Author Biography: David Wondrich is the author of Esquire Drinks and writes about music and cocktails for The New York Times, Esquire, and The Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Stomp and Swerve
American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924
By David Wondrich
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 David Wondrich
All rights reserved.
Minstrelsy, or Get Out De Way
[Ministrallorum] sunt duo genera. Quidam enim frequentant publicas potationes et lasciuas congregationes, et cantant ibi diuersas cantilenas ut moueant homines ad lasciuiam, et tales sunt damnabiles. Sunt autem alii qui cantant gesta principum et uita sanctorum et non faciunt innumerabiles turpitudines.
There are two kinds of minstrels: some frequent public drinking-places and indecent gatherings, where they sing all sorts of popular songs in order to move people to indecency; such minstrels are damnable. There are others, however, who sing about the deeds of princes and the lives of the saints and don't do those countless filthy things.
— THOMAS DE CABHAM (OB. 1313)
America's First Music Craze
In late January 1843, Daniel Decatur Emmett hosted an impromptu jam session in his room in Mrs. Brooke's boarding house at 37 Catherine Street, in New York's impressively unsavory Fourth Ward. (The tenement that's been camping out on the site for the last century or so now holds a Chinese beauty parlor and no plaque.) Emmett fiddled and Billy Whitlock picked on a banjo that Emmett had lying around, while Dick Pelham and Frank Brower kept time on tambourine and bones (nothing more than a pair of cattle ribs that you rattled together like musical spoons). The young men — Emmett, the oldest, was twenty-eight — played "Old Dan Tucker" (words by Emmett, tune by ... somebody else), and it was good. Better yet, it was hot. Within hours, they had a gig at Bartlett's Billiard-Room in the Branch Hotel, a couple of blocks away at 36 Bowery (no plaque). Or maybe they secured the gig first and jammed later; memories, as always in revolutions, differ. In any case, they were overnight stars. They began calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, evidently playing off a quartet of yodeling Tyrolese Minstrels that were touring at the time; we'll get to the Virginia part in a moment.
The Virginia Minstrels were the first truly American band, playing American music — or at least the first to be publicly recognized as such. When Billy Whitlock added his percussive banjo to Dan Emmett's fiddle, he was doing something new and dangerous, at least for white folks. Before the Virginia Minstrels, white performers kept the (white) fiddle and its music segregated from the black banjo and its music. One doesn't hear of white banjo players much at all before the Virginian Joel Walker Sweeney, who began touring with the instrument in 1836; he was Whitlock's teacher (he's also credited with changing the body of the instrument from a gourd to a proper European drum shell). If the Virginia Minstrels were merely presenting something to the larger ofay public that had been going on quietly for ages back in the hood, the fact remains that this particular lineup, and especially the conjunction of the banjo and the fiddle, doesn't seem to have been attempted before on the stage, at least in New York (and then, as now, if it ain't in New York, it's out of town). Billy Whitlock himself had played one night with a fiddler in Philly, a couple of years before Mrs. Brooke's, but he remembered it only as a "novel idea," a freak.
What did they sound like? The songs are basically "Turkey in the Straw" (Emmett's name for it; before him, it was "Zip Coon") and the like — lightly syncopated variants of English/Scots/Irish fiddle tunes; repetitive melodies with rough, usually satirical lyrics often chanted in unison. But, as a witness to their antics observed, "it could be very difficult to describe [their performance] in libretto, and musical score would not do it justice." Pelham, for instance, "seemed animated by a savage energy," and, in an age where real musicians were supposed to sit still, his frenzied tambourine-bashing "nearly wrung him off his seat." Whitlock frailed away at his gut-stringed banjo with "complete abandon," Emmett furiously hacked a fiddle held backwoods-style at his chest, and Brower kept popping up from his chair to stomp around the stage in his boots while rapidly rattling a pair of rib bones in each hand, putting the whole arm into it. How can you notate that? Fortissimo doesn't quite cut it; allo Negro might be more appropriate.
For — as you may have surmised — Emmett, Brower, Pelham, and Whitlock were all well-established professional "darkies," or "Ethiopian delineators," which were the contemporary terms of art (it should go without saying that the bulk of white America at the time, North and South, slaver and abolitionist, was casually, thoroughly, and institutionally racist in speech and deed). They were white men who spent the greater part of the working day in loud, tattered clothes, with nappy wigs on their heads and large quantities of burnt cork besmirching their pasty Anglo-Irish complexions. Thus decked out, they would present themselves before their equals — mostly deracinated rustics newly come to the metropolis and recent immigrants from the various islands and mains of northern Europe, with a stiffening of the established petite bourgeoisie and even the occasional slumming swell — and pretend (albeit not very hard) that they were real African slaves on one of the great Southern plantations (hence the "Virginia"). And thus they would dance and sing, pick the banjo and rock the bow, give mangled speeches and tell corny jokes. Always tell jokes. Before the Virginia Minstrels, they did it in ones and twos, as part of someone else's act or variety show. After, they were the show. If there were other, earlier, white musicians who turned imitating black ones into a musical genre, rather than a one-off novelty, their names have fallen into the cracks of history.
The music of the minstrel show, as codified by Emmett and his boys, was the first recognized, fully documented eruption of American music. Although many have tried and oft, none has yet found a way beyond the mere assertion of tain't so to escape the plain fact that all that is American in American music, and all that is good, traces its bloodlines through the minstrel show — an institution through which white America stole, plundered, colonized; raped, prostituted, and pimped; contaminated and diluted; misinterpreted and misunderstood; ridiculed, patronized, bucked, scorned and — in some strange way — passionately loved the music and the culture of black America.
In the past few years, minstrelsy has become something of a hot topic among academics. A lot of convoluted sentences have been spun out to the effect that this peculiar institution illuminates the patterns of race, class, and wampum that shaped and continue to shape the culture of our great and oppressive nation; that it is a manifestation of the alienation working-class white males felt in a society where the rich and powerful looked to European norms of acculturation to reinforce the status that their penises, pennies, and power gave them; that the blackface minstrels had to fashion themselves into the only people to whom they could feel superior in order to both reinforce their precarious place in white society through ridicule of an excluded Other (whose cultural practices in many ways inconveniently recall their own), and appropriate some of the freedom and — more importantly — sexual power of an Other who is both feminized through his powerlessness and hyper-masculinized through his very alterity.
Waaall, sure. Only a fool would fail to perceive, and only a knave deny, the obvious patterns of power flowing through the enterprise of minstrelsy, the commingled contempt and envy. That's not the whole story, though. When white men — and always men — got themselves up like Coons (let's rehab that odious little word as a technical term for the bulge-eyed, red-lipped virtual — as in, strictly pretend; ersatz; stereotypical; without meaningful correlation to objective reality — African of the minstrel stage; for all the dandified Zip Coons and countrified Jim Crows, whatever their tint from collar to cuff) and sang their mangled little songs, sure, they were alienating black from white, making blackness appear foreign when in fact blacks were as American as anyone and a damn sight more so than the recent Irish immigrants who made up so large a part of the minstrels' audience. At the same time — a contradictory idea, but minstrelsy was nothing if not contradictory — by the very act of smearing blackness on and sloughing it off again, they were making the idea of "blackness" more white, and "whiteness" more black. If you can put on another race and take it off again just like that, then skin color and behavior might not necessarily be linked with bonds of iron.
Ultimately, minstrelsy was an institution with an ideology, and that ideology was not a benign one. But it was also a human institution; an American institution; worst of all, a showbiz institution. As an American human with showbiz experience, I feel entitled to a little skepticism about just what the average minstrel's degree of interest was in the ideological aspects of his trade. For many, I'm sure it was just a good wheeze, a throwaway joke told by people who didn't know, think, or care nearly so much about whom they told it on as about the laughs they were getting. It was entertainment. It was rock 'n' roll. And, if minstrelsy was anything like any of the crazes that followed it — like ragtime, like jazz, like swing, like rock and soul and hip-hop — some of those blacked-up ofays must have felt a sincere and unfeigned admiration for the black musicians they were imitating. Some of them must have internalized the music, understood it, played it with sympathy, skill, and creativity. Minstrelsy must have had its Joe Lambs and Jack Teagardens, its Elvises and its Eminems.
Some people who saw these acts were fooled (the rubes!). For their benefit, early minstrels often included before-and-after engravings on their song folios, just so you would know. Many others thought that they knew more about black people because they had seen blackface; that they had witnessed something "authentic" (when anybody in American culture tries to pawn that word off on you, best break out your bifocals and get the shotgun down from over the mantle). After all, early minstrels like Thomas Rice (whose hit ditty was "Jim Crow," of Jim Crow fame), Dan Emmett, and George Christy claimed to base their shtick on diligent and acute observation of real live black people, and some of them were sincerely anthropological about it. Even the Virginia Minstrels, who were far from scientific about their delineation, billed their act as the "sports and pastimes of the Virginia Colored Race, through medium of Songs, Refrains and Ditties as sung by Southern Slaves."
Unfortunately, we cannot judge the accuracy of their claim. In the 1850s, at least one foreign observer who had seen both imitators and imitated, the Frenchman Oscar Commettant (a musician himself), thought that the minstrels of his day painted a vivid and accurate portrait of their subjects. But then again, there are folks who consider Eric Clapton a bluesman. Doubtless, some minstrels were more sensitive to their subjects than others; heard the music more accurately and were able to reproduce it with more suppleness. The thing is, the Virginia Minstrels kicked off a craze, and you know how those work in America. As in the jazz craze of the 1920s, the rock 'n' roll craze of the 1950s, or the gangsta rap craze of the 1990s, public demand was such that everyone and his uncle thought they'd give the thing a try. When you expand the pool of would-be entertainers beyond the seasoned professionals, you tend to get higher highs and lower lows. In the 1920s, when the craze for hillbilly music caught Daniel Decatur Emmett's least-evolved musical descendants on disc, you find minstrel performances as sublimely baroque and weird as Emmett Miller's, and as embarrassingly stiff and shitty as Herschel Brown's "Talking Nigger Blues" (Ok. 402001).
One thing did result, though, from the first rush of the minstrel craze: documentation. Within months of the Virginia Minstrels hitting it big, the music business of the day — with that industry's perennial promptness to jump on a loose dollar — churned out a torrent of "Ethiopian Songbooks," "Celebrated Ethiopian Melodies," "Banjo Instructors," and, of course, "Songs of the Virginia Minstrels." The average prospective minstrel being a nice, economically challenged Irish boy from the North (a disproportionate number of the early minstrels came from the new Hibernian underclass that was flooding into the country), and travel to the actual slave states being difficult and very expensive, these would've been invaluable.
The same reservations apply to the published music as to its performance, but nonetheless this stuff provides, if in attenuated form, our first inkling of what all those anonymous fiddlers and banjo strummers had been up to. The harmonies are simple, even crude — two or three chords, nothing fancy. The tunes, the melodies, are generally drawn from Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes. As musicologist Hans Nathan illustrates, the Scottish "Jenny's Babee" becomes "My Long Tail Blue" (the black dandy character of the minstrel stage was preternaturally fond of his swallowtail blue coat); the Irish "I Wish the Shepherd's Pet Were Mine" becomes "Jim Crow," the English "Bow Wow Wow" becomes "Gumbo Chaff." Not exactly, though — the melodies tend to be chopped up into short, two-bar phrases, with more stops and starts than in their European sources, and more repetition. At first, this might seem anything but hot.
Consider Emmett's version of "Old Dan Tucker," which he published in 1843. The melody — with a range of about five notes, it's not much of one — is in straight eighth notes, one per syllable, with strategically placed quarter and sixteenth notes, mostly in the chorus:
I come to town de
ud-der night, I
hear de noise an
saw de fight, De
watch-man was a
runnin roun, cry-in
Old Dan Tuck-er's
come to town, so —
get out-de waay!
[fill: four eighth notes]
get out-de waay!
[fill: four eighth notes]
get out-de waay!
Old Dan Tuck-er
your to [sic] late to
come to sup-per.
If the verse is plain, the chorus injects a sudden, offbeat rush to the proceedings, providing release after the monotonous stomp of the verse. That's not the whole story, though. There are accents that the lead-sheets of the day don't indicate. Add the eighth-note stomp of the banjoist's foot. Add the castanet rattle of the bones (an instrument that goes back to A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the very least. "Titania: What, wilt thou hear some music, my sweet love? Bottom: I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones." Badumsha.) Add the bass thump of the tambourine, the puh-ching of the clawhammer banjo (that is, one played by plucking with the thumb while strumming down with the fingernails), and you've got something. As Nathan explains,
... the principle of pitting highly irregular accentuations in the melody ... against a precise metrical accompaniment, which characterizes all American dance music up to the present, is anticipated by early banjo tunes and undoubtedly derives from them.
He then goes on to list eight riffs and patterns that would be familiar to anyone who's ever played air guitar or patted hambone to "Jungle Boogie."
Unfortunately, the Virginia Minstrels were fifty years too early for the recording horn; by the time it arrived, Emmett was seventy-five. Some folks have tried recently to re-create the music of Dan Emmett and his buddies, using the instruments they must have used, the documents they left behind, and our own modern sense of what their influences, goals, and aesthetics must have been; too bad this dodge never really works. Not that their attempts aren't interesting.
In 1989, banjoist Joe Ayers recorded a cassette titled Old Dan Tucker: Melodies of Dan Emmett & the Virginia Minstrels, 1843–1860 (it's still not available on CD, as far as I know — which indicates the amount of call there is for this kind of thing). It's a sincere, skilled, historically informed attempt to reproduce the music of a century and a half ago. It's helpful — you get an idea of what the instruments sounded like, learn a couple of the songs. The mellowness of the gutstring banjo is surprising, as is the muscularity of the tambourine-thumps. The songs — the ear instantly types them as hillbilly music — have a peculiar, stiff-legged stomp to them that sets the body to unconscious rocking. But no matter how well executed, Ayers's is an impossible project. It just doesn't have, can't have, that first-time-around, hell-we-don't-know-we're-just-makin'-this-shit-up-as-we-go-along spark. There's a distinct lack of "savage energy," and the abandon on display is very far from complete. For better or worse, the early Coons were stars, and it takes a star to play a star. The kind of folks with the patience and eccentricity for careful reconstruction of obsolete forms of music just ain't star timber. Stars don't like to work that hard.
Excerpted from Stomp and Swerve by David Wondrich. Copyright © 2003 David Wondrich. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION Love and Strife,
Drive and Swerve,
PART I Minstrelsy, or Get Out de Way,
America's First Music Craze,
The Horrors and Delights of Blackface Entertainment,
PART II Ragtime, or All Coons Alike,
Ragtime's Buried Roots: Brass Bands and the Birth of the Record Industry,
Banjos, Coon Songs, and Vocal Groups,
PART III Black Folks' Opera,
Blues into Jazz,
The Pathology of an Infection: The Blues in New Orleans and New York,
Two Crazes: Jazz, 1917-1921; The Blues, 1920-1924,
Birth of a New Art: Enrico Caruso, a Whole Bunch of Other Guys, and Louis Armstrong,
CODA Emmett's Children, or Hillbilly Music,