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The Rise and Fall of Popular Music

[A polemical history]

Chapter 2

Americans of African descent began making their mark very early in the nation's cultural history. There was a black playhouse in New York City in the 1820s: the African Grove Theatre presented its own versions of hit shows, such as Pierce Egan's Tom and Jerry, or Life In London (1823), establishing the comic convention of the city slicker and his visiting country cousin. The Drama of King Shotaway was probably the first play by a black playwright to be mounted. in America. The theatre's director, Henry Brown, may have based the drama of a slave insurrection in the island of St Vincent on personal experience: he had emigrated from there.

The idea was to present entertainment for blacks who wished to join the white mainstream of society, but audiences of the time were unruly anyway, and white hoodlums liked to go to the Grove to disrupt proceedings. The theatre also became a tourist attraction. Its stars included James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge, both of whom toured as far as England. Aldridge played Othello to Edmund Kean's Iago; he performed Shakespeare in Russia, and died in 1864 while on tour in Poland. Regarded as one of the great actors of his day, he had also performed the first American 'slave song' that we know of: 'Opossum up a Gum Tree'.

Free blacks such as the bugle player and bandleader Francis (Frank) Johnson, born in the West Indies, made much history. Johnson was the first American black to publish music (1818), to give formal band concerts, to tour the USA and to appear in integrated concerts with white musicians. In 1824, when the French General Lafayette toured the USA to wild acclaim, Johnson was engaged for the Lafayette Ball in Philadelphia and played his 'Lafayette March', which obtained its share of publicity. He seems to have been the first American musician of any race to tour abroad, taking a band to London in 1837, the year Victoria came to the throne; she gave him a silver trumpet. On his return he introduced the promenade concert to the USA.

There were many other black bandleaders, who were often popular with the upper classes for parties and dances, and indeed talented black musicians in every category. Yet most of these were pursuing success in the American musical world by playing the styles and genres that were already popular in that world. Despite (or perhaps because of) the severe handicap of slavery, it was the music of the slaves that made the first of many profoundly important black contributions to the American mainstream.

The tradition of 'blacking up' goes back at least as far as Ben Jonson's masque for James I's Danish queen, who expressed a desire to wear black make-up with a dazzling white costume. Set-pieces requiring the performer to black up with burnt cork became a staple in America: the New York Journal referred to a 'Negro dance, in character' seen on stage in 1767. But the minstrel show suddenly appeared in the 1840s, and was the first entirely American musical form to become internationally popular.

Minstrelsy saw the introduction of patterns still extant in American culture. First, minstrelsy was essentially black music, while the most successful acts were white, so that songs and dances of black origin were imitated by white performers and then taken up by black performers, who thus to some extent ended up imitating themselves. Secondly, more than a few people wondered how a nation could be free which allowed the institution of slavery; but as the nation became more wealthy, it also became more powerful. As the trauma of the Revolutionary War receded, as the young nation won the War of 1812 against the British (but were soundly beaten by the Canadians when they attempted to 'liberate' that country) and as the slaughter of the American aboriginal tribes provided yet another manifestation of racism, Americans established a pattern of resisting the loss of their innocence. The affectionate, patronizing vision of plantation life conveyed by minstrelsy was similar to the simplistic and idealized depiction of family life in the television sitcoms of a hundred years later.

The phenomenon of black culture was widely and often sympathetically discussed. Blacks sang the watered-down songs of minstrelsy, as well as their own, and critics noticed the difference: there was a flavour of sadness in their own songs that was absent from the 'Ethiopian' songs that were all the rage. There is a famous quotation from Knickerbocker Magazine (1845) on the subject of Negro poets:

Let one of them, in the swamps of Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur, than it is written down, amended (that is, almost spoilt), printed, and then put upon a course of rapid dissemination, to cease only with the utmost bounds of Anglo-Saxondom, perhaps with the world. Meanwhile, the poor author digs away with his hoe, utterly ignorant of his greatness.

There were a few black minstrels, even in the early years, especially in New Orleans, where Signor Cornmeali (Mr Cornmeal, real name unknown) began as a street trader singing 'Ethiopian' songs, went on the stage and influenced white performers. William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba, was probably the only black to tour with early white companies; in England in 1849 he was praised by Charles Dickens. He was born in Rhode Island, but began entertaining in New York City, playing the banjo and the tambourine as well as dancing; he had learned some of his jigs from his desperately poor Irish neighbours, who lived on pennies they earned dancing in pubs, but then made them his own. Both blacks and whites copied his dancing. He won a grand contest (promoted by P. T. Barnum) in 1844, and historians of dance consider him to be the virtual inventor of black dancing, including tap-dancing, as we have known it ever since. He died in England; none of his fame extended to allowing numbers of blacks to make a good living with their own talent. The majority of minstrels were always white.

Much of minstrelsy's material was copied from the songs and dances of slavery and many minstrels visited plantations in search of ideas. In 1829 Thomas Dartmouth 'Daddy' Rice struck it rich with his 'Jim Crow' song and dance, copied from a crippled stable-hand named Jim who worked for a white Crow family. He 'jumped' his 'Jim Crow' between the acts of whatever shows he could get billed on, but the jump was mostly a shuffle, and the tune was borrowed from an Irish jig. 'Jim Crow' later became the stock plantation slave, while 'Zip Coon', first a song by George Washington Dixon, became the city dandy: the 'Tom and Jerry' routine reduced to racist farce.

The earliest full-length minstrel shows were organized by quartets. The Virginia Minstrels first met to rehearse in a rooming house in New York early in 1843, during an economic depression which resulted in one of the worst seasons in theatrical history. Daniel Emmett Decatur was a printer who played banjo and fiddle, working with a circus during the summer, and then began writing songs: 'Old Dan Tucker', 'Turkey in the Straw' (which used part of 'Zip Coon') and 'I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land', written for Bryant's Minstrels in 1859, were all his (but like many songwriters, he died poor). Billy Whitlock, also a printer, had learned to play banjo from Jim Sweeney, a virtuoso who is credited with adding the fifth 'thumb' string to the instrument. Dick Pelham and Frank Brower were both dancers and singers; Brower also played the bones, a set of 12-inch-long dried horse bones which were clacked together to make a rhythm instrument. Brower became one of the best vocalists in minstrelsy.

Black-face performers had been known as 'Ethiopian delineators'. (According to David Herbert Donald, when an act called the Ethiopian Serenaders returned from Europe after performing for Queen Victoria, their audience in Washington DC included Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln, not yet 30 years old, and his wife.) The word 'minstrel' had applied to any professional entertainer since the twelfth century in Europe, but the Virginia Minstrels, who toured for only a few months before breaking up, tied the word for ever to black-face. Immediately successful, they played at record-breaking engagements in New York and Boston, and sailed for England in April. The English already loved black-face entertainment; Sweeney was touring Britain playing the banjo, and the Virginia Minstrels were a hit, but box office receipts mysteriously evaporated, so they could not support themselves and broke up.

The equally famous Christy Minstrels were formed in 1844 by Edwin P. Christy, who wrote 'Goodnight Ladies' and other songs. Born in Philadelphia, he studied black rhythms in Congo Square in New Orleans, where he was a factory foreman. First he toured as one of many imitators of Daddy Rice; he formed a group in Buffalo, New York, and borrowed the name of the Virginia Minstrels for a while, but he always billed his group as the 'oldest' and the 'first'. When he was ready, he booked a theatre in New York in 1846, and developed a family show which ran for over 2,700 performances; he also toured England. He committed suicide by jumping out of a hotel window in New York City, depressed by the outbreak of the Civil War.

The first minstrel companies made history and permanently changed show business by inventing 'black' entertainment for families, and by creating a show rather than just a series of comic turns and dances. The shows were in three parts. For the songs and jokes in the first part the performers stood in a semicircle; the comic endmen 'Tambo' and 'Bones' were distinguished by their tambourine and bone clackers, with which they would register noisy approval of a joke. (This was a signal that the audience too was supposed to laugh, a precursor of canned laughter on radio and television.) An interlocutor or master of ceremonies presided in the centre and represented the boss, so that when Tambo or Bones made a joke at his expense, there was an extra dimension to the glee. Another principal was a singer of sentimental ballads. The similar but less formal second part was made up of a string of speciality acts and novelties, called the olio. This term was already in use in white show business and survived in later vaudeville; it is probably from the Spanish olla, meaning 'pot-pourri'. Last came a walk-around finale, with dances, which became more and more of a spectacle.

The 'Ethiopian' dances (e.g. breakdowns, double-shuffles and heel-and-toe) and instrumentation (especially the banjo) were more or less authentic, and profoundly influential. The ancestors of the banjo are thought to have been the stringed instruments of the Wolof, of what are now Senegal and Gambia in west Africa, and may be as ancient as Mesopotamia. Minstrel banjo players included Sweeney, Tom Briggs (who joined Christy's Minstrels and published Briggs' Banjo Instructor) and Frank Converse, who preserved the first piece he had heard played by a black musician. All of them freely admitted that they had learned from blacks, and the music they played included accents and additive rhythms that came partly from the playing style and were not obvious from the notation, like African drumming in the past and ragtime in the future.

A later element in the show was the cakewalk, in which members of the audience were invited to invent the most ridiculous strutting march, for which the prize was a cake. Interestingly, Master Juba reversed the procedure, in that some of his dances are said to have resembled Irish jigs. But minstrelsy was laden with ironies: the supposed ability of the blacks to invent outlandish dances (though it was whites who were doing most of the dancing) turned the word 'jig' into an offensive euphemism. As the spectacle in the last act became more elaborate, playlets were mounted that included lampoons of current events and spoofs of popular plays. In one version of Uncle Tom's Cabin Uncle Tom was not sold down the river, Simon Legree did not appear and the author's subtitle 'Life among the Lowly' became a song called 'Life among the Happy'.

Some of minstrelsy's songs were sympathetic, such as 'The Negro Boy' ('I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy') and 'A Negro Song' (or 'The Negro's Humanity'); the latter's words were adapted from an African song which had been transcribed by trader Mungo Park in the eighteenth century. But in general the genre had little room for abolitionist sentiment, and became more overtly racist after the Civil War: the image of the 'darky' as a comic buffoon insulated whites from the reality of free black Americans, and survived in films and television until well into the 1950s. Minstrelsy's jokes seem to have been among the oldest in show business, some with double meanings: 'Why am I like a young widow?' a white comedian in burnt cork would ask. 'Because I do not stay long in black.'

Many 'Negro' songs were published. One of the best was 'Yellow Rose of Texas', about a 'darky' longing for his girlfriend. First published in 1858, it became a Civil War campfire song and remained popular for decades. But after the Civil War it was no longer possible to pretend that everything was all right down on the plantation. Charles A. White, whose minstrel songs were his most famous, had a big hit in 1874 with 'The Old Home Ain't What It Used To Be', known to have been sung in the North by black minstrels.

The first successful black songwriter in America was James Bland, whose father found a government job in Washington, DC, just after the war, when the capital was full of ex-slaves. Bland's songs reflect the pentatonic scales of black folk music. His best known are 'Oh Dem Golden Slippers' and 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginny' (and he is still the only black to have written a State Song). Among his more than seven hundred songs are celebrations of the end of slavery: 'De Slavery Chains am Broke at Last', 'Keep Dem Golden Gates Wide Open', 'In the Morning by the Bright Light'. He went to England in 1880 with the Haverly Colored Minstrels and organized his own troupe there; he performed for the British royal family, and also became very popular in Germany.

For decades minstrelsy was a staple of white show business, a simple format for entertainment in the days when all entertainment was necessarily live, and audiences may have been easier to please. In Philadelphia, Carncross and Dixey's Minstrels enjoyed the unique feat of prospering for forty years as a permanent organization in its own theatre. The interlocutor was J. L. Carncross, whose light tenor voice was at its best in plaintive ballads, while E. F. Dixey was the bone man, on the right-hand end of the semi-circle. He played solos on his clackers -- his big finale was an imitation of a horse race -- and he was also a singer. Hughey Dougherty, with the tambourine at the other end, rasped and cackled his way through comic songs, and had one of the biggest personal followings of anyone in minstrelsy.

In the same town, another famous Tambo was Lew Simmons, who owned a baseball team. (There was little money in sandlot baseball, so he sold it to Cornelius McGillicudy, who changed his name to Connie Mack and made millions with the Philadelphia Athletics.) (Simmons was killed by a beer truck, which might have amused him; he himself liked a drink, and was said to be able to see the humour in almost any situation.) Billy Sweatnum was the interlocutor and a man named Slocum the bone end in Simmons and Slocum's Minstrels. Charlie Reynolds was a comic who could not sing or dance and was in fact tone-deaf; he would bring down the house by making a shambles of his own act. Jimmy Mackin and Francis Wilson were a touring song and dance team who had a 'rivals' act, both after the same girl. Wilson helped found Actor's Equity in 1919.

During the long decline of minstrelsy, as with the decline of many genres, it slowly exploded into the grandiose: some of the troupes had more than a hundred members. Female impersonations and ever fancier spectacles were included in the shows; among the stock characters were uppity blacks and northern carpet-baggers. Soon minstrelsy and ragtime combined in the 'coon songs' and 'coon shouting' of early vaudeville, and by the early 1880s a minstrel show was becoming effectively a black-face variety show. Lew Dockstader's Minstrels still performed, and George M. Cohan was a partner in a minstrel show, as late as 1908. A white blacked-up minstrel show was popular on British television until well into the 1960s.

To add to all the ironies, black as well as white performers were required to 'black up'. Minstrel shows were popular among ordinary blacks, though conditions were terrible for black performers and a full-time first-class black minstrel troupe, Brooker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels, was not organized until 1865. Furthermore, the black companies that were formed were mostly owned and managed by white businessmen. But minstrelsy established a demand for black performers, and the origins of black as well as white vaudeville are to be found in it. We may see black-face minstrelsy as racist nowadays, but America's insistence on its innocence has often been convincing, at least in cultural terms. Of the songs to come out of minstrelsy, those of Stephen Foster survived the crude crucible of racist comedy and made him easily the most successful nineteenth-century composer of popular songs.

Stephen Collins Foster was born in Pittsburgh on the Fourth of July in 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He managed to die an alcoholic and in poverty in 1864, having sold the rights to some of his most popular songs, but he was one of the first American songwriters to sign contracts for royalties and to support himself as a full-time songwriter (others were also publishers, performers or teachers). Above all, he was the first indubitably American composer whose songs are still sung more than a century after his death.

Foster was of Irish descent, and was steeped in music from childhood. He was educated in good private schools and then worked in his brother's mercantile business, but he never strayed far from music. His first published song was 'Open Thy Lattice, Love' (1844); his early songs were simple, romantic and mediocre, based on the models of Arne and the later example of Bishop, whose songs (except for 'Home, Sweet Home') were already being forgotten. Foster must have been familiar with slave music from childhood, but it was not until around 1845, through singing and playing them with friends, that he wrote some 'minstrel' songs. 'Lou'siana Belle' was published in 1847, 'Away Down South', 'Uncle Ned' and 'Oh! Susanna' in 1848. The last especially was sung by minstrel companies all over the country, and became a favourite during the California gold rush, but Foster had sold it outright; only in 1849 did he sign contracts with two publishers and become a full-time songwriter. Eight more minstrel songs were published in 1850, including 'Gwine to Run All Night' (also known as 'Camptown Racetrack'); fifteen more in 1852 show him at his peak, among them 'Old Folks At Home' (or 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River'), 'My Old Kentucky Home', 'Massa's in the Cold Ground' and 'Old Dog Tray'.

He wrote a few more minstrel songs, and other fine period songs based on Italian, German and Irish models. His most famous later songs are 'Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair' (1854), which could not have been written without the influence of Thomas Moore, yet is immediately and convincingly Foster, and 'Beautiful Dreamer', which has a fine Italianate melody and was written in the last months of his life. He had a streak of melancholy, and his songs are often nostalgic for a remembered past that is happier than the flawed present. But the minstrel songs written around 1850 made him famous.

It is not true, as nineteenth-century biographers claimed, that Foster had visited 'negro camp meetings' or that he imitated 'the melodic forms and tonal characteristics of the songs of the colored slaves'. He did not need to steal his material, having a natural sympathy for it, and his best songs can stand on their own considerable merits. The melodies have proved to be deathless. More interestingly, every one of the minstrel songs has a chorus, to be sung in three- and four-part harmony, making them more complete and satisfying compositions, while none of his earlier songs have choruses at all. 'Oh! Susanna' is simply a delightful nonsense song, and is not obviously a 'Plantation Melody', as some of the later songs were called. Although many of these were written in dialect, which was later rejected for reasons of taste, they were a considerable advance on the songs of the period.

Nostalgia for a half-remembered past was not just a propensity of Foster's, but the most popular sentiment of the time; homesickness is another familiar emotion. 'Massa's in the Cold Ground' may seem to be a clear attempt to sentimentalize slavery, but many slaves must have loved their masters, on whom they depended for everything. 'Uncle Ned' emerges through the dialect as a kindly human being who was loved; in 'Nelly Was a Lady' (1850) the black man mourns the death of his own wife. The slaves experience, in all these songs, ordinary human feelings; they are people as real as the characters in Shakespeare. And because they were good songs, they must have had a consciousness-raising effect, intended or not.

Slavery made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, and the issue came to centre on the right of individual states to practise slavery as opposed to the right of the federal government to contain it. Finally it had to be settled. Before 1860 the typical American popular song was a sentimental ballad, expressing the virtues of homeliness, fidelity and so forth. This type of song made a big comeback in the 1880s, but in the meantime, the Civil War of 1861-5, or the War between the States, brought about the end of the nation's adolescence, and should have ended its innocence. Americans were not -- could not be -- as free as they thought they were; questions sometimes arise which have to be resolved. So it was with the contradiction of states' rights versus federalism in the USA. Brother fought brother in one of the bloodiest wars in history; more than 630,000 died, more Americans than were killed in all other wars from the French and Indian to the Korean.

The Civil War produced a greater number of songs than any other war in American history. Many soldiers carried songbooks; one early book contained songs that were already popular, such as Foster's songs, 'Yankee Doodle', 'Annie Laurie' (from Moore's collection) and 'Pop Goes the Weasel' (a traditional English tune with words from 1858 about a London hatter pawning, or 'popping', his weasel, the tool of his trade). Both sides sang many of the same songs, since both included semi-literate recruits from the same tradition. On the evening before the Battle of Murfreesboro, rival army bands, camped within earshot, took turns playing their patriotic songs, then joined together to play 'Home, Sweet Home'. The next day they slaughtered each other.

A camp-meeting song called 'Brother, Will You Meet Us?', to a tune believed to be by William Steffe of North Carolina, had new words bestowed on it by soldiers who sang it as they marched to the front in 1861: 'John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave / but his soul goes marching on' honoured a radical who had been hanged in 1859 after an unsuccessful raid on the government arsenal at Harper's Ferry, intended to arm a slave revolt. Julia Ward Howe heard it and wrote new words: 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / And His truth goes marching on ...' 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', published in 1862, is as well known to Americans as their national anthem. 'Tenting on the Old Camp Ground', by Walter Kittredge, was almost as popular.

Songs by George Frederick Root included 'Battle Cry of Freedom'; it was later said of Root that he ought to have been made a general. John Hill Hewitt wrote new patriotic words to his own big hit 'The Minstrel's Return'd from the War'. Among his many other songs were 'The Picket Guard', a setting of a poem that had been published in Harper's Weekly and told of the night a picket had been shot; since he was only an enlisted man, the official report was 'All quiet along the Potomac tonight'. James Sloane Gibbons wrote a poem called 'We are Coming, Father Abra'am' in response to Lincoln's call for volunteers. This was set to music by Luther O. Emerson and was a great commercial success, but more people sang it than volunteered: Lincoln resorted to the nation's first conscription in 1863, and riots ensued in many cities.

Dan Emmett's 'Dixie' was first sung in the South in 1860, and became wildly popular, with somewhat more bellicose words than the original; one southern commentator wrote that 'we shall be fortunate if it does not impose its very name on our country'. There was a legend of a kindly slave-owner called Dixey, and Dixey's Land was heaven for a slave; surveyors named Mason and Dixon had settled a boundary dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the 'Mason-Dixon line' thus separated the slave states from the North. But there had also been a ten-dollar note printed by a New Orleans bank with the word 'dix' on it -- French for 'ten' -- which may have been the origin of Dixie-land.

The South's favourite songs included 'Aura Lee or The Maid with the Golden Hair', by W. W. Fosdick and George R. Poulton, which later became (with different words) 'Army Blue', a traditional West Point song. 'Maryland! My Maryland!' had words by James Ryder Randall and was sung to the tune of the German 'O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum'; it later became a favourite of dixieland jazz bands. The Confederacy's unofficial national anthem was 'Bonnie Blue Flag', written by Harry B. Macarthy to a traditional tune, 'The Irish Jaunting Car'. Macarthy was an Englishman who left the South when the tide of battle turned.

Many tunes were borrowed more than once. 'Bonnie Blue Flag' was used by Septimus Winner for the satirical 'He's Gone to the Arms of Abraham', while the Irish tune 'The Wearing of the Green' was used for another setting of the poem 'We are Coming, Father Abra'am', and also for 'Wearing of the Gray!' in the South. 'Lorena', a song about parted lovers that was written by brothers called Webster and first published in 1857 in Chicago, was a huge hit in the South. As the slaughter dragged on with no end in sight, southern songs became ever more sentimental and tragic. Music published in the South used cheap inks and poor paper; the weak industrial base that defeated the South encompassed publishing and paper-making.

In the end the federal republic survived, at the expense of a purer political freedom which, paradoxically, had meant enslavement for many: of nearly 4.5 million Americans of African descent in 1860, fewer than half a million had been free. The great southern families with their enormous plantations were the closest thing America had to an aristocracy, and the War between the States destroyed their way of life. Some said that the Civil War was an unnecessary tragedy, because slavery was becoming an economic anachronism and could not have survived much longer anyway, but that notion has been refuted by today's economists. Not only was slavery profitable, but it was cheap labour that had made the comfort of the southern aristocracy possible. That aristocracy would never have given up its primacy easily, and the aftermath of the war was very badly handled. Americans had slaughtered each other to get rid of slavery, but clung to their innocence; they did not want to admit that slavery had been a mistake in the first place.

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