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Old 03-01-2014, 03:33 PM   #11 (permalink)
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In some cultures, Santa is not split into a good and bad side but rather was depicted as a not-so-jolly figure:

He was known as ru Klas (“Rough Klaus”) or Knecht Ruprecht (note his horns). Ruprecht is the Germanic form of Rupert or Robert. He is sometimes called St. Rupert or St. Robert. The word “knecht” ties back to the word “minstrel” as it means “servant” or “farmhand.” In fact, Zwarte Piet is often referred to as “Knecht.”

There appears to be a connection between Zwarte Piet and blackface minstrelsy in the U.S. In Europe, mumming plays were popular for centuries and were put on in people’s kitchens for a small fee, the blackface character in the play was not an African but the evil character who slays the hero and takes his girl (played by a man in drag). A physician appears and heals the hero and resurrects him. The hero then revives and confronts the blackface character and, after a prolonged fight, would kill him and take his girl back. This play was an ancient reenactment of the sun/hero dying during the winter months when darkness prevails (the blackface villain) and then being reborn after Christmas Day and waxing stronger until his light banishes the dark. The play is actually never-ending and cyclical. Minstrelsy was probably descended from mumming plays since minstrel performances were originally put on in people’s kitchens and some of the players wore blackface. Eventually, blackface minstrelsy became its own genre. Even black minstrels wore blackface. Perhaps coincidentally, some old minstrel sheet music attributes authorship to “Santa Claus.”

The mummers of St. Alban’s.

An old mumming photo.

A mumming book where the villain is identified as Beelzebub and depicted as a black man. In the woodcut below, a witches’ sabbat is depicted at Berwick. Notice Satan on the left is black. In fact, during this time, the Devil was very frequently referred to as “the Black Man”:

Morris dancers in blackface. This also ties back to Black Pete who was depicted as Moorish as the word “Morris” as used here is widely believed to be a corruption of the word “Moorish.”

Black has also symbolized death as a rebirth, a period of gestation before new life emerges. While depicted dualistically in the mumming play, the light and dark come together as one through the Black Madonna and Bambino statues. Here, they are representations of the new moon whose face is black but gives the eminent promise of the new light. The statues were never meant to be taken as a depiction of an African mother and child. In Ethiopia, the oldest Christian nation on earth, the Black Madonna is absent. They venerate only the white one.

Some may dispute that mumming plays have anything to do with American minstrelsy since the mumming play was never known to have come to the shores of the United States. The link is that mumming plays were put on by young bachelors who went from house to house in London and other English cities offering to act out the drama for tips. The plays were put on in the kitchen. The mummers carried brooms or besoms with them with which they would sweep out an area in the kitchen—a way of magically purifying the area. The play was said to be so convincing that when the Hero is stabbed and the fake blood spilled out, members of the audience often screamed or fainted believing that something had gone wrong and the person really had been stabbed.

In America, minstrel shows were often put on in the kitchen with the area being swept clean first. Cockrell tells us of dance contest in Boston between two prostitutes—Nancy Holmes and Susan Bryant—at the Long Wharf. A reporter who was present wrote that a company of women came down the wharf in a trot. Each lady carried a broom. The reporter wrote: “…at the word of command, they all commenced to sweeping Long Wharf for a clean spot which was soon done.” A “negro fiddler” provided the music. All the music was from the minstrel stage—“Miss Lucy Long,” “What Did You Come From? (Knock a N-igger Down),” “Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done” and the last one not mentioned but said by the reporter to be a favorite dance tune of James Sanford who danced in “negro extravaganzas.”

One of the most famous of the early blackface minstrel songs was “Clare de Kitchen” which has been done since at least 1832. Cockrell points out the verses show a very clear relationship to mumming:

In old Kentuck in de arternoon,
We sweep de floor wid a bran new broom,
And dis de song dat we do sing,
Oh! Clare de kitchen old folks young folks
Clare de kitchen old folks young folks
Old Virginny never tire.

I have found an even firmer connection through the song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” While the song shows no evidence of being published before 1894, one verse is definitely from a much older song from England written in the 1830s or 40s by J. H. Cave:

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone's in the kitchen I know
Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah
Strummin' on the old banjo!

Whether Cave wrote this verse with these exact words is not known but the blackface minstrel E. P. Christy used it in his act as part of the song “Farewell Ladies” in 1847. It clearly refers to a minstrel performance in the kitchen and may have been revised from a mumming play in the kitchen. One version of “Farewell Ladies” contains the line:

Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! We're going to leave you now.

This indicates the act was intended mainly for the entertainment of the ladies. Once again, this has parallels to the mumming plays in England for these were put on by young bachelors whose purpose, at least in part, was to find young ladies to court and, by entering the houses of well-to-families, had a chance to scope out the females who might reside there. This carried over into rock and roll where the girls swooned over the guy up there with his ax playing that rockin’ song. If you doubt, listen to this 1925 recording of minstrel man Wendall Hall:

"Red Headed Music Maker " Sung by Wendall Hall playing a Ukelele Victor Record C 1925 - YouTube

The oldest folk festival in the United States is the Mummers Parade held every New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. The parade’s theme song is “O Dem Golden Slippers” by black minstrel singer and songwriter James A. Bland. They also perform the “Mummer’s Strut” which they do in the fashion of a 19th century cakewalk dance. The mummers here insist the mumming play did come to the United States and settled in Philadelphia.

So, we see that blackface has a long tradition in the West prior to the emergence of minstrelsy in the U.S. We see that its roots are embedded deeply into pagan notions of good and evil as represented in the stars and planets due to the need for a good planting and harvesting season. These ancient connections were so overgrown with more modern religious and racial detritus that the symbolism of blackness was transferred over to African slaves.
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Old 03-03-2014, 06:28 PM   #12 (permalink)
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So the role of blackness in blackface is complex and simply cannot be chalked up solely as racism for it begs the question—what is racism? Do these ancient associations with the color black in themselves color how whites of the enlightened age regarded blackness? Even terms as “enlightened age” and opposed to the “Dark Ages” give us a clue. Whites also equated black with sickness, dirt and excrement. Can we simply assume these associations had nothing to do with the racism of the White world towards the colored races and Blacks in particular? So there were simply a lot of factors at play of which the hapless Africans of the Diaspora were often on the wrong end. The racism is itself a complex issue.

As we see from the old soap ads, the equation of black with low standing and dirt is global. In the Indian caste system, the shudra caste were said to come from the feet of Indra. While the shudra do comprise many types of people, they are often the darkest people and the implication is that they are dark because they came from the dust on Indra’s feet. In Brazil, the lowest social class or caste are called preto. Preto means black even though many white Brazilians are preto and many black Brazilians are not. Saint Nicholas was often the patron saint of the underclass such as sailors, prostitutes, prisoners, pawnbrokers and thieves harking back his Black Pete/Knecht Ruprecht origins. The anarchist flag is also black because it stands in opposition to all other flags of nation:

But sometimes the association of black is elevated. The name Krishna also means black and Christos was the name for Krishna in the Greek-speaking world. In fact, many Indians refer to Krishna as “Krista.”

Although whitened in a lot of the art we see, Krishna is properly black.

The Black Christ of Mexico City.

Kali or Kalika is known by some cults as the Black Mother of all life. Her name means “black” but also “time” and “death.” She represents change which is envisioned as taking what it wants by force (after all, none of us want to grow old and feeble but fight change in order to retain our youth—we lose but we fight it). Notice her tongue hangs out like Krampus—strange ancient associations.
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Old 03-03-2014, 06:34 PM   #13 (permalink)
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But Blacks were not the only people to face white racism during this era. The Chinese faced even worse treatment on the West Coast:

In fact, the anti-Chinese racism borrowed familiar themes—they were lawless marauders without the White man’s civilizing influence and, of course, the very future of White womanhood was at stake. To rouse White male anger, nothing was more effective than to present the enemy as a threat to white women. The real threat, of course, was that white women, left to their own devices, might quite willingly marry Chinese men or a Black men unless prevented from doing so. Let us remember that Chinese and Black men were given the right to vote beginning in 1870 when the fifteenth amendment was adopted. No women of any race or color could vote in the U.S. before 1920. It simply boiled down to who had control of the system and the answer, quite obviously, was White males.

The Yellow Peril racism was just as strong in Europe as in America and there is that angle about the safety of European (White) women implicit in the illustration.

The Golden Spike ceremony held at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The Chinese workers, who laid on average about ten times more track than any other teams and who suffered far more casualties in far more dangerous terrains, were forcibly removed from the area before the photo was taken as though they had played no role at all in building the first medium to link the nation together. Robert Louis Stevenson noted that when he rode the American railroads, the Chinese were forced to stay in segregated cars. Stevenson thought it pathetic to see the “stupid” ill treatment of the Chinese whom Stevenson respected because “their forefathers watched the stars before mine began to keep pigs.”

So this was the milieu in which minstrelsy sprang up in the United States. The minstrel theme dealt with blackface characters being slaves on a Southern plantation. The lead blackface character was always trying to find ways to get out of work. When confronted by the Big Boss or the Mistress about his lack of being busy, he came up with ready excuses and was constantly outsmarting them (cartoons as Tom & Jerry and Pixie & Dixie were simply minstrel skits set to animation). On those occasions when the massa was not buying the stories or caught the slave red-handed in some deception, the slave character would be reprimanded in a gentle way—the way a parent reprimands a young child for doing wrong.

The true meaning behind these minstrel skits was not hard to figure out—the white audience was not really watching a slave slyly manipulating massa but rather they were watching themselves as children manipulating their parents. Most of the audience were white people who had grown up on farms where they had chores they were forever trying to get out of. If caught, the parents might discipline them but not too harshly. The white audience was simply reliving the carefree days of its agrarian upbringing. Those long, hot, sunny, summer days playing hide and seek in the tall corn, trying to steal a kiss from the girl or boy who lived on the next farm, sitting contentedly in the cool of the evening while the grown-ups talked or sang after a fine feast of a home-cooked meal carefully prepared by the ladies in residence. Once they left the farms and come to the cities with their overcrowding, crime, long factory workdays, isolation, drunkenness, corruption and a cramped, ugly skyline of sooty buildings and hovels—all the carefree innocence was gone forever. Minstrelsy brought it back to them—for a little while.

The blackface enabled whites to hide behind a shield of anonymity of sooty complexion living the happy-go-lucky, carefree existences that they somehow convinced themselves that slaves lived. With faces blackened and banjos in hand, whites could drop their socially responsible positions and shed all the burdens that respectability and propriety are heaped with and let the Lord of Misrule have reign for a while until the show was over and everyone went back home sated enough to be ready to start the grind all over again in the morning.

Consequently, minstrelsy was not nearly as popular down South as it was up North. In fact, blackface minstrelsy had its beginnings in New York and Boston and spread to such places as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Peoria, Milwaukee, etc. This is not to say that minstrelsy was not popular in the South but the Southern planters discouraged it because it caused audiences to pull for the slave in putting one over on the Boss and the Bosses did not like that message propagating. Even in areas up North and in the Midwest where whites had run all the free Blacks out of the town, they still enjoyed their blackface minstrel shows and crowded the theaters to watch them, to laugh, cry, clap along and sing while convincing themselves that they had a much tougher life than the dark ones they held in servitude, whose lives they held in their hands, lives they could (and not infrequently did) take on a whim without the slightest fear of consequence.

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Old 03-08-2014, 03:00 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Exactly who was the first man to don blackface and perform minstrel songs is open to question. We know it was being done by 1829 when George Washington Dixon began performing “Coal Black Rose” in blackface at the Bowery Theatre in New York. Today, if one looks for “Coal Black Rose” online, be careful to find the right one. There is a song called “Mammy’s Little Coal Black Rose” by Raymond Egan and Richard Whiting which is a completely different song. This is compounded because it is frequently titled simply as “Coal Black Rose” which is actually in error. Another version is a sailor shanty which seems to be derived from the minstrel song but still quite different. The version Dixon sang had the following lyrics:


LUBLY Rosa, Sambo cu-m,
Don't you hear de banjo—tum, tum, tum;
Lubly Rosa, Sambo cu-m,
Don't you hear de banjo—tum, tum, tum;

Oh, Rose, de coal black Rose,
I wish I may be corch'd if I don't lub Rose,
Oh, Rose, de coal blacka Rose.

Dat you, Sambo—yes I cu-m,
Don't you hear de banjo—tum, tum, tum;
Dat you, Sambo—yes I cu-m,
Don't you hear de banjo—tum, tum, tum;

Oh, Rose, &c.

Tay a little, Sambo, I come soon
As I make a fire in de back room,
Tay a little, Sambo, I come soon
As I make a fire in de back room.
Oh, Rose, de coal black Rose,
I wish I may be burnt if I don't lub Rose.

Oh, Rose, &c.

Make haste, Rose, lubly dear,
I froze tiff as a poker tandin here,
Make haste, Rose, lubly dear,
I almost froze a waitin here,

Oh, Rose, &c.

C-um in Sambo, don't tand dare shakin,
De fire is a burnin, and de hoe cake a bakin,
C-um in Sambo, top dat shakin,
De peas in de pot, and de hoe cake a bakin.

Oh, Rose, &c.

Sit down, Sambo, an warm your shin,
Lord bress you, honey, for what make you grin;
Sit down, Sambo, and toast you shin,
Lord bress you, honey, for what make you grin;

Oh, Rose, &c.

I laff to tink if you was mine, lubly Rose,
I'd gib you a plenty, the Lord above knows,
Ob possum fat, and homminy, and sometime rice,
Cow heel, an sugar cane, an ebery ting nice,
Oh, Rose, bress dat Rose,
I wish I may be shute if I don't lub Rose.

Oh, Rose, &c.

What dat, Rose, in de corner, dat I pi?
I know dat ni-gger Cuffee, by de white ob he eye;
Dat not Cuffee, 'tis a tick ob wood, sure,
A tick ob wood wid tocking on, you tell me dat, pshaw;
Oh, Rose, take care, Rose,
I wish I may be burnt if I don't hate Rose.
Oh, Rose, you black snake, Rose.

Let go my arm, Rose, let me at him rush,
I swella his two lips like a blacka balla brush;
Let go my arm, Rose, let me top his win,
Let go my arm, Rose, while I kick him on de shin,

Oh, Rose, &c.

Wat you want ob Sambo, to come back agin,
I spose you know de ni-gger by de crook ob de shin,
Wat you want ob Sambo, to come back agin,
I spose you know de ni-gger by de crook of de shin,

Oh, Rose, &c.

You Rose in the gall'ry, why don't you quiet sit,
And stop that throwing peanuts in the pit,
You Rose in the gall'ry, why don't you quiet sit,
And stop that throwing peanuts in the pit;
Oh, Rose, you cruel Rose,
You better come to Cuffee, you black Rose.

Oh, Rose, &c.

I challenge niggar Cuffee, a duel for to fight,
To meet me in de Park, in de morning by de light,
I challenge niggar Cuffee, a duel for to fight,
To meet me in de Park, in de morning by de light,
About Rose, coal black Rose,
I wish I may be burnt, if I don't lub Rose.

About Rose, &c.

We meet in de Park, from the Hall a little ways,
Up c-um a man, who they call massa Hays,
He ask wat de matter, but I stood quite mute,
Ni-gger Cuffee say he c-um to settle a bit of spute,

About Rose, &c.

He catch old Cuffee by de wool, he kick him on de shin,
Which laid him breathless on the ground, and made de ni-gger grin,
He jump up for sartin, he cut dirt and run,
And Sambo follow arter, with his tum, tum, tum;
Oh, Rose, you cruel Rose,
I wish I may be burnt, if I don't hate Rose.

Oh, Rose, &c.

The two black men fighting for the hand of the same woman was a staple minstrel theme.

To understand how this blackface form of entertainment took root, we must understand the nature of theatre at this time. Ever since ancient times in Europe, public entertainments were always held, well, in public. This hasn’t changed much. We have all seen buskers and some of us are buskers ourselves. There are parks where plays are put on and so on. Mumming plays are often put on in public with someone passing the hat around. When people complained about loud entertainment in the streets, the city responded by passing ordinances to restrict or prohibit such performances. But the common people needed to have their outlets and so a theatre became necessary. Some towns had only one theatre while some had several. Regardless, the masses were not going to get more than one and even then not the entire theatre. So began the practice dividing the theatre into sections.

There was the pit for the commoners, workers, clerks, etcetera—a place in front of the stage where admission was general—and the boxes where the wealthier patrons sat. There was a middle section (service tier) for prostitutes because they often brought fairly wealthy clients—businessmen from out-of-town and the like—to the theatre. Way up in the balcony sat the poor and low class and even Blacks on occasion. This carried over well into the 20th century when Blacks in segregated areas had to sit up in the balcony when they were allowed in at all.

In the 1820s, some theatres did not take to minstrelsy at all, opera being preferred. Some theatres played opera on some nights and minstrelsy on others. Some theatres came to cater to lower class entertainments and dispensed with opera altogether. While other lighter forms of entertainment could share the same bill with opera, minstrelsy almost never did. On those rare occasions when minstrelsy did manage to get on the same bill with an opera, this was due to the performer having achieved a degree of fame that allowed it.

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Old 03-08-2014, 03:14 PM   #15 (permalink)
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By 1830, this began to change. Minstrelsy had begun to be so popular that theatre-owners began to see the advantage of putting various entertainments on the same bill including opera and minstrelsy. While profit was the conscious motive, the underlying subconscious motive was the enforcement of communal codes of conduct. To deny the lower classes anywhere to enjoy their entertainments was courting disaster.

Minstrelsy itself has many roots in communal codes of conduct. We examined mumming plays earlier but another is the Callithumpians that were bands of young White men (usually bachelors) of low social status who marched through town, often in blackface, pounding pots and pans and making a lot of noise. They were popular from the 1820s through the 1840s and so it would seem many of them went over into minstrelsy itself.

One ritual of the Callithumpians that seems to have some tie to the mumming play is the charivari (pronounced “shiv-ar-ree”) where a person was singled out by the group for engaging in behavior considered counter to community standards to be visited at midnight by masked men who would harass and even rough up the person depending on the offense. This was accompanied by a great deal of noise specifically to attract attention in hopes of shaming said offender and warning any other potential offenders into toeing the community line or leaving. This carried over from a medieval German secret society known as the Holy Vehm who also issued warnings and midnight visits to people seen as not doing proper. The Ku Klux Klan also practiced the same thing and not by coincidence.

We also have yet another connection to Santa Claus in the form of Pelznickel. Pelznickel (loosely translated as Nicholas the Punisher) of German lore wore fur and carried both switches and gifts, usually candies and nuts. He wore bells that jingled loudly so that the children could hear him coming (similar to the Callithumpian pot-banging). When he arrived at the house, the parents would open the door and then back away in mock fright. Pelznickel would enter and entice the children to sample the candies and nuts. When the children approached, he would swing at them with the switches. He would seem to know which child was bad and what he or she had done. Then he would make each child promise to be good. At obtaining the promise, he would reward the child with the treats. Afterwards, the parents would offer him food or drink which he would accept before leaving. In this way, the children learn a lesson: be good (that is, adhere to community standards of behavior) and be rewarded and also reward those who enforced these standards for protecting the community (this still carries on today where policemen on duty often receive free food at restaurants or at greatly reduced prices).

The Crossing-the-Line ceremony (or Shellback ceremony) carried on in the U. S. Navy is another ritualistic enforcement of community standards. A month or so before the ship is to cross the Equator, those who have not been initiated will have it reinforced that they are mere “polliwogs” as opposed to a full-fledged “shellback.” During this time, the heaviest shellback on the ship is designated the “Royal Baby” (a form of the Lord of Misrule). He will be surrounded by a cadre of stoutly built shellbacks. The rule is, any polliwog who can touch the Royal Baby is automatically a shellback. For this reason, he is surrounded by big guys who are not going to let any polliwog near him. During this time, the polliwog will be asked repeatedly through the day by shellbacks shouting the question, “What are you?” and he will answer, “I’m a polliwog.” As the ship crosses the Equator, the ceremony begins which involves the initiates donning their scrummiest dungarees (they’ll be thrown away afterwards) and being forced to crawl though garbage, getting hosed off by solid stream, being locked in a pillory and being forced to eat a ladle full of leftover food collected from meals and turned into a sickening stew of sorts, sucking a cherry out of the navel of the Royal Baby with his belly smeared with a thick coat of lard, etc. Finally, the initiate is dunked in water and held under then pulled up and asked (shouting), “What are you?” He will answer that he is a polliwog and will be dunked under again and this is repeated until he finally answers, “I’m a shellback.” At this point, the ceremony ends.

The Shellback ceremony is so important that the Navy records it in the sailor’s service record and he is issued a shellback certificate. A shellback is the envy of sailors who are still polliwogs (a sailor or officer may be in the Navy 15 years or more and still not be a shellback) and he who has this status is, in the vernacular, “a hotshot swingin’ dick.” There is a similar ritual when crossing the Arctic Circle known as the Bluenose ceremony. The object is to pass the hazing to obtain the status of bluenose. Again, this is entered into a sailor’s service record and he receives a certificate (neither female sailors nor officers are exempt from these ceremonies). Again, the purpose of these ceremonies is cohesion of the community. Two sailors who share this special status are seen as less likely to fight, steal from one another, or develop a bad attitude towards the Navy—any of which can destroy morale on a ship which could promote disaster.

Those who doubt that the Royal Baby is a form of the Lord of Misrule need only take a look at the figure below:

This is a detail from Pieter Brueghel’s 1559 masterpiece, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Here, the Lord of the Carnival, a form of the Lord of Misrule, is a fat man surrounded by an entourage. Blacks in the West Indies and the United States are very steeped in these traditions. This is also carried on in America at Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) with one man being chosen as the King of the Mardi Gras as well as the ceremony known as John Canoe or John Kooner which was long celebrated in North Carolina and is still celebrated in the West Indies where it appears to have originated although it appears to have roots in both Africa and Europe. As with the mummers, those in the procession of the man chosen to be John Canoe were young bachelors. As with the mummers, some of these men dressed as women (strangely some of the early klansmen in North Carolina also dressed as women during their night-rides).

From these roots, particularly John Canoe, do we finally get to the birth of blackface minstrelsy. When George Washington Dixon performed onstage, he did so as a blackface character known as Zip Coon.

Note that he carries a broom or besom as well as a sword as did the mummers. John Canoe (below) often dressed as a military officer.

John Canoe.

King Zulu Krewe. King of Mardi Gras.

The Pinkster King of New York. In the slave days of New York in the 18th century, a festival started on the Monday after Whit-Sunday and lasted a week. An area was laid out in a rectangle where “dancing and merry-making” took place. A slave named Charley of Pinkster Hill was declared the king of the revelers. He dressed in a military uniform that was mismatched in color and size. After Charley’s death, the festival started to die with him and shut down completely around 1811. Today, it is resurrected for show. It could actually get very ribald. The Pinkster King bears a great resemblance to Zip Coon above.

Minstrelsy got started while Andrew Jackson was in office (1829-1837). During that time, there were a number of Northern Black men that were dandies—men who dressed to the nines and spoke the King’s English. They were mostly looked down upon in white society. Dixon’s Zip Coon was just such a character or rather a lampoon of a Black dandy. In the song called “Ole Zip Coon” he states:


(3x) O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
Sings possum up a gum tree an coony in a holler.
(3x) Possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump,
Den over dubble trubble, Zip coon will jump.

O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
O Zip a duden duden duden duden duden day.
O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.

O ist old Suky blue skin, she is in lub wid me
I went the udder arter noon to take a dish ob tea;
What do you tink now, Suky hab for supper,
Why chicken foot an possum heel, widout any butter.


Did you eber see the wild goose, sailing on de ocean,
O de wild goose motion is a berry pretty notion;
Ebry time de wild goose, beckens to de swaller,
You hear him google google google google gollar.


I went down to Sandy Hollar t’other arternoon
And the first man I chanced to meet war ole Zip Coon;
Ole Zip Coon he is a natty scholar,
For he plays upon de Banjo “Coony in de hollar”.


My old Missus she’s mad wid me,
Kase I would’nt go wid her into Tennessee
Massa build him barn and put in de fodder
Twas dis ting and dat ting one ting or odder.


I pose you heard ob de battle New Orleans,
Whar ole Gineral Jackson gib de British beans;
Dare de Yankee boys do de job so slick, creek.
For dey cotch old Packenham an rowed him up de first.


I hab many tings to tork about, but dont know wich come
So here de toast to old Zip Coon before he gin to rust;
May he hab de pretty girls, like de King ob ole,
To sing dis song so many times, ’fore he turn to mole.


The song starts off with the typical racist content of the time concerning how Black people in America talked and names as “Suky” who is described as being so black that she’s actually blue (or the other way around). The phrase “O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day” is, of course, the origin of the Walt Disney “Zippity doo dah zippity day” since the Disney song was a medley of old American folk tunes as one can hear the “Davy Crockett” melody in it as well.

The verse that starts off: “Did you eber see the wild goose, sailing on de ocean,
O de wild goose motion is a berry pretty notion” comes from a sailor shanty called “Wild Goose” or “The Wild Goose Shanty” which shanty man A. L. Lloyd sings:

Did you ever see a wild goose sailin’ on the ocean / Ranzo ranzo away away/
It’s just like them young girls when they take a notion / Ranzo ranzo away away

So one can see the various strands that came together to make blackface minstrelsy and it often comprised the lowest occupations and lifestyles—hunting raccoon and possum to eat and sailing whether it be a Navy ship, a merchant or a whaler—none were exactly prestigious—a sailor is a sailor.

Another version of “Zip Coon” that Dixon sang goes:

I tell you what will happen den, now bery soon
De Nited States Bank will be blone to de moon
Dare General Jackson will him lampoon
An de bery nex president will be Zip Coon
An when Zip Coon our president shall be
He make all de little coon sing possum up a tree
O how de little coons will dance and sing
Wen he tie dere tails togedder, cross de limb dey swing
Now mind wat you arter, you tarnel critter Crocket
You shan’t go head widout ol’ Zip, he is de boy to block it
Zip shall be president, Crocket shall be vice
An dey two togedder will hab tings nice

In this version, the notions of honor at this period in American history are being mocked by the character of Zip Coon, the Northern freedman dandy. We can see that these verses equate Jackson with Zip Coon. “De bery nex president will be Zip Coon” who is dressed as a general in a mismatched uniform is compared to Jackson, himself a former general. Jackson had a great appeal to the masses after he termed the aristocracy as “undemocratic.” Yet Jackson was a part of the aristocracy since he was a slaveholder and had killed men in duels over honor—something the common people did not engage in.

“De Nited States Bank will be blone to de moon” refers to Jackson’s dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States which was both constitutional and providing a solid and steady currency. The currency, however, was fiat currency meaning it had no real value on its own except what was assigned to it by law (the U. S. dollar today is fiat currency). Jackson favored “hard money” which meant a gold or silver standard where paper money was a promissory note representing that amount of precious metal. Jackson called the Second Bank corrupt and when the Bank needed its charter renewed by 1836, Jackson vetoed the charter causing the Bank to collapse. This “common” man also aggressively enforced Indian removal and reversed himself in his support of states’ rights when he refused to allow South Carolina to nullify federal law or secede from the Union.

The references to “Crocket” refer to Davy Crockett—the King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett had served in the Tennessee General Assembly and later in the U.S. House of Representatives. He championed the cause of impoverished farmers and settlers. Crockett also opposed Jackson on key issues, especially the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which he termed “a wicked and unjust measure” even though it cost him his reelection because most whites in Tennessee favored it.

What the song is doing is comparing the major players of Jacksonian Democracy (which historians assign a window of 1830-1850) and its opponents to the “Free Negro dandies.” These dandies were seen by society as pretentious, crude men who lack any real knowledge or taste. They are simply beneath the dignity of the class they aspire to and nothing can be done to remedy that. Hence the comedy of the phrase, “O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler” in the same sense as saying, “I’se a edjacated man, I is.” Dixon was pointing out the Jacksonian era politicians as being no better and no less comical but the song is also a criticism of how honor is denied to the common white citizen. Dixon was saying, “I’m Zip Coon, you’re Zip Coon, we are all Zip Coon in this day and age.”

And there are yet other versions of the song. This is partly because there was more than one Zip Coon. Besides Dixon, there was Bob Farrell who was probably singing “Ole Zip Coon” by 1833, a year before Dixon, George Nichols billed himself as Zip Coon and a “Mr. Palmer” is mentioned as singing it at Richmond Hill Theatre in New York in March of 1834—the same year and month that Dixon is first cited to have sang it. We are most interested in Dixon because of the socio-political commentary within his songs. Dixon was himself of low birth from Richmond in 1801. At 15, his singing abilities landed him in a traveling circus. He achieved stardom almost overnight with his blackface act at the Bowery Theatre in 1829.

Dixon was not content to be merely “The American Melodist,” “The Buffo Singer” or “Zip Coon.” He had other aspirations and moved to Boston to start up a series of muck-raking scandal sheets, squarely on the side of the working class, that earned him a great many enemies. He then moved to New York and continued his writing career there and, again, gained many enemies and even did stints in jail. But he never gave up the stage either. He continued to perform as Zip Coon and even got into legitimate theatre. His muckraking efforts were squarely in the vein of charivari—accusing a person of some moral offense and inciting some type of retaliation among the readership against the offender. His opponents charged him with everything from petty theft to being a “ni-gger” or “mulatto.” His trials garnered a huge amount of attention and newspaper readers avidly kept up with the latest courtroom dramas.

Even Dixon’s own readership would be angered by some of the things he would print such as his antislavery stance and yet would turn up at his shows and listen to him as Zip Coon leveling the same charges from the stage and cheer him on wildly. This seems to have a shamanistic connection: a shaman was regarded by his or her fellow tribespeople as an ordinary person until they donned the mask of the god and danced into an ecstatic frenzy. Then this person’s utterances were regarded as the utterances of the god—not the person. Dixon’s audiences had the same reaction to him. As the editor of a scandal sheet they hated him, insulted him, reviled him but, in the mask of Zip Coon dancing ecstatically, he became the god whose utterances were received with good humor and applause.

Dixon later turned to long distance walking to raise money. He was known to walk long distances without rest or pause once even covering 30 miles in about five and a half hours. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by crowds. He was his own self-promotion machine and always managed to find a way to stay in the public eye. Yet, by 1861, he had so drifted out of the view of that eye that when he died that year, no major paper—remarkable considering his significant contributions to American culture—bothered to carry his obituary.

Zip Coon - YouTube

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Old 03-09-2014, 01:36 AM   #16 (permalink)
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This is some amazing stuff and I can't wait to take some time to really dig into it. Nice job and thank you.
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Old 03-11-2014, 09:52 PM   #17 (permalink)
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Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born in New York in 1808 and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice as a lad. Rice, though, had a love for the theatre and began to perform in it on the side around the 1820s playing extraneous characters for which he received no billing and little pay. Later in the decade, Rice decided to go into show business full time and joined various theatre troupes. Rice showed a flare for comedy for which he began to get some amount of notice. During a three-year stint in Kentucky, Rice developed a liking for the music and dances of the Blacks in the area, most were likely slaves, and began to study them. Rice befriended them to the extent that he was able to observe their dances and talk and eat with them while studying everything about them. He thoroughly immersed himself in what it was to be Black to talk like them, perform their dance steps, sing their songs, joke like them, laugh like them. He was the Blackest White man in America.

Around mid-1830, Rice was performing in blackface as a character named Jim Crow. Exactly how he came up with his gig is not really known except apocryphally. One story is that Rice observed a Black, crippled stable hand dancing a strange, disjointed jig while singing a little song. Another, which may have more truth to it, is that Rice was taught or at least convinced to perform in blackface by a seven-year-old White boy named Sam Cowell. His father, Joe Cowell, was an Englishman performing in American theatre as a mainly comic actor. When Cowell and son heard “Coal Black Rose” being performed—perhaps by Dixon although others were doing it as well—young Sam decided he could perform that number in blackface. When he performed it onstage, claimed the elder Cowell, the audience rained the stage with money. Cowell also reported that Rice was a young and very unassuming man of rather a modest character and had no idea that the man had his own blackface act. This would indicate that Rice developed his character shortly after the Cowells departed the area and that the first city to see Rice perform as Jim Crow was, in fact, Louisville where it can be proven that he was living at the time and so this would put the emergence of Jim Crow at mid-1830. Certainly he was performing Jim Crow by September of that year because there is a handbill from that period still in existence advertising Rice as Jim Crow.

Rice, however, must have had an idea about performing as Jim Crow for some time because Rice did not invent Jim Crow. He must have learned about this character from the Blacks he had befriended. In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, their myths contain a crow that is something of a Trickster figure, that is, it accomplishes its ends by manipulating those around him. To haughty, highbrow types, he presented himself as an obsequious servant; to those with low self-esteem, he presented himself as an authority figure. Through skillful cunning and deceit, the Trickster figure gets what it wants from others by using their own natures against them. He is not always self-absorbed but might use his cunning to help others by tricking those who had no intentions of providing that help. The mythological figure that gives fire to man, for instance, is, in all cultures, the Trickster.

The Yoruban crow in their mythology is not only a Trickster but has the name of “Jim.” When West Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, the Trickster crow named Jim simply became “Jim Crow.” These early slaves often consciously practiced Jim Crow by pretending to be dumb or lame to get out of work. Jim was both a popular slave name (think Huck Finn) as well as a popular minstrel name (Jim Crow, Dandy Jim, Jim Josey, etc.). When Whites banned certain forms of slave dance that involved crossing the feet or legs (seen as subversively anti-Christian), slaves developed dance steps that shuffled without crossing and called this dance “Jim Crow” possibly because it subverted the ban. It was this dance that Tom Rice observed and appropriated for his act. That would not likely happen on the sudden. So Rice must have had the idea of performing this dance onstage for some time and perhaps seeing Sam Cowell’s blackface routine and hearing of the rewards of the performance convinced him to try it out..

We can further deduce that Rice’s earliest performances were not particularly noteworthy. Nothing in the available evidence indicates that audiences were swept up by the song. It is not listed on any bills as a smash or a special feature but just as one song among several and neither as an opening nor closing number. So, we can deduce that Rice worked on it and probably got suggestions from other performers on how to spice it up.

We know, though, by 1831, that Jim Crow was garnering a lot of notice. Rice would “explode” onto the stage. As he pranced about, he would belt out his song, “Jump Jim Crow,” in his falsetto voice singing in slave dialect. Throughout his number, he would punctuate the song with explosive moves, twirls and twists. His limbs seemed to move independently of one another in this very odd but entertaining disjointed fashion as though his arms and legs has extra joints on them. However, it was all very carefully choreographed and required a unique skill to pull off. Clearly, no one else was doing anything like it nor could they hope to. To finish off the number, Rice would “explode” off the stage to a wild ovation. By 1832, Rice was set to tour the East Coast where audiences crowded the theatres eager to see the act they had read so much about. They were not disappointed.

Jump Jim Crow - YouTube

When he performed Jim Crow at the Bowery Theatre in New York, Rice became something of a superstar. From there, Rice toured extensively all over the U.S. and then went to the U.K. where he was also a huge hit. He even married an English woman while in London and then returned to the U.S. with his new wife in tow in 1837. He would return to the U.K. in 1839 and again 1842 and returned each time to tour the U.S.

While “Jump Jim Crow” was a perennial favorite, he had other hits as “Clare de Kitchen” which we discussed earlier:

Clare De Kitchen.wmv - YouTube

The thing to keep in mind concerning “Jump Jim Crow” is that the song is, at its core, political and not just a dance tune. For example, one verse goes:

I’m for union to a girl
An dis is a stubborn fact,
But if I marry and don’t like it
I’ll nullify de act

References to union and nullification are code words and only thinly disguised. In some of the printed versions of “Jump Jim Crow,” we learn that he is against the U.S. Bank and its president, Nicholas Biddle who battled with Jackson over renewing the bank’s charter but lost. Crow refers to him as “Ole Nick,” a name for the Devil. Crow also criticizes Andrew Jackson’s opponents in Congress.

To further illustrate just how political “Jump Jim Crow” actually was, the burning of the Ursaline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts in August 1834 during an anti-Irish/Catholic riot led by Callithumpians was headed by a man whose followers asked him to sing “Jim Crow” according to the courtroom testimony of Asa Barker, one of the firemen who arrived to battle the blaze, at the man’s trial. The prosecution later summarized the incident so: “When the convent is in flames, …Barker too at that time sees him by the engine; and then he was asked to sing Jim Crow, the Io Triumphe of the rioters…” So it can hardly be doubted that the song was primarily political and recognized as such by the Callithumpians and the attendees in the courtroom.

More importantly, we get a clue into who championed the song—working class, pro-Jackson, anti-Bank, anti-immigrant whites and primarily males. We remember too that George Washington Dixon used Callithumpian tactics and counted many friends and supporters among them. But wasn’t he anti-Jackson and pro-Bank? Yes, he was. Between Zip Coon and Jim Crow, we get two ends of a political spectrum. Both were working class and both were Callithumpian at the base but Dixon expressed what would become the radical Republican platform while Rice represented the Jacksonian Democracy. One blackface character was a Northern freedman dandy while the other was a shabby-dressed Southern slave. One was more about acting than music while the other cavorted in eye-popping dance steps of seeming infinite variety. One favored Northern Republicanism while the other favored Southern Democracy.

The Republican Party formed from the Whigs who began in 1832 as the Anti-Masonic Party after the murder of William Morgan in 1826 due to the way the Masons manipulated the justice system to favor the murderers. By 1833, the anti-Masonic issue was wearing thin and so the party banded with the National Republicans of John Quincy Adams (who called themselves “Anti-Jackson” and who were fracturing after Adams failed to get reelected in 1828) to form the Whig Party. They opposed Jacksonian Democracy and slavery (Jackson was everything they hated—a slave owner, a Mason and anti-Bank). To keep from losing the South, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor as their presidential candidate. He was a slave owner which infuriated the hardcore Whigs (among them, a chap named Abraham Lincoln) and they split from the party forming the Republicans with Lincoln running as their very first candidate. The radical republicans were a faction of the party led by Thaddeus Stevens who wanted slavery abolished, freedmen given the vote and, after the war, wanted harsh penalties against the Confederacy and opposed many of Lincoln’s more lenient, moderate policies of reconciliation. That Dixon voiced much of the radical republican agenda before it existed is remarkable.

Many of Jackson’s opponents referred to him as “Jackass” which he played along with until his democracy was represented as a jackass. In 1874, political cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly used the jackass and the elephant as political symbols after a New York Herald hoax story about the animals in the Central Park Menagerie (a zoo) escaping and the images stuck.

I don’t mean to get too far ahead of the topic at hand but there is so much history attached to minstrelsy that it is inexcusable to neglect explaining it so the reader can place events in context. To explain minstrelsy without understanding the politics of the time would be a pointless endeavor. We must, for example, recognize that the word “Callithumpian” was a general term and not one that represented a united party or organization—there was no cohesion and many Callithumpian groups were very opposed to one another’s views.

Likewise, the same was true of minstrelsy. It appealed to the common man but the common folk were not united and so enjoyed minstrelsy for different reasons and interpreted it differently. To further confuse things, many whites opposed to what Jim Crow stood for nevertheless attended Rice’s performances for the sheer enjoyment of it and the same goes for Dixon. Then again, some of the verses of Jim Crow criticize whites and slavery. While “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow” are political songs, they are not true social commentary but rather presented a loose assemblage of views found in the common people and verses were added to please the various factions of common folk rather than attempt to criticize or marginalize any. These songs, by their nature, are inclusive.

But what does the music itself tell us? If one listens to the clip of “Jump Jim Crow” that I posted earlier, one can hear that there isn’t much to it. It is rather simple. Rather anti-climactic to hear the music after reading about the fame and cheering crowds. In fact, a British journalist wrote: “America has sent us a filthy abortion of a song, with neither talent nor humor.” We would think the song must have been a catchy tune but instead hear something so simple that it is monotonous. What was it about the music that made audiences request encore after encore?

“Jump Jim Crow” is in the best tradition of the Callithumpians and mummers—a bunch of racket. There is some evidence that it derived from the Black slaves’ corn-husker songs. Two teams would compete shucking corn for a prize—usually a feast put on by the master of the plantation in which the winning team goes first. These festivities were also very loud and occasionally violent. Here again, the Lord of Misrule rules. I have not yet explained what the Lord of Misrule is—he governs the Christmas celebration as it used to be when it descended from the Roman Saturnalia (December 17-23). During this time, slaves became the masters and masters became the slaves. This societal inversion was known as “misrule.” In corn-husking, the master serves a fine dinner to the slaves and this often occurred on Christmas. Also, the each slave man was invited to the master’s house where the master greeted him cheerily, gave him gifts to give to his kids (usually firecrackers—again something noisy), poured him a big snifter full of his best bonded whiskey (whiskey aged in a barrel as least four years), a big cigar, wished him a Merry Christmas and then guided him to a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars and invited him to plunge his hands in and take as many as he could carry. This ritual tended to humanize slave to master and master to slave which resulted in a better working relationship (once again, the enforcing of “good” behavior).

Christmas celebration in the U.K. as it once was. The jester-like fellow leading the celebrants is the Lord of Misrule. The connection to Callithumpian and mumming practices is quite apparent.

In blackface minstrelsy, the entire show was presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The blackface character onstage manipulates his master to peals of laughter from the audience. With Zip Coon he is a Black freedman who sings of being the “bery nex president” governing every White American. When the White performer dons blackface, he is not really imitating or mocking a Black man as we all too often assume today but rather he was making himself into the “Other” or the “Outsider” thumbing his nose at the upper class, the rulers, the authority that governed his life as completely as it governed those of the Blacks—one held in slavery, the other in wage slavery. He can no more belong to that class that he aspires to than the freedman dandy in his mismatched clothing of the landed aristocracy trying to speak the King’s English with a slave barnyard dialect.

In mythology, great rackets and boisterous laughter represent great change. The reason Christmas was once such a loud, bawdy affair was because the year was ending and a new one coming. We still tend to get loud and drunk to ring in the New Year and even the phrase “ring in” signifies noise—the clanging and banging of the Callithumpian procession as it wound its way down the street. We celebrate the Fourth of July with great fireworks not to symbolize the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air but simply that a new nation had emerged, a new epoch was dawning and we celebrate it annually as a promise of eternal renewal even if by that we may be overreaching a bit.

The minstrels and the Callithumpians were following this same mythology, their noise a way of putting the aristocrats on notice—that changes were going to be made. The minstrel music was this great racket played on banjos and fiddles. It was meant to the oppose the fine, cultured music of the aristocrats with their opera and their symphony orchestras reeling off extravagant, richly textured chords. Minstrel music was stripped down, clumsy, crude, discordant and meant to grate on the ears of those accustomed to fine arts. Minstrel was, as punk was a century and a half later, anti-music.

By 1840, Tom Rice, still riding high in his popularity, began to experience stiffness in his joints and even in his voice but he kept dancing and singing. By 1847, his wife passed away. By the time the 1850s arrived, the first wave of minstrelsy was drawing to a close and a new one arose to take the reigns with even more boisterous noise than its predecessor. Rice still wore his blackface onstage his stiffness had steadily increased until he could no longer dance although he still acted in legitimate theatre but even that became impossible eventually.

On September 19, 1860, Thomas Dartmouth Rice passed away. Although seven years junior to George Washington Dixon, Rice preceded him to the grave. He left behind no descendants, none of his children survived infancy. The exact cause of death was supposed by some to be liquor. Although Rice was a rich man at one point and wore extravagant clothing (making him a type of Zip Coon), a New York Times memorial piece stated that Rice spent his fortune away in the saloons. Be that as it may, Many mourned his death as the newspapers eulogized him. The exact opposite of how Dixon was treated. And yet, we remember “The Zip Coon Song” as “Turkey in the Straw” while “Jump Jim Crow” has faded completely from our memories. The only tribute to Rice’s character after his death occurred in a most unflattering way: the South’s brutal, dehumanizing segregation laws bore his name.

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Old 03-15-2014, 05:08 PM   #18 (permalink)
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But how did Blacks themselves regard minstrelsy? Were they offended, indifferent, favorable? I recently discussed minstrelsy with a young black man who found it horribly demeaning as pretty much everybody does today. He was similarly offended at many of the songs of the ragtime era because they threw the word “ni-gger” around so casually. He pronounced Arthur Collins “a redneck” which I’m sure Collins would have found baffling. What I found baffling was that this young man is a rap fan and saw nothing wrong with rap’s incessant use of “ni-gger” although rendered as “ni-gga.” He fell back on the old “it’s empowering when Blacks say it” although he couldn’t point to a single instance where any Black person was so empowered. He pointed out that many Blacks decried blackface and the coon songs back then. Sure and many decry rap’s use of the racist (and sexist) rhetoric today but does that mean it was the mood of the times?

My point was, was there any particular reason the average Black person in the age of blackface minstrelsy would have been particularly offended? The truth is, that in the North, when the fiddler played “Jump Jim Crow,” White and Black children would dance to it whether the fiddler was White or Black.

There is a case on record, Barbadoes v. Bolcolm, from March of 1840, in which a six-year-old “pretty little pickaniny” named Rebecca Barbadoes, had her dress, bonnet and cape splattered with green paint while dancing in a paint store on Southack Street in Boston. The paint store, in order to drum up business, had employed the services of a fiddler (race not given). When the owner, Mr. Bolcolm tried to shoo the children away, he claimed that they got “saucy” with him. Somehow or other, Mr. Bolcolm either accidentally or otherwise splattered Ms. Barbadoes’ clothing with green paint for which her parents demanded reimbursement of $20. A young boy named Thomas Brown (race not given) was called to the stand as a witness to the incident. He was asked what song the fiddler was playing that attracted all the children. He answered, “Jim Crow.”

So, here is a case that demonstrates that Blacks of that period had no innate dislike of blackface minstrelsy and enjoyed the songs as much as whites. In case the reader is wondering, the court decided that Bolcolm was responsible for attracting the children in the first place but that he also had a right to be angry with their disruptive actions and so was ordered that he reimburse the Barbadoes family in the amount of $5.25 plus court costs. He might have fared better had not his lawyer embarrassed himself by claiming that had the family (who were obviously not slaves) taken their place on an auction block, the entire lot of them couldn’t fetch $20 and that green went well with dark skin.

Among the Quakers in America in the 18th century, slavery was not only the peculiar institution but an intolerable one. They refused to stay silent and loudly condemned it. Because they ran the Yankee whale fishery in Nantucket and Massachusetts, they acquired great wealth (no one had learned how to drill for petroleum yet and so whales provided the only oil). Because of their money, the Quakers of New England turned New England into a bastion of antislavery practice. Region by region began to manumit its slaves resulting in a ballooning population of freedmen. New England was the vital link in the chain for the Underground Railroad which the Quakers financed with their whale money.

Some Quakers, still kept slaves and some moved out of New England to escape the stigma. Among these Quaker families were the Plummers who moved to Ohio in 1743. They brought their slaves with them, among them Thomas Snowden. When the head of the family, Samuel Plummer, died, the slaves were still not given their freedom until pressure was brought to bear upon them by the Society of Friends who ordered the Plummers to manumit their slaves or face expulsion from the Society. Thomas Snowden was given his freedom.

Thomas married a house servant named Ellen Cooper in Knox County, Ohio in 1834. He was 32 and she 17. They got a farm in Clinton, Ohio. Tom and Ellen were both illiterate but had seven children they sent to a local white school where they learned the three R’s. Their names were (and in order of age): Sophia, Ben, Phebe, Martha, Lew, Elsie and Annie. In 1856, Thomas died and Ellen was hard put to pay the mortgage. So the family put on musical shows and charged admission. In their handbills, they explained that they were trying to save their farm from repossession (they did but lost two acres of land to the bank).

The Snowden Musical Family, as they advertised themselves, was quite talented. The oldest child, Sophia, and the youngest, Annie, played fiddles. Annie was also billed as the “Infant Violinist” as she was no more than 5 by 1860. The Snowden girls also appear to be the only female fiddlers in America at this time of any renown. Ben also played fiddle, Lew played banjo. Phebe was the band’s dancer and may have played an instrument. The handbills also advertised the playing of guitar, dulcimer, flute, triangle and tambourine although we are not clear on which family members played these.

The Snowdens’ way of starting off a show was to start playing on the way to the venue (they were known to even play in graveyards) to attract attention and followers. Each show netted them about $12 which was decent money back in the 1850s and 60s. The Snowdens performed many covers of tunes popular in that day and were especially fond of Stephen Foster songs. The audience (mostly white) might shout out numbers that the band didn’t know and so they would improvise it showing a tentative connection to jazz.

The Snowdens were careful to keep things light and keep things clean. They advertised themselves as providing good, clean entertainment. They were abolitionists (after all, their father was a freedman) but downplayed their views while performing but they also avoided material that stereotyped Blacks. They garnered quite a reputation and name and so were often invited by whites of high social standing to spend the night in their homes while touring about.

The band had opportunities to hear, meet and play with other minstrel artists both black and white. Among them is Daniel Decatur Emmett. Besides living in the same area as the Snowdens, Emmett was multi-talented playing fiddle, fife & drum and banjo with equal proficiency. Emmett got his start in show business after leaving the army and joining the circus as a blackface minstrel.

In New York in 1843, Emmett performed in a group known as the Virginia Minstrels along with Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham and Frank Bower at the Chatham Theatre in New York. This was a turning point minstrelsy which I will explain in a bit.

The Virginia Minstrels. Emmett is on the banjo.

Emmett is most famous as the author and original performer of “Dixie” which he wrote in New York while a member of Bryant’s Minstrels in 1859. While Emmett also performed “Old Dan Tucker” some don’t believe he wrote it although the song is attributed to him as author.

There is some speculation that the Snowdens either wrote “Dixie” and gave it to Emmett or that they co-wrote it with him. This is not tenable for a number of reasons the main one being that “Dixie” clearly has antecedents among earlier Emmett songs written when the Snowden children were either very young or not even born yet. Secondly, the Snowdens avoided songs that used the slave dialect and so it is highly unlikely they would have written such a number. There is some speculation that Thomas Snowden may have actually co-wrote the song or one of its antecedents with Emmett and the evidence for this is not far-fetched. After all, Emmett lived close by the Snowdens in Knox County at Mt. Vernon and very likely came into contact with them even before their fame.

Dan Emmett in blackface.

Some scholars pronounce “Dixie” as the most pro-slavery song in all of minstrelsy for it depicts a former-slave wistfully reminiscing about his youth on a Southern plantation:

O, I wish I was in de land ob cotton
Old time dere is not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away

The first thing to understand about the song is that it is the origin of the term “Dixie” as a synonym for the American South. No one is sure why although reference to the area below the Mason-Dixon line seems probable (some think it refers to a man named Dix known for his kindness to his slaves while others think it refers to Louisiana $10 bills called “Dix notes”). Regardless, the song became a huge hit in a very short time. Abraham Lincoln claimed it to be one of his favorite songs.

That Emmett would have written a pro-slavery song is hard to explain considering that he was anti-slavery. When the confederacy adopted his song as its anthem, he was infuriated and stated several times that he wished he had never written it. He joined the Union Army and wrote its fife & drum manual.

To understand why “Dixie” became an instant hit, we need to return to the point that 1843 was a turning point in minstrelsy. A new crop of minstrel artists, Emmett among them, rose up about this time and changed minstrelsy from a realist portrayal of blacks to a representational one that I touched on in earlier posts—that the blackface character was no longer meant to depict an actual Black man but rather the whites themselves as children. The white audience of minstrelsy mainly came from the farms—many of them down South—and missed those wonderful, warm, summer days of their youth tending the fields, feeding the animals, fishing in the creek, sleeping under a tree. In the city, they were lucky to even see a tree much less a creek. So, in “Dixie” we are really hearing a working class white man reminiscing of his childhood on the farm and this is why the song resonated so well among urban whites of the North as it did among rural whites in the South.

The Snowdens remained on the minstrel circuit for some time and, by 1900, Lew and Ben were the only surviving members of the band and were still performing. Dan Emmett died in 1903 an old man while Ben and Lew got involved in racehorse ventures but were ultimately still musicians and would put on shows from a gable of their Knox County home until Ben’s death in 1920. Neither left behind any children.

Found in the possession of Lew Snowden after his death in 1923 was a photograph of Dan Emmett along with the hand-written phrase: “Author of ‘Dixie!’” Lew also retained a newspaper clipping about Emmett being the author of the song. I find it strange that Lew Snowden would hang onto these items that he obviously cherished if Emmett were taking credit for writing a Snowden song. What it does indicate is that Emmett and the Snowdens knew each other and quite well.

Of the original songs of the Snowdens, only one is confirmed to have survived called “We Are Goin to Leave Knox County” and is believed to have been written sometime around the Civil War era and definitely based on Stephen Foster’s “Dear Lilly.”

Union soldier with banjo.

When Emmett collected a song he liked that he did not write, he did not take credit for it although perhaps there might be songs attributed to him by others. One such song is one Emmett had published under the title “Genuine Negro Jig.” The title would indicate that Emmett did not write it but had encountered and published it in order to preserve it. In 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded “Genuine Negro Jig” under the title “Snowden’s Jig” as it is their belief that Emmett likely heard them perform it and so it may be another song of the Snowdens that is still preserved. I think they are right.

Carolina Cocolate Drops: Snowden's Jig - YouTube

Minstrel band—real Blacks this time.

Dan Emmett late in life.
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Old 03-15-2014, 07:20 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Sorry, meant to include these in the last post:

Ben Snowden

Lew Snowden

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Old 03-22-2014, 07:03 PM   #20 (permalink)
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By the 1870s, minstrelsy as it had been known was fading fast and entering yet a new phase: the cakewalk. Cakewalking was a dance that started on the Southern plantations in the days of slavery. It was also called chalkline-walking or a walk-around. On a certain day, usually Sundays, the slaves would dress up in their best finery—almost always hand-me-downs given to them by the master and his family—and form two columns. The columns were divided into male and female. On one end, a man from one column and a woman from the other would meet in the middle and strut down the between the lines of the dancers while everybody moved up and then the next couple came down the line and so on. This was done to the music of a fiddler, a banjoist or both. Other times, an ensemble would play on other instruments as cowbell, jug, bones, comb, harmonica, cigar-box guitar (or diddly-bow), kazoo, Jew’s harp, washtub bass and the like.

The music was of the type that helped to spawn ragtime—a spry, jumpy melody and rhythm. The music and dancing would attract the master or his family and they would be given the honor of picking the best dancing couple. The winners would win an enormous cake—usually with coconut topping—but it was so huge that everybody would help them eat it. These dances generally lasted all night long especially during the winter months while the fields lay fallow.

While many of the instruments used for the cakewalk can be traced back to Africa—bones, banjo, kazoo, diddly-bow, washtub bass—cakewalking itself has no African antecedent. When native Africans witnessed the dance, none recognized it as anything akin to the dances they knew of.

Some statements of cakewalking celebrants tell us why:

“Us slave watched white folks' parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we'd do it too, but we used to mock 'em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn't dance any better.”

Ragtimer Shep Edmonds recalled in a 1950 interview:

“They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the ‘big house’, but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It’s supposed to be that the custom of a prize started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement.”

The cakewalk dance became popular across the ocean as this European illustration shows. Whites did not seem to realize that they were lampooning their own dances but thought that they were doing some authentic African dance even though the cakewalk has no African roots.

This is perhaps the first published cakewalk from 1877—Harrigan’s & Hart’s “Walking for Dat Cake.” It shows its ties to early minstrelsy as the celebrants are dancing in the kitchen (note the cupboards and chairs). The cakewalk is the origin of the phrase “take the cake.”

Cakewalker Doc Brown who danced on the streets for tips became famous after rag composer Charles L. Johnson saw him perform and composed a piece for him.
The very talented old-time pianist Morgan Siever, shown here performing “Doc Brown’s Cakewalk” at age 11.

The joining of the cakewalk dance and the musical form also called cakewalk has been the source of some debate. Purists insist that cakewalks are not rags and yet some of the pieces pronounced cakewalks by some purists are pronounced rags by other purists and vice-versa. I really don’t know the difference myself because I often classify some pieces as cakewalks only to find some music scholar classifying them as definite rags.

According to some sources, though, cakewalk pieces are more march oriented and, in fact, were often used by John Philip Sousa and also by his former sideman, Arthur Pryor.
“Frozen Bill Cakewalk” by the Arthur Pryor marching band.

Bert Williams and George Walker of the very famous Williams & Walker vaudeville comedy song and dance team made cakewalking a huge phenomenon. Bert Williams became one of the three highest paid performers in the country. If he was refused admission to a bar for his color, he’d offer to buy everybody in the place a drink if they’d let him in and they usually did. When Williams & Walker learned that Teddy Roosevelt was even practicing cakewalking in the White House, they sent him a telegram challenging him to a face-off as a publicity stunt. The White House never responded.
1903 cakewalk clip featuring real African-Americans rather than Whites in blackface. The cakewalk dance never died but was cannibalized by such dances as the foxtrot and the lindy-hop.

Joplin’s 1902 piece “The Ragtime Dance” depicts a cakewalking couple on the cover. The clothing of cakewalking couples was deliberately ostentatious and gaudy and often mismatched showing a clear connection to Zip Coon from decades before. What was different about Joplin’s piece was that it had aspirations of turning rags and cakewalking into legitimate art forms rather than a folk expression at the mercy of the racist mood of the times. Unfortunately, most of the country was not onboard with him.

This Christy’s Minstrels handbill shows what appears to a cakewalking couple at the bottom decades before cakewalking became a fad. The woman is, of course, played by a man in drag (once again reinforcing the idea that minstrelsy descended from mumming plays). In fact, women did not get involved with onstage cakewalk productions until after the turn of the century. Before then, all female roles were played by men in drag.
“At a Georgia Camp Meeting,” a cakewalk by Frederick Allen Mills (who went by the name Kerry Mills) from about 1897 recording on an Edison brown wax cylinder said to be the best recording wax.

Cakewalks were almost entirely a White phenomenon and some White composers specialized in them. The three tops cakewalk writers were Kerry Mills, Abe Holzmann and J. Bodewalt Lampe. Not all cakewalks were written by White composers however. The first piece Joplin released after “Maple Leaf Rag” was a cakewalk he co-wrote with Arthur Marshall called “Swipsey Cakewalk” (although, predictably, some say it is a rag) published in 1901.
What we can be certain of is that the term “cakewalk” preceded the term “ragtime” (believed by some to have been coined by Ernest Hogan whom we covered earlier). So we can conclude that the early rags as “Mississippi Rag” would have been cakewalks because the Missouri style of rag that became classic simply did not yet exist or at least it was not very well known until 1899 when Joplin put it on the map followed by James Scott. The cakewalk began to decline after 1904 when classic ragtime became the rage.

Part of the problem over the confusion of rags and cakewalks is likely because of the publisher. If cakewalks were big sellers, he might buy a rag from a composer but title it a cakewalk in order to maximize sales. We know this is true in Joplin’s case because John Stark actually titled the piece “Swipsey Cakewalk” as he titled virtually everything Joplin turned into him. Because of this kind of thing going on, the debate over what constitutes a rag or cakewalk will likely never fully be resolved.

Blackface minstrelsy moved from ragtime into jazz. Even Fred Astaire danced in blackface once as a tribute to Bill Robinson whom he greatly admired. Not until the 1940s did blackface start to fall out of favor by which time even the most premier blackface performer, Al Jolson, dropped it.
Ned Haverly’s blackface act. In spite of all politically correct sentiments over this kind of thing, he was quite a good performer.
Emmett Miller was one of the greatest blackface artists forgotten by history. Although he was jazz (his band, the Georgia Crackers, contained the Dorsey brothers and guitarist extraordinaire Eddie Lang), he was the primary inspiration of Hank Williams (who lifted “Lovesick Blues” from him) and Bob Wills not to mention David Lee Roth (who lifted “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Big Bad Bill Is Just Sweet William Now”). Jimmie Rodgers was a contemporary but borrowed a lot of Miller’s vocal techniques for which Miller hated him referring to him as “that damned hillbilly.” This was recorded about 1928 or 9.
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