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.”
Like many European-American entertainers in the 1820s and a few going back some fifty years earlier, Rice was already appearing regularly in blackface. Not until 1843 would the Virginia Minstrels, the first (professional) (white) (“white”) fiddle-banjo-tambourine-bones music group, kick off a craze that would soon accommodate interlocutors and endmen and skits and variety acts and pianos and what-have-you. In expansive mutations of fluctuating grotesquery and brilliance, the craze would dominate American show business until the end of the nineteenth century. And after a long period of shame-faced obscurity cemented by the civil rights movement, its daunting tangle of race and class and pop culture and American music would render it a hot topic of historical debate at the end of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Rice’s strange cultural appropriation continues to stand at the headwaters of what we now call minstrelsy—its foundation myth. As a myth, the incident retains explanatory and illustrative power even though there’s no way we can ascertain whether any version of it occurred.
Since the kind of reporter who would go hunting for the stablehand is rare enough in these racially sensitive times, we might expect that the sole witness on record would be Rice himself—building a colorful reputation in interviews with the press, most likely. Yet in the dozens of retellings I’ve checked, Rice isn’t cited either; the commonest source by far—and also, remarkably, just about the earliest—is “Stephen C. Foster and Negro Minstrelsy,” an article by Robert P. Nevin that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867, nearly forty years after the “fact,” and several years as well after a by-then crippled Rice (and Foster too) had died in poverty. Even so, the appropriation could have taken place—although one would like to know more about Robert P. Nevin (whose other published writings focus on Pittsburgh, Foster’s hometown), the story was apparently an uncontroversial commonplace by the time it got to the Atlantic, and it has a ring, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s such a hell of a metaphor that one understands why few historians of minstrelsy have resisted it, and why it shows up frequently in less specialized accounts of race relations and popular music. All one would expect, especially of modern scholars attuned to the ideological baggage concealed beneath the surface of such undocumented tales, is a touch of skepticism. It’s kind of amazing how rarely one gets it.
OK, it figures that old-time pop historians David Ewen and Sigmund Spaeth (for whom minstrelsy was “a black snowball which kept on rolling”) would swallow the story whole. But one appreciates Gilbert Chase’s simple “tradition has it,” Eileen Southern’s relaxed “as the story goes,” and wishes recent chroniclers Christopher Small, Russell Sanjek, and Donald Clarke had exercised more caution. One knows better than to seek scholarly decorum in Carl Wittke’s chatty (and useful) 1930 Tambo and Bones. One admires Hans Nathan’s 1962 Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy for analyzing the artistic content of Rice’s song and dance, and appending its supposed origin as an “it is reported” afterthought. And one is rather shocked that Robert C. Toll, whose 1974 Blacking Up kicked off modern minstrelsy studies; Robert Cantwell, whose 1984 Bluegrass Breakdown linked Bill Monroe to minstrelsy and jazz when such lineages were all but unthinkable; and Roger D. Abrahams, whose 1994 Singing the Master traces the minstrel-show walk-around to plantation corn-shucking festivities, buy the tale so unquestioningly.
And then there’s Lawrence W. Levine, whose seminal 1977 Black Culture and Black Consciousness repeats the story, unfootnoted, to launch the argument that white minstrels often served as conduits from one African-American (the stablehand, “an old Louisville Negro, Jim Crow”) to another (the “North Carolina Negroes shucking corn” whose virtually identical 1915 song was recorded in Newman I. White’s 1928 American Negro Folk-Songs). One wonders what Levine would make of musicologist Charles Hamm, who in 1979 reprinted most of Nevin’s Atlantic version in Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, the most thorough and thoughtful history of American pop we have. After noting the racist relish of Nevin’s “colorful” style (which upon reflection evokes a minstrel stump speech), Hamm acknowledges that Rice “may have been telling the truth” before making what ought to be an obvious point: “It is equally likely that the story of the tune’s origin was invented to give authenticity to a white man’s portrayal of a black.” Hamm believes Rice needed the help. He can discern no African elements in “Jump Jim Crow,” which suggested “both an Irish folk tune and an English stage song,” had small success as sheet music, and failed to enter oral tradition (unlike its counterpart, George Washington Dixon’s “Zip Coon,” transformed by Dan Emmett into “Turkey in the Straw”). Hamm conjectures that if Rice did indeed copy it from a black man, the black man might well have copied it earlier from a white. Conduits have a way of connecting to other conduits.
This is a reassuringly sane take on the legend. But one reason it’s so sane is that it recognizes the legend’s power. By quoting Nevin in all his condescending glory, Hamm implicitly recognizes why Eric Lott, whose obsessively researched 1993 Love and Theft kicked off postmodern minstrelsy studies, calls the Atlantic article, which he also quotes at length, “probably the least trustworthy and most accurate account of American minstrelsy’s appropriation of black cultural practices.” “According to legend—the closest we are going to get to truth in the matter” is how Lott sources the Rice story. Never mind that in her own contribution to the essay collection Inside the Minstrel Mask, coeditor Annemarie Bean attributes a considerably more credulous version of the story to Lott himself, because facts, likely or unlikely, have nothing on the inexorable, poetic, legendary truth. And so, completing his sentence by summing up without comment the Atlantic article he reproduced thirty pages before—“T. D. Rice used an old black stableman’s song and dance in his first ‘Jim Crow’ act”—Lott launches one of his more tendentious disquisitions on, to cite jargon that has dated revealingly, “the production of the minstrel show out of gendered commodity exchange,” replete with permissive definitions of bohemia, imaginative inferences of the homoerotic, century-hopping cultural generalizations, and shards of evidence that don’t nearly prove what he claims they do.
Now, Love and Theft is a remarkable book, the most purely brilliant in minstrelsy studies. Its insistence on respecting and understanding the much-disparaged white working-class minstrel audience was long overdue. But it’s too bad brilliance is the closest Lott can get to truth in the matter. I know it’s only a fantasy, but let me say right here that I personally would love to know whether Rice ever actually met such a stablehand, and—if he did, which by now I doubt—exactly what cultural commodities he borrowed, arrogated, or stole.
The reason the myth remains so redolent, after all, is that it tells a story about the white-from-black “appropriation” of not just minstrelsy but all American popular music. Afro-America makes, Euro-America takes—seldom is it put so baldly, but at some level that’s what many of us feel. In one line of thought, it follows that the stablehand’s “Jump Jim Crow” was intrinsically irresistible, so much so that a straight imitation made Rice a star; it follows that all that stood between the stablehand and a career in show business was the refusal of middlemen like Rice to help a black originator overcome troublesome initial audience resistance, with all projections through the next two centuries self-evident. There’s an alternate possibility, however. What if Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow” was a syncretic creation, sparked by components of one or more individual black performances that might even include the song itself, but incorporating as well stray elements of other songs and dances black and/or white—and also, crucially, skills, mannerisms, attitudes, and values Rice was born with, or absorbed during his long stage and idiosyncratic life experience?
This is not only what Hamm suspects, it’s probably what Lott thinks too; the syncretic is as much a cultural studies trope as the trope itself. Once when discussing Rice, in fact, Lott identifies and counterposes the two models. Imitation, which he calls “theft,” he links credibly to anxiety about slavery, while syncretism, “expropriation,” he links dubiously to anxiety about miscegenation. Lott’s reluctance to choose explicitly between them reflects not so much his scholarly modesty as his scholarly method—he’d rather explore metaphors than establish facts. But for sure the theft model dominates the other accounts I’ve described, and that’s because Lott is surely right to align it with slavery. In whites who resist racism, the anxiety slavery provokes is rarely distinguishable anymore from guilt, in part because the rage slavery provokes in blacks is rarely masked anymore in let-bygones-be-bygones noblesse oblige. This compels whites either to share that rage or to defend themselves against it. And even more than the Confederate flag (although perhaps not the burnt cross or the KKK hood), nothing symbolizes the outrageous dehumanization of slavery as vividly for most African-Americans as “the big-lipped, bug-eyed, broad-nosed buffoons” of blackface stereotype.
The quote is from “a 26-year-old African-American who just finished reading Ted Gioia’s” 2000 New York Times defense of Al Jolson, which was illustrated with a poster from The Jazz Singer. Fumed another letter writer: “Does it matter to me that [Jolson] opted for blackface to enhance the theatrical qualities of his performance and not to degrade blacks? No. What matters to me as an African-American woman is how it makes African-American people feel.” Both voice an indignation that dates, in print, to Frederick Douglass, who in 1848, Lott reminds us early on, branded blackface minstrels “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature.” For uplifters of the race like Douglass, minstrelsy’s burnt cork has always seemed nothing less than a theft of identity all too precisely analagous to slavery’s theft of freedom. So ever since black pride became a formula for self-actualization in the 1960s, ex-minstrel W. C. Handy’s assertion that minstrelsy produced black show business has been swept under the rug. The pleasure much of the Negro audience once took, to choose the obvious example, in Amos ’n’ Andy—in 1930, for instance, Duke Ellington’s orchestra played its theme song at a Chicago Defender parade—is recalled as a tragic anomaly of benighted times, when it’s acknowledged at all.
In this context, the slavery model of minstrel appropriation obviously has an insuperable advantage among African-Americans. Even when they strain to be fair, as Mel Watkins does in On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy, black critics and historians are so appalled by blackface that they find it hard to work up any respect or sympathy for the white men who exploited it. The sole exception I’m aware of is
Wesley Brown’s 1994 novel Darktown Strutters, which begins with a fictionalization of the Jim Crow legend. Brown’s protagonist is Jim Too, the adopted son of the crippled stablehand Jim Crow. Jim Too remakes himself as a professional dancer who also calls himself Jim Crow, but he performs without makeup, initially in Daddy Rice’s troupe. Renowned and sometimes imperiled for his refusal to don the blackface that is the coin of American entertainment, he pursues a nineteenth-century African-American picaresque that makes no pretense of chronological or historical precision. Brown depicts Rice as a tortured grotesque and compulsive performer, incapable of living inside his own skin, yet “several cuts above most men I’ve known who do a lotta damage tryin too hard to be white.”
The quote is from another white blackface artist in the historical record, dancer Jack Diamond, in Brown’s story a staunch antiracist who’s literally cut off at the waist at the Battle of Chancellorsville (I think—typically, Brown muddles the year). His name is found pinned to the pants that clothe his known remains, an image that soon feeds “the legend of the greatest jig dancer ever to heist his legs! And every time Jim heard another version of the story, the loss of Jack Diamond didn’t weigh on him so heavily.” When Afro-America makes and Euro-America takes, Brown wants us to know, sympathy is a luxury for any black person set on getting some back.
The story I propose here veers awry from the usual accounts of the origin of Jim Crow. That usual story, reiterated from the earliest middle-class articles on working-class performance right up through the latest scholarly accounts of minstrelsy, has it that Rice nicked “Jump Jim Crow” from a real man, usually specified as a crippled black hostler named Jim Crow. A corollary story, equally dubious, specifies a source in an individual named Cuff, who it is supposed wrestled luggage along the Pittsburgh levee.
These stories are false in fact and spirit. There was no such hostler, no such baggage man. What’s more, the way these stories tell it is simply not the way cultural gestures come into being.
—W.T. Lhamon Jr., Raising Cain
So much for legend being the closest we are going to get to truth in the matter, at least as far as W. T. Lhamon Jr. is concerned. Lhamon is the author of two of the four major pieces of minstrelsy scholarship to follow Love and Theft, all almost as obsessive as Lott about secondary sources and, in the standard history-versus-theory pattern, rather more obsessive about primary sources. William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture (1999) enlists a profusion of playbills, plays, and songs to bolster a solid if flat-footed argument that minstrelsy is better understood as birthplace of showbiz than engine of racism. Dale Cockrell’s Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (1997) mines court records and newspapers to connect minstrelsy to the carnivalesque class hostility of charivari and callithumpianism. Lhamon’s new Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture is a monumental labor of textual reconstruction matched by a long and extraordinary introduction. His earlier entry, Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop (1998), is more fanciful and theory-happy. Lhamon centers its well-documented vision of New York’s Catherine Street Market as mixed-race cultural exchange on an 1820 folk drawing depicting three black performers “Dancing for Eels,” and somewhat shakily credits George Christy with staging the first true minstrel show in Buffalo in 1842, well before the Manhattan debut of Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels cited by everyone else. Raising Cain also revealed the existence of a pamphlet called The Life of Jim Crow that’s reprinted in Jump Jim Crow. Rice probably didn’t write it, but he sold it at shows. It makes no mention of hostlers or baggage men.
Scornful of speculation, the text-based Mahar is one of the few historians of minstrelsy to ignore the Jim Crow legend. Cockrell assumes the legend is true because no one bothered to deny it at the time, although he wishes he could prove the stablehand was actually a performer at one of the black festivals he’s studied. He finds its “outlines” in an 1837 Rice profile by New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett, convincingly dates the song itself to 1830 rather than 1828, and refutes the truism that it was an instant hit.
Like Cockrell, Lhamon means to begin where Lott leaves off by celebrating rather than just respecting minstrelsy’s audience—the counter-nobility Lhamon, following Thomas Pynchon, dubs “the mobility.” But the two scholars have different agendas, and these correspond to their distinct versions of the legend. In an autobiographical epilogue, Cockrell identifies himself as a white working-class Southerner who resents Northerners’ assumptions about his racism; Lhamon is cagier about personal details, putting his cultural capital on the table with stray references to Eliot, Wittgenstein, Ginsberg, Dylan, etc. Cockrell the good old boy takes for granted the kind of “borrowing” the Jim Crow legend is about and doesn’t think that ends the story, citing as proof Southern musicians from Jimmie Rodgers to the Everly Brothers and “on and on, up to many of the current crop of stars.” Lhamon the postmodernist emphasizes how the legend served the ideological needs of those positioned to construct and promulgate it—rival actors jealous of the popularity of this cheap craze, and privileged pundits fearful of the cross-racial class solidarity that Lhamon demonstrates coexisted with white racism, especially before the minstrel show proper.
As noted, the minstrel show proper, whether in the form of Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels or George Christy’s much longer-lived troupe, begins in 1843, perhaps 1842. That’s also the starting point for Mahar, who defines his subject as antebellum minstrelsy. In contrast, both Lhamon and Cockrell focus on the pre-1843 period; both, in fact, devote considerable attention to pre-1828 intimations. The first section of Lhamon’s book teases out the 1820 drawing, while Cockrell outlines the history of “Lord of Misrule festivities.” These included mumming plays, Morris dancing, slave Christmases, West Indian John Canoe celebrations, the black elections that were quickly banned in eighteenth-century New England, Pinkster days, the German belsnickel wassails imported to Mobile by a Pennsylvania Dutch cotton broker, and callithumpian bands—soot-faced working-class youths who would roam the streets of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston around New Year’s, banging drums and anything else that would make a noise until they were bought off with food and drink.
Cockrell downplays the racial significance of preminstrel blackface. Well before Rabelais, he tells us, black makeup was a way of announcing disguise and signifying Otherness, and it retained those meanings even when its overt content became racial, which onstage has been dated to 1769. He seeks out black Lord of Misrule action, and finds evidence of its influence on whites (and vice versa). But with the separate-but-equal exception of the New Orleans carnival, the actors in (as opposed to spectators at) black festivals were all black, while charivari and such excluded blacks—the belsnickels were all white, as were the callithumpians, who picked fights with black freemen as well as the ruling-class whites they were out to harass. In contrast, the Manhattan of early minstrelsy (and early Jacksonian democracy) was a hotbed of miscegenation. According to health records Lhamon unearths, the Five Points environs of Catherine Street Market were 25 percent black, with intermarriage common, and many other blacks visited the market as workers, servants, slaves, vendors, and/or, in a few cases, entertainers; Cockrell quotes heartrending court records in which cross-racial couples of the lower classes were separated by the state’s Amalgamation Law.
Lhamon also connects Manhattan to George Christy’s Buffalo via the Erie Canal, in whose construction he discerns a “mudsill mutuality” of black and white workers—slave, indentured, contracted, or just deeply oppressed—who constitute a key element of the lumpenproletariat Marx would conceive so contemptuously in The 18th Brumaire, long after the rationalization of blackface on the burgeoning minstrel circuit was getting this ruffian ragtag under control. What did Jim Crow’s syncope signify? Among other things, Lhamon says, stoop labor—not the upright autonomy of Sean Wilentz’s artisans, but the forced contortions of Lionel Wyld’s “hoggees”: “The whole stooped posture of the hoggee, permanently bent by the shovel and the barrow, and still evident in laborers today, is caught in Jim Crow’s gimp.”
We can’t know how deeply romanticism and wishful projection distort Lhamon’s and Cockrell’s histories any more than we can know who really wrote “Jump Jim Crow.” Cockrell himself is careful to stress the coexistence of integration and racism. Mahar, who shares the middle-class positivism associated with the Institute of Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green (he notes with a straight face the lack of “gentlemanly refinement or common decency” in minstrel scripts) but whose main agenda is downplaying minstrelsy’s racism, assumes its patrons disliked blacks and the rich “equally” and is more troubled by their offenses against women. This is wrongheaded. Nonetheless, when Lhamon observes that the “racism and vulgarity” of wealthier whites was even more pernicious, “if only because these people had far greater power to elaborate their inclinations,” his argument resonates. Which racism does more harm today, after all? The working-class racism of exacerbated competition for limited resources—a competition that according to Raising Cain grows directly out of the bourgeois response to early minstrelsy’s cross-racial threat? Or is the big hurt the ruling-class racism that still denies so many African-Americans jobs, education, housing, health care, and anything else they need?
Both Lhamon and Cockrell, moreover, take their celebration of minstrelsy’s white audience a step further—they extend it to minstrelsy’s white artists. Nathan’s Dan Emmett book excepted, earlier minstrelsy studies can lull the most alert reader into the retrograde condescension of classic mass culture theory, in which individual producers are assumed to be hacks, schemers, cogs in a machine—and which traces back to the same class-bound notions of respectability discernible in Douglass’s talented-tenth talk of “the filthy scum of white society.” Lott is especially prone to this fallacy, which dovetails with cultural studies’ emphasis on the social, and consequent reluctance to valorize the art hero. So much else is at stake that it’s easy to forget that every minstrel song and skit was created by men whose need for display and self-expression drew them to the theatre, which isn’t many people’s idea of a rational career choice. Not only does Lhamon’s work on Rice’s plays counteract such lazy thinking—so does Cockrell’s long biographical sketch of George Washington Dixon. Both make a special point of the artists’ creative personal connection to the new urban culture of rootless, single young men who have been a prime pop market ever since.
The Dixon Cockrell describes was “one of the most complex, eccentric, and enigmatic men ever to have crossed the American musical stage”: a skilled singer and proven songwriter, a scandal-sheet proprietor who was in jail occasionally and in court often, a hypnotist and clairvoyant and distance walker, a sometime proponent of labor abolitionism who wasn’t above using music “to remold himself into an idol of the white middle class.” Before he last performed in early 1843, just when the Virginia Minstrels were creating their sensation, his Ethiopian delineations had inspired many, most prominently Rice himself. In Raising Cain, Lhamon asserts the enduring literary value of Rice’s raucous lumpen burlesques, particularly Bone Squash Diavolo, which the ship rigger’s son who jumped Jim Crow first mounted in 1835. Jump Jim Crow pursues the argument by exhuming prompt manuscripts of nine plays written by or for Rice (four of each, with a ninth in doubt). Rice was obviously no Melville or Dickinson, no Whitman or Twain, no Douglass, and Lhamon avoids grand claims. But Jump Jim Crow opens the possibility that a blackface minstrel may yet be remembered as the most original nineteenth-century playwright in a nation whose first major dramatist was Eugene O’Neill. That would be a good joke.
Tickled though the pop advocate in me is by any transformation of hack into auteur, this one weakens a pet theory of mine. So do Mahar’s dogged readings of the printed record, which establish that both cornball comedy and skirmishes in an undeclared class war are as endemic to minstrel wordplay as racist stereotypes. The theory is that logocentrism does the story of minstrelsy even less justice than it does most history—that we must somehow make the imaginative leap from the published scripts and songs to performed music, dance, and slapstick, but especially music, which constituted two-thirds of most playbills. Because African-derived usages are barely hinted by notation, minstrel music is even further beyond our ken than the rest of pre-gramophone pop. And few historians of minstrelsy are inclined to help much—Toll, Lott, Cockrell, and Lhamon are word-men all, explicators of culture and ideology without much to say about how minstrel music altered the surrounding soundscape.
A welcome corrective is David Wondrich’s groundbreaking new Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924, which puts minstrelsy first in an argument that the special heat of U.S. music (as opposed in particular to the Afro-Latin musics further south) derives from its fusion of Celtic stomp and African swerve—a perfect account of “Jump Jim Crow.” After the appropriate apologies, however, Wondrich relies on Nathan for descriptive detail. The dance focus of Raising Cain adds something new, and in Jump Jim Crow Lhamon unveils a revealing Irish description of Rice’s hit: “The song from which he derives his name and celebrity is paltry and vulgar—the air brief and pretty; but it has a feature that belongs to few songs—it is mostly made up of dancing. Half of each verse is chorus, and then all the chorus motion—so that it is of compound and really complex character.” Lott’s abstruse discussion of European versus African canons of repetition also bears pondering. In minstrel songs, he says, poetic refrain meets catch-phrase beat, ego reinforcement meets ego loss, plaisir meets jouissance, and then everyone changes partners, so complexly that even the talent and vision of individual creators may inflect how particular interactions play out and what they mean.
There’s more meat in Mahar, who teaches music at Penn State–Harrisburg. Mahar interlards many useful points through his lengthy demonstrations that—gloriosky!—sexist stereotypes pervaded a theatrical form directed at young, unmarried, working-class urban males. Although most of these were known or inferred—and despite Mahar’s deep reluctance to attribute distinction to Africa’s rhythmic heritage or, for that matter, chattel slavery’s economic one—it’s still good to have them substantiated. He rides the sheet music hard, never once addressing the great unnotatables grain and groove and barely mentioning tempo. But he is aware of the “vocal inflections or gestures” sheet music misses. In explicit contradistinction to Charles Hamm, he believes (correctly, the evidence suggests) that certain minstrels—he names Joel Sweeney, Dan Emmett, and Cool White—learned a lot from black musicians, distinguishing sharply between Emmett’s “limited melodic compass, modal pitch structure when performed with the banjo-fiddle instrumentation, and frequent interruption of the vocal line by instrumental breaks” and the ornately quasiclassical British product of the time. And he points out that the structure in which a single singer was accompanied by a single instrumentalist whose brief interludes accompanied dancing was “unique to blackface entertainment and the slave behavior on which it may have been based.” Indeed, scandalized tales of young whites dancing to such slave behavior go back to the 1690s.
Nevertheless, our most searching investigation of minstrel music remains a few late-1970s and early-1980s articles by banjo-playing ethnomusicologist Robert B. Winans, the most important of which, “Early Minstrel-Show Music, 1843–1852,” is collected in Inside the Minstrel Mask. To my knowledge, Winans was first to suggest the debt owed minstrelsy by white-identified styles such as bluegrass and its predecessors. But Winans resists equating minstrel music with the old-timey string bands recorded in the 1920s. For one thing, he points out, the instruments were different. The drumlike minstrel tambourine made a much louder and deeper sound than the flapjack-sized versions we know today, and the bones were far less delicate than the castanets that are their closest modern equivalent. Crucially, the banjo was bigger and deeper too, and not yet played in the chordal, “classical” style developed to accommodate the rise of the guitar in the late nineteenth century. Instead it was “frailed,” struck rather than plucked, with a rhythmic emphasis that can be traced back to Africa and forward to Appalachia, where Winans believes the new beat was transported (along with many pop songs) by both traveling minstrel shows and prodigal sons who brought their city lore on home (to which Robert Cantwell would add local blacks, since no part of the South was totally white). Like Mahar, Winans—who has criticized Lott’s habit of extrapolating theory from isolated songs of minimal currency in actually performed minstrelsy—cares about what songs were popular. Surviving programs reveal that at the dawn of minstrelsy proper, between 1843 and 1847, comic songs greatly predominated, only to recede between 1848 and 1852. Instead, the standard-issue heart-tuggers of nineteenth-century pop reassert themselves, with operatic parody accounting for much of the new comic material and nonsense songs like “Old Dan Tucker” and the passé “Jump Jim Crow” a vanishing fad.
Imagine an America in which stage singing was accompanied, if at all, by piano (the English-born songwriter Henry Russell), chamber trio (the protest-singing, abolitionist Hutchinson Family, a favorite blackface butt), or small opera orchestra (the run of matinee idols). Tempos and sonics suit a restless but slow-moving world in which machines are rarely heard. In the 1830s there appear performers such as Rice and Dixon, Joel Sweeney and Dan Emmett—sometimes solo, sometimes along with or in front of traditional orchestras. Cutting impolite lyrics with fancy steps, showing off on the fiddle or banjo, all are perceived as a welcome affront to the prevailing gentility by an emergent audience of rowdy young men with a few coins to throw away. But they don’t break out until Emmett constructs a laff-a-minute show around a bunch of them, at which point they change everything. As Winans sums up: “they were new and different, earthy and ‘exotic’ at the same time, and comic and antisentimental.” Toll’s tribute to the Virginia Minstrels fleshes out this basic and too easily lost point: “Once on stage, they could not sit still for an instant.… Whether singing, dancing, or joking, whether in a featured role, accompanying a comrade, or just listening, their wild hollering and their bobbing, seemingly compulsive movements charged their entire performance with excitement.… From beginning to end, their shows provided an emotional outlet. Most of all, the performers seemed to have fun and succeeded in involving the foot-stomping, shouting, whistling audiences in the festivities.”
Rhythmic and angular where the genteel competition was harmonic and mellifluous, hyperactive and uproarious in rhetoric and principle, minstrel music was only one part of the class drama postmodern minstrelsy studies can’t get enough of. But it was the most momentous part, and the most honorable. The democratization of culture identified with the minstrel show would have happened sooner or later—P. T. Barnum didn’t need minstrelsy, and neither did Hollywood (which did, however, make the most of it). But though minstrel music may have been inevitable too, putting it together required something like genius. “Jump Jim Crow” and the thousands of songs that followed established an African tendency in American pop that has waxed and waned and waxed some more ever since, with worldwide repercussions. 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, hiphop, 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.
What we can know is this: the rise of minstrelsy in the 1840s (or maybe, following Lhamon, we should say the 1830s and 1840s, privileging neither) constituted a cultural upheaval remarkably similar to the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s. Right—minstrel music was only a part of the minstrel show, which proved the foundation of the entire American entertainment industry. Right—rock and roll was only one in a series of modern musical mongrelizations, from coon song to jazz age to swing era. Nevertheless, both were benchmarks. Minstrelsy transformed blackface from a theatrical to a musical trope. It established that in a Euro-America obsessed with African retentions (the violence of the blood, the puissance of the penis, the docility of the grin), music was the star attraction, especially for the young riffraff who gave American cities their bustle. Like minstrelsy, rock and roll posed not just a racial danger, but a class danger. Although it arted itself up soon enough, a good thing as often as a bad one, it delivered pop music from status anxieties and polite façades. It made a role model of the unkempt rebel. And by finding simple tunes in the three-chord storehouse of folk modality, it cleared a space for unencumbered beat. Got it? Now ask yourself how much of the rock and roll description can be applied to minstrelsy and vice versa. Most of each for sure.
This is one reason minstrelsy’s various historicizations are fascinating, and amusing, for anyone who has read many histories of rock and roll. The patterning is so similar, with specifics that go well beyond cultural reminiscence’s usual golden-ageism. In both we find parallel visions of unspoiled, unpretentious white youth transcending racism in simple musical expressions soon bedizened by crass impresarios and under-assistant promo men. Rock and roll has generated many golden ages—the halcyon sixties, punk in its CBGB and/or Sex Pistols clothes, and “real hiphop,” to name just three. But absent romanticizations of sweet Stax music, only its original fifties version has the proper cross-racial charge, which always seems to fade. Nor is this, initially, a scholarly construction: Nick Tosches’s 2001 biography of twentieth-century minstrel Emmett Miller, Where Dead Voices Gather, unearths the wondrous 1854 headline “Obituary, Not Eulogistic: Negro Minstrelsy Is Dead” and tells how in 1858 George Christy’s Ethiopian Joke Book, No. 3 “bemoan[ed] the departures from genuine negrisimilitude that had begun to degrade minstrelsy.” By 1930, when Duke published Tambo and Bones, Carl Wittke’s regrets over the increasing paucity of “genuine Negro characterizations” were standard among the few who still gave thought to minstrelsy—which Tosches shows survived as a residual entertainment, especially in the South, well past its presumed death at the turn of the century and in fact past World War II.
Where Dead Voices Gather is typical Tosches cup-half-empty: killer prose and genius archive-digging stunk up with dull contempt for academics more soulful than he is and the racial philosophy of Joe Colombo. But give it credit for insisting, early and often, that no concept is as corrupt as purity: “Blackface, white face, false face. ‘Originality is but high-born stealth.’ These may be the only words written by Edward Dahlberg that are worth remembering; and who knows where he got them.” Originality, purity, their toney cousin authenticity—as rhetorical tools, all are made to order for a conservative agenda. If, as Charles Hamm says, the Jim Crow legend meant “to give authenticity to a white man’s portrayal of a black,” was the intention to fend off objections from Afro-American intellectuals? Of course not. As Lhamon argues, powerful Americans feared the race-defying underclass impulses minstrelsy’s aesthetic made manifest. Whether those impulses were genuinely African-American matters less than that they scared gatekeepers, who often responded with the belittling claim, a shrewd fusion of cooptation and condemnation, that they were inauthentic—and still do, sometimes.
In Jump Jim Crow, Lhamon shows how supposedly sympathetic middle-class observers attacked Rice’s credibility with invidious comparisons—to “the veritable James” discovered by actress-diarist Fanny Kemble among the slaves on her husband’s Georgia sea islands plantation, or to black New Orleans songster and acknowledged Rice-influence Old Corn Meal. Inevitably, incongruent details were ignored. How veritable did Kemble find her black servants when she censured their “transparent plagiarism” of “Scotch or Irish airs”? Was Old Corn Meal still the real thing when he performed Rice’s “Sich a Gittin’ Up Stairs”? Certainly some impresario could have made a few bucks putting Old Corn Meal on tour, as soon happened with freeborn black tap pioneer William Henry “Juba” Lane, the toast of London in the 1840s, who died there broke before he reached thirty. As with millions of other racist injustices, that it didn’t happen is a disgrace—it should have happened a hundred times over. But it’s also racist to assume that, if it had happened a hundred times over, the flood of pure African-American art would have been the undoing of Daddy Rice and all his kind. Somewhere in that cross-racial nexus lurked a uniquely American sensibility whose decisive attraction was that it was no respecter of propriety. And though it proved far less dangerous than the powers feared, they fear it still.
It’s misguided to overload this sensibility with political meaning, or to declare it irrelevant after that potential plays itself out. Inconsequentiality was one of its attractions. The signal term is an elusive one: “fun,” which starts picking up O.E.D. citations just as minstrelsy gets going in the 1830s. The Christy Minstrels invited audiences “to see the fun, to hear the songs, and help to right the ‘niggers’ wrongs”; circus press agent Charles H. Day published an 1874 history of minstrelsy called Fun in Black. By Emmett Miller’s time, the trades and dailies were using “fun-makers” and “the fun contingent” as ready synonyms for blackface performers. Struck by “the regularity with which observers resorted to the word ‘fun’ to describe their enjoyment of blacks and of blackface,” Lott calls a whole chapter “‘Genuine Negro Fun’”—and turns out to care at least as much about the “Fun” part, which is hard to parse, as the “Genuine Negro” part, too patent to merit unpacking.
To his credit, Lott emphasizes that what he takes for minstrelsy’s attempts to “tame the ‘black’ threat” always risk leaving something untoward in the woodpile. But it should go without saying that he executes his analysis from on high. All this fun, he is certain, has the function of mitigating a “roiling jumble of need, guilt, and disgust.” The less said the better about his Freudian readings of blackface usage—although I’m certain he overdoes them, I’m probably too skeptical. Let me merely cite his tendency to assume the worst about the minstrel audience of the 1840s, when he believes working-class consciousness, disemboldened by the Panic of 1837, was fleeing politics at every turn and with no exception. Of more moment is his disapproval of the Christy-style minstrel show’s presumably parallel flight into spectacle from narrative, meaning plays like Rice’s. And crucial is his search for the meaning of fun in jokes, costumes, and business, ignoring the music that was foregrounded during precisely the same period. We’ve been here before, but let’s ratchet up our objections by emphasizing that—where Rice, for instance, worked solo-with-backup—the Virginia Minstrels and their progeny were bands. Rock and rollers know the difference, which is usually fun in a way that barely suggests race or class while saying much that’s otherwise inexpressible about human interaction.
And now for Freud. At a crucial juncture, Lott cites the patriarch himself, unmasking fun as “lost moments of childish pleasure evoked by the antics of children, or of ‘inferior’ people who resemble them”: “constant repetition,” “supreme disorderly conduct,” “oversized clothes,” “performative irruption,” “the gorging and mucus-mongering of early life.” Perhaps Lott would be less discomfited by this structure of feeling if he tried harder to distinguish between children and infants, but either way it can be explicated sans Freud. The idealization of childhood is a well-known tenet of romanticism and hence our era, throughout which it has been disparaged to no avail by pundits and cynics of every stripe. And admittedly, returning to childhood is a lousy way to pass laws or get the laundry done, a journey that’s always doomed in the end. But in a system where the same can be said of many other things worth doing in themselves, an idealized youth is a hell of a good place for low-level ungovernables with dirty drawers to spend Saturday night, a site of worldly transcendence in which egoisms needn’t always get in the way of other egoisms. It’s a satisfaction, a recourse, damn right an escape—a feat of imagination. We should be grateful that it no longer involves big-lipped buffoons with their feets too big. But we should be proud that it’s been a special destination of American popular music since more or less the time of “Jump Jim Crow.”
Jump Jim Crow’s collected narratives are unlikely to leave Rice our first important playwright. Literary arbiters are literary arbiters, after all, and anyway, the plays aren’t good enough. Not only are several by English actors with ties to drawing-room farce who’d rather Jim were a prince from the Congo than a ne’er-do-well from the Five Points, but only two of Rice’s much impress. The stunner is Bone Squash, a dizzying one-act “burletta” full of nonsense, deviltry, and love sweet love that ends with the Jim figure ascending heavenward in a balloon—an image of orgasm, Lhamon ventures, far more convincingly than Lott finding phallic symbols whenever he turns over a lithograph. Yet equally remarkable is Rice’s burlesque of Otello, first mounted in 1844, perhaps as a rebuke to the mobility after the Christys bigged up his act. Lhamon relates much worth reading about Othello in pre–Civil War culture, with two of Rice’s strokes crying out for special mention. First, Othello and Desdemona have a baby—not one of the high yallers blackface poked fearful fun at, but a chiaroscuro pied piper in potentia, his face half black and half white. Before too long, you just know, he’ll be strumming on the old banjo. Second, Othello isn’t reassuringly tragic. He doesn’t die. At the end of the play he and his issue are triumphantly alive.
But rather than exit on that encouraging note, let me cite another idea Lhamon lets slip. Unlike the transparently racist construction Sambo, Lhamon argues proudly, Jim Crow is not docile: “his lyrics show him fighting ‘white dandies,’ Jersey blacks, and Philadelphia Sambos.” Lhamon goes on: “This transgressive power of Jim Crow is what the political regime of Jim Crow laws in the South projected on all African Americans, of every class, and then used to contain them as a category after the North’s betrayal of Reconstruction.”
What he doesn’t add is this: To hell with art. To hell with Saturday night. Why shouldn’t African Americans hate Jim Crow?
This is a damning indictment. If “Jump Jim Crow” lay behind the machinery of state-mandated racial segregation, what can mitigate that? But if segregation was inevitable anyway, then perhaps its naming only represents a setback for a people’s culture we must struggle to reclaim. So permit me one final story.
Abraham Lincoln loved a joke, loved music, and loved minstrel music. He was an instant fan of the infernally catchy “Dixie,” composed by Dan Emmett in 1859—though it has also been attributed to the black Snowden family, sometime professional musicians from Ohio who shared music with Emmett—and soon expropriated as the Confederate anthem. Right after Appomattox, Lincoln asked an attendant band to strike up “Dixie”—“one of the best tunes I ever heard.” It was our “lawful property” now, he joshed. Would it had been that simple.
By then Lincoln’s musical tastes had gotten him in trouble. Two weeks after the battle of Antietam—23,000 dead and wounded on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history—Lincoln met nearby with General George McClellan, soon to be relieved of his command for excessive caution. In the president’s party was his former law partner Ward Lamon, who served as a bodyguard and wielded a mean hand on the banjo. Dispirited by the shadow of death and his distrust of McClellan, Lincoln asked Lamon for a lost weeper by one W. Willing called “Twenty Years Ago,” but that just made him bluer. So Lamon tried the cheerful minstrel standard “Picayune Butler,” named for a black New Orleans colleague of Old Corn Meal. When Lincoln remained despondent, Lamon gave up. At no point did McClellan object.
Within months the story was out in the opposition press. Lincoln, always archly characterized as a clown or jester, had insulted the dead of Antietam “before the corpses had been buried” by calling for “a negro melody”—identified first as “Jim Along Josey,” then “Picayune Butler,” and eventually, what else, “Jump Jim Crow.” During the 1864 campaign, with McClellan his opponent, the lies and vilification intensified. Always at issue was the crass, low, common, unserious vulgarity that disqualified this smutmonger turned abolitionist from pursuing the peace as sixteenth magistrate of the United States. Always the proof was not just his insensitive choice of occasion, but his attraction to what was always called a “negro” song—not “nigger,” thank you very much, but never “minstrel” either. This at a time when the blackface brethren of the Northern stage were pumping McClellan for all they were worth, which by then, Lhamon and the others have it right, wasn’t much—not culturally, anyway.
We may feel that Lincoln was also too cautious—that he should have freed the slaves sooner, that as with almost every white American of the nineteenth century, his racial attitudes were lamentable. We may also feel that minstrel music did the freed slaves more harm than good. But this incident suggests a kinder interpretation. Full-bore racists of the gatekeeping classes didn’t care how authentic “Picayune Butler” was. It was close enough to colored to alarm them just because it evoked a world in which bastard spawn like Abraham Lincoln could get past the gatekeepers. Not only that, some voters thought such songs fun, and fun worth pursuing. That alarmed them too. Daddy Rice and Dan Emmett must have been doing something right.