The Minstrel Show 2.0: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter
March 31, 2005 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Jump Jim Crow, through the hoops of one Robert Christgau's erudition as he surveys the literature extant in In Search of Jim Crow: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter, through multiple readings of Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World and and Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Consider, too, The Minstrel Cycle from Reading The Commitments and other various and sundry attempts to peek inside the minstrel mask—all multiple readings reading blackface minstrels from the pejorative to the explorative, subversive to oppressive, past to future, unfolding tesseractly, if not exactly, with singing, dancing and extraordinary elocutions. Buy your tickets and step within for The Meller Drammer of Minstrelsy in The Minstrel Show 2.0
posted by y2karl (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's hard to grasp this music's reality, as in Winans's underwhelming attempt to re-create it on an album called The Early Minstrel Show--the ensemble precision recalls the neat simulacra of jazz repertory, and you can hear the singers wince whenever they pronounce the word "nigger." But for all we can really know, Winans's band of ethnomusicologists on a spree may have every inflection just right. It's impossible to be sure from this side of the divide that minstrel music opened up--impossible to adjust our ears back to before blue notes, gospel melismas, ragtime, bebop, railroad trains, gramophone records, saxophones, electric guitars, Chick Webb, James Brown, punk, hip hop, the sandpaper musicality of uncounted rough baritones, and the omnipresence of more noise than can be comprehended by a Monday morning or a Saturday night.

All the same, here is some background and links to music:

Two names worth noting here are Thomas "Daddy Rice and George Washington Dixon, aka Jim Crow and Zip Coon respectively, characters who personified the two leading stereotypes of the minstrel stage. It's interesting to note both were commonly referred to as Negro minstrels. Ironies abound in American history.

From the University of Virginia's Uncle Tom's Cabin And American Culture, Blackface Minstrelsy 1830-1852, A Mini Minstrel Show provide texts, images and a page of playable songs. Notable is Zip Coon--which we also know as Turkey In The Straw. Buffalo Gals is another song of minstrel lineage. Dandy Jim of Caroline is not unrelated to LaVern Baker's Jim Dandy.
As for the original Jump Jim Crow--like Topsy, it grew and grew... And I suppose that Old Dan Tucker deserves mention. It was another song central to the minstrel stage, recycled endlessly as were the melodies of Jump Jim Crow and Zip Coon--with other lyrics, as in G.W. "Zip Coon" Dixon's Mexican War rabble rouser We'll Conquer All Before Us.

Early Victrola Recordings of Blackface Minstrel Music advertises the CD of the same name and features some Realaudio samples.

Dan Partner purports to perform minstrel songs in a form true to type, albeit not in blackface. Norm Conrad's Mini-Minstrels performs minstrelsy of the Jolson type--sans the burnt cork from the looks of it, too. The Allendale Melodians, on the other hand, are Civil War Re-enactors, and claim to be the only blackface minstrel troop in America! Now there are your niche artists, to be sure. And here is a "no-name" 1850's Minstrel Banjo.
posted by y2karl at 12:56 PM on March 31, 2005

In 1828 or 1829, so the story is told, in free Cincinnati or down the river in slave Louisville, or maybe in Pittsburgh (or was it Baltimore?), an obscure actor named Thomas Dartmouth 'Daddy' Rice came across a crippled black stablehand doing a grotesquely gimpy dance. 'Every time I turn about I jump Jim Crow,' the stablehand would sing, illustrating his words with an almost literally syncopated dance ('syncope': 'a partial or complete temporary suspension of respiration and circulation due to cerebral ischemia'). The effect was comical, all accounts agree; it was also rhythmically compelling or exciting, though how this effect is achieved through a discontinuity in which one half of the body is acrobatic and the other immobilized is apparently too self-evident to be addressed. Rice was so impressed that he bought the black man's clothes and made off with his song and dance. 'Jump Jim Crow' became a major smash--in Gilbert Chase's words, 'the first big international song hit of American
popular music.'

So begins Christgau, in his survey of the big guns minstrelsy literature. So, to expand, and without further ado, here are two reviews of Dale Cockerell's Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Here are two more of W.T. Lhamon's Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. As the first notes, the author's grasp of the nuances of modern blackface performance is woefully inadequate--in 1998, this state of the art academic analysis centered on M.C Hammer and Vanilla Ice.
But otherwise he knows his onions and the man can write. Consider these two sample chapters from Raising Cain--Dancing for Eels at Catherine Market and The Blackface Lore Cycle. Here's a review of another book of Lhamon's--Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture.

And speaking of Vanilla Ice, it's interesting to note the stage name of one early blackface minstrel: Cool White.

Oh, and here's a pdf of what became a chapter in Eric Lott's Love and Theft--The Blackening of America: Popular Culture and National Cultures and here is a review of the book entire. Lott, among others, notes that as the minstrel shows evolved, they involved not only racial but sexual cross-dressing as well--scroll down here for an interesting excerpt of Inside The Minstrel Mask: Readings In Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy quoted on the bibliography page of Voices West: Sex in The West Cowboy Related Documents. And here's yet another take on ERic Lott--Why White Boys Sing the Blues: Lott explores "Racial Cross-Dressing. And here's a review of Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. But enough of the literature already!
posted by y2karl at 12:56 PM on March 31, 2005 [1 favorite]

Now as to the black and white of minstrelsy, in the pejorative contemporary consensual--spock's mention of blackface deserves mention here--view, let us note first Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem Masking.

Then, here are, to begin, Minstrelsy and the Construction of Race in America, Every Time I Turn Around - Rite, Reversal, and the end of blackface minstrelsy and Amos 'n' Andy-ism: What it was and what it is.

Well, it's easy to condemn blackface stunts when they involve white Southern frat boys--but what about a Korean born artist?

Oh, everyone wants a piece of the hip hop--Iona Rozeal Brown, for one. Add to the mix The Dilemma of Mixed Asians in Hip Hop. To the contrary comes House Nigga Hip Hop: Slaves in the Game

Well. one can always peruse, where wiggers, yiggers and, no doubt, wanksters shop for shirts and suitable gender stereotypification. And here's the black and white on white rap. Wack on wack, to be sure...

A black gay activist posts Protests Close Shirley Q. Liquor Drag Minstrel Show about a performance by Shirley Q. Liquor--a white drag queen in blackface!--cancelled under pressure in Boston. The Boston Phoenix’s take on the same topic is Blackout. And Rupaul's a fan of Shirley Q--what are we to make of that?

Further more according to Kelly Kleiman, Drag = Blackface (PDF here) Another version is Dragging Women Down. Among the catcalls, in the related Discussion: Doing Women Wrong? , we find this comment:
Kudos to you, Ms. Kleiman for daring to even go there. I am a Black woman, and I get offended by all of those inside the margins who seek to tell me what I am and how I should be. I imagine I should be bristling at the equation of blackface to drag, but let's face it: I get as annoyed with Al Jolson's bullshit as I do Harvey Fierstein. No portrayal of how I should act is any better than any other.

"To Be Real" - Drag, Minstrelsy and Identity in the New Millennium is yet another take on the same topic.

Oh, and don't forget the video games: Live in Your World, Play in Ours and High-Tech Blackface .

And this is apparently the consensus, such as it is, on what blackface means to whom today...
posted by y2karl at 12:58 PM on March 31, 2005

Wow, y2karl. Thanks!
There goes MY Thursday night....
posted by Floydd at 1:21 PM on March 31, 2005

y2karl: Thanks for the post, but isn't this a bit redundant considering a previous excellent minstrel post from you some centuries ago? In any case, I find this all extremely interesting and an important background to the role of race in American popular music. What is also very interesting is the role minstrely played in creating stereotypes of Black American music abroad. In South Africa the "colored" ethnic group maintains a tradition of "Coon Carnival" in blackface.

I hope you are not seriously going to start a minstrel band, but it definitely sounds like you want to. Can I play tambourine?
posted by zaelic at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2005

awesome, as always, karl. I'm curious: what's your opinion of Where Dead Voices Gather? I loved it, but I'm far from an expert.
posted by matteo at 1:57 PM on March 31, 2005

Shouldn't Bamboozled get some mention in all this?
posted by freebird at 2:12 PM on March 31, 2005

Wow, this is excellent stuff, very interesting. I don't know that I agree with it all, but I'm fascinated by the idea of Minstrelry as an epiphenomenon.

Let me mention again, y2karl, that I *really* appreciate the overall care in your posts, and especially love the mouseover summaries. It's great to sit here and get teasers and interesting thoughts while lightly browsing the blue at work, so when I'm home I'm ready for serious reading.
posted by freebird at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2005

Ah. I should have known better than to think Bamboozled would have been overlooked, you're all over it Y2K. When you give us this much stuff, you've got to expect we'll miss some things :)
posted by freebird at 2:34 PM on March 31, 2005

Wow....awesome post y2karl. I won't comment until after I've read it ....maybe sometime over the weekend... or the weekend after. It's a pity I have a life to live.
posted by adamvasco at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2005

posted by 3.2.3 at 3:58 PM on March 31, 2005

I've always thought Robert Christgau was a total dick. Who but an ass would call themselves "Dean of American Rock Critics" on their web page? And write hundreds of reviews that use big words but don't really talk about music?

That said, he's at least somewhat intelligent. So I'll see what he has to say here.
posted by koeselitz at 4:48 PM on March 31, 2005

You don't need no college, you don't need no school -- if you ain't got y2karl, you're an educated fool!

In other words, I'm overwhelmed. Many thanks.

koeselitz, I know it's hard to believe, but once upon a time Christgau was a worthwhile critic. Sure, he's become a contemptible old fossil, blowing hard as he tries to keep up with what these crazy kids are listening to, but... well, he's still somewhat intelligent, yeah, that's about it. His style has frozen into a pointless parody of itself.
posted by languagehat at 5:33 PM on March 31, 2005

koeselitz, I know it's hard to believe, but once upon a time Christgau was a worthwhile critic

Yeah, Chritgaua can be hifalutin compared to Marsh and Bangs but he has his moments of insight and this is one of 'em. Although, I'll always love Lester Bangs' story about being greeted by a naked Chrtgau at the door one night when they worked together.

By the way, nice to see ya, lhat.
posted by jonmc at 6:34 PM on March 31, 2005

Is the Harry Fox listed here in anyway related to the Harry Fox Agency, who are one of the companies who control music royalty rights in the US? Seem like a pretty direct line from the old sheet music pluggers to the royalty collection agents of today.
posted by bendybendy at 8:40 PM on March 31, 2005

wowie, many thanks - another addition to my long collection of bookmarked threads from y2karl. And what languagehat said.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:23 PM on March 31, 2005

This reminds me of Andrew Dice Clay, oddly enough. He and others defended his sexist, racist, a-hole stage persona by saying that it was satire. even if it had been true, I seriously doubt that his audiences understood that.

Same goes for minstrelsy, in my book.

I recall hearing Chris Rock recently say that he no longer will do his "niggers vs. black people" riff.

"I’ve never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will," says Rock. "‘Cause some people that were racist thought they had license to say n-----. So, I’m done with that routine." 60 minutes
posted by Cassford at 8:06 AM on April 1, 2005

« Older He said "valve".   |   White Shark Released Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments