absorbed into the neighbouring white culture, from a black population in Kentucky that, by the 1860s, would further increase to some quarter of a million.25

As so often, in this meeting of cultures, musical ideas and forms were freely exchanged and developed. And despite the lack of documentation, some individual identities have survived, such as the Afro-American fiddler Monk Estill26 of Boonesborough, Kentucky, and Jim Booker Senior27 of Jessamine County. In addition, a former slave by the name of D.J. Green records having seen black musicians playing at a community dance in Maryland in 1829.28 In southeastern Kentucky, there existed a community of mixed heritage, black, white and indigenous native Americans, known as Melungeon 29, and here, as elsewhere, we find a mixture and a fusion of English and Celtic folk songs and plantation work songs. Gibson observes:


Determining whether a banjo song is of black or white origin, however, is difficult. Many songs have verses that could have come from either the African American or Anglo-American community – or perhaps both.30


He goes on to quote the American folklorist Dr Josiah Combs:


The Highlanders [of the Appalachians] have adopted a considerable number of songs belonging to or originating from the Negroes. Some of these songs have long been current in the Highlands, from the days prior to the civil war, and include banjo […] songs. Since the Civil War a number of Negro occupational songs have crept in, notably such well-known ones as ‘John Hardy’, ‘John Henry’, the ‘Yew-Pine Mountain’ ‘Frankie’, ‘Lynchburg Town’, ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and others.31


Indeed, as early as the 1820s there is evidence of the banjo being played as far west as Arkansas and Indiana.32 Booming nineteenth century trade also facilitated this migratory and cross-cultural process. Not only along the north-south axis of the eastern seaboard, but as far west as Cincinnati and Louisville on the frontiers, New Orleans on the Gulf Coast, the Catskills in the western, rural regions, and along the Erie Canal once it was opened in 1826.


In this context, it was the waterways, both inland and coastal which, more than anything, enabled the cross-cultural exchange of these various American communities. It was a commonplace for black people to work these routes, often in rowing boats. The English actress Fanny Kemble, who was for a time resident in the Georgia Sea Islands, recalls being frequently ferried between Butler’s Island and the mainland during her stay. She recounts in her memoirs how the boatmen would routinely sing as they rowed. “I thought [the songs] extraordinarily wild and unaccountable”, she writes. She then goes on to describe how a single, lead voice would provide the main melody, while the other rowers repeated the refrain, their “voices all in unison [to the] rhythm of the rowlocks for accompaniment.” 33


This exchange of musical styles and techniques was occurring throughout North America, and it is surely significant that when blackface minstrelsy first appeared, its leading white practitioners had all spent time in the company of black musicians either in the Midwest or the South. This was often something they were willing to acknowledge, in the belief that such an influence might lend an ‘authentic’ credibility to their impersonations.


'Jump Jim Crow'

T. 'Daddy' Rice as Jim Crow

It was Thomas ‘Daddy’ Rice, who more than anybody is credited with initiating the blackface craze with his ‘Jump Jim Crow’ performances at the Bowery and Chatham theatres in Manhattan in 1832. However, his parodic representation did not spring autonomously from his own imagination. In the 1820s, he had toured with Noah Ludlow’s circus as a comic actor and acrobat throughout the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. While performing in Louisville in 1831, he claimed to have learned his song and dance routine from “a very black, clumsy negro [who] used to clean and rub down horses.”34 As we shall see, Rice can hardly be trusted as to his objective assessment of this man’s inelegance or otherwise, for his perceived comical clumsiness of a black person was the very thing he deliberately sought to convey in performance, for his own calculated reasons. In fact, musicologists have traced the origins of the tune ‘Jump Jim Crow’ to a black children’s singing game from the Georgia Sea Islands.35 In Rice’s bowdlerized and stereotyping interpretation, it was to become the template for all subsequent blackface performance; not least in Great Britain where he appeared in 1836 at the Adelphi theatre in London’s West End.


Likewise, Joe Sweeney, the first recorded (white) master exponent of the banjo, was born and grew up in Virginia. This was a state with a history of black American banjo playing since the eighteenth century.36 Sweeney had, in fact, toured the Midwest with P.T. Barnum circuses and is credited as being the first blackface player to popularize the banjo in its recognisably modern form; that is, manufactured (often by the Boucher company of New York) with a wooden rim and metal snare drum lugs to tighten the skin head.


And so too, Dan Emmett, who presented the first sophisticated and spectacular blackface shows with his Virginia Minstrels in New York in 1842, had “learned music from free blacks on the Ohio and from black drummers in the U.S. Army in the 1830s” before working as a blackface comic dancer in circuses on the riverine frontiers.37


To assert, as some scholars have, that the banjo was an original feature and the spontaneous invention of white blackface minstrelsy in the northeastern United States no longer holds any credence. As George R. Gibson concludes, the roots of the banjo and minstrel music lay in the western territories, and in Virginia and Maryland “where free slaves established bi-racial families along the Chesapeake before slavery and racism became institutionalized.”38


Footnotes


  1. Blackface BBC 2 10 Aug 2023

  2. Gibbs, Jenna M. Performing in the Temple of Liberty: Slavery, Theatre and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia 1760-1850 (John Hopkins University Press 2015)

  3. Pickering, Michael; Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (Routledge 2016)

  4. Lidington, Tony; Don’t Forget the Pierrots! (Routledge 2023)

  5. Pickering, Michael; Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (Routledge 2016)

  6. Roberts, Brian; Blackface Nation (University of Chicago Press 2017

  7. Sammond, Nicholas; Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Duke University Press Books 2015)

  8. Lott, Eric Love and Theft: Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (OUP 1993).

  9. Smith, Christopher J; The Creolization of American Culture (University of Illinois Press 2014): 6

  10. Cook, James W. Discourses in Dance Vol.3 Issue 2(online article):7-8

  11. Binns, Anthony; The Funniest Man in London: The Life and Times of H.G. Pélissier 1874-1913 (Edgerton 2022)

  12. The Strand Magazine Jun.1909: 866-893 (Quoted in Binns: 37)

  13. Ibid.

  14. See Henry Mayhew’s London Labour, and the London Poor of 1850: 535-6

  15. Nield, Sophie; ‘Popular Theatre 18995-1940’ in The Cambridge History of the British Theatre Vol.3: Since 1895, ed. Baz Kershaw (CUP 2004: 86-109)

  16. Pickering:16-17

  17. Harris, Dave; Tambo & Bones (Nick Hern Books 2023)

  18. archive.org/details/indsloanemanuscr00scottuoft

  19. Blackface BBC 2 10 Aug 2023

  20. Winans, Robert; Banjo Roots & Branches (University of Illinois Press 2018): 8-9

  21. Furthermore, I would argue, this telling of stories is hugely significant when we consider how folk tales came to form such an essential element of southern black culture and in particular the narrative nature of some plantation work songs and blues lyrics. This can also be seen as a strong influence on the story-telling element in many maritime shanties, the minstrel show format and later country music.

  22. Baldwin, Brooke; ‘The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality’ in Journal of Social History (OUP 1981): 15/2: 205-218

  23. Petersen, Carla L; Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City (Yale University Press 2011): 71

  24. Gibson, George R; ‘Black Banjo, Fiddle, and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo-American Folk Music’ in Banjo Roots and Branches’ ed. Robert Winans (University of Illinois Press 2018): 223-256

  25. Petersen: 28-9

  26. Gibson: 227

  27. Ibid:227

  28. Ibid: 228

  29. Ibid:235

  30. Ibid: 233

  31. Ibid:233

  32. ibid:237

  33. Kemble, Frances Ann; Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-39 (reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1961): 259

  34. Smith: 39

  35. Fuld, James J. The Book of World-Famous Music, Classical, Popular and Folk. Dover. New York. 2000: 312

  36. Smith: 32

  37. Ibid.

  38. Gibson: 244

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