“Ethiopian” Songs: Love and Theft

[Trigger/content warnings: racist imagery and language.]


In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.

In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:

And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.

Poor_Black_Boy.inline vertical

In the early nineteenth century, however, white entertainers in the United States began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as “Daddy” Rice, apparently was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,

used to croon a queer old tune, with words of his own, and at the end of each verse would give a little jump . . . The words of the refrain were:

Wheel about, turn about,
Do jus’ so,
An’ ebery time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow.


Rice as “Jim Crow.”

When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped last year, some critics saw the pose he struck in the video when he shot the guitar player as a reference to minstrelsy.

Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big northern cities of the new nation, and some of the most popular minstrel troupes crossed the ocean and toured to great success in England. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show

offered up a random selection of songs interspersed with what passed for black wit . . . the second part (or “olio”) featured a group of novelty performances . . . and the third part was a narrative skit, usually set in the South, containing dancing, music, and burlesque.

In an 1848 article in his newspaper, The North Star, Frederick Douglass described the blackface actors as:

The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist — portraying white northerners’ corrupted ideas of the lives of southern blacks and making them into figures of fun — some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences were attracted to minstrel shows not only because minstrelsy propped up white supremacy, but also because of its connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. Even nineteenth-century writers, such as Margaret Fuller, recognized that what was original and innovative in American culture came from black music: white American culture, she wrote, was still an imitation of British culture, while

All symptoms of invention [in America] are confined to the African race . . . [unlike “Yankee Doodle,”] “Jump Jim Crow” is a [song] native to this country.

[Remember that Rice had essentially ripped off the song that the stablehand was singing, a theft that Fuller seems to acknowledge here.]

And another critic wrote in 1845 about the infusion of black music into the culture at large:

Who are our true rulers? The negro poets, to be sure! Do they not set the fashion, and give laws to the public taste? 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 of the world.

Ironically, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who had catapulted to fame playing a racist, ableist stereotype of an enslaved man, later played the sympathetic slave character Tom in a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — although, as Nick Rugnetta suggests here, it was probably one of the many bowdlerized, even pro-slavery, versions.

In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that

It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.

Or, as Julius Lester noted in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!:

The minstrel shows were a pathetic attempt by whites to try to get some of the vitality of blacks into their own strait-jacketed lives. (Whites would still be dancing the minuet if blacks weren’t around to invent every dance from the Charleston to the Boogaloo.) They had to masquerade as blacks to get outside the strict mores of their society.

W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs” (in your course reading packet), included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.

After emancipation, there were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Why might this have been?

In any event, in the mid-nineteenth century,

The Ethiopian vogue . . . swept over the United States . . . the public clamored for Ethiopian melodies, and songwriters gave it such songs as Old Dan Tucker, Dandy Jim from Caroline, Zip Coon, Jim Along Josey, Coal-Black Rosie [and others].

Old Dan Tucker:

Dandy Jim:

Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow,” who liked to dress in flashy clothes and get into razor fights with his cohort):

Jim Along Josie:

Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:

Coal Black Rose — here sung as a sea shanty (Remember “Go Down, You Blood-Red Roses”?):

Boatman’s Dance, attributed, like “Dixie,” to Dan Emmett:

The twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland made a popular arrangement of “Boatman’s Dance” for baritone and orchestra. American baritone Thomas Hampson sings it here, with a hint of an AAVE accent:

Rhiannon Giddens reclaims the song:

Giddens with her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

The taste for blackface minstrelsy persisted well into the twentieth century.

In England as well as in America:

And it has been used even by artists who one might have assumed would know better.

In 1992, for instance, the white alt-folk singer Michelle Shocked released an album called Arkansas Traveler. According to a review at the time:

[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.

In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.

Arnold Schultz.

”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let’s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.

But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I’m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.

This is certainly true (see this post. and this one too). But it’s still more than a little unsettling to hear Michelle Shocked sing these words:

Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow
How do you, do you walk so slow
Like a little red rooster with one trick leg
Looks like you the one laying the egg
I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon
Going down the road by the light of the moon
Going to the city to see Zip Coon

Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick
How do you do that walking trick
You got a woman on your left
A woman on your right
You all dressed up like a Saturday night
Strolling down the street, feeling fine
Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine”
If I knew your secret I would make it mine

Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true
Who is really the jigaboo?
Is it the white man, the white talking that jive
Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive?
You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows
Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose
That’s the way the story goes

Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:

I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bop… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin’ good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’

Mitchell used this black male persona, which she named “Art Nouveau,” in several contexts. The black man on the left of the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is Joni, in blackface drag.

On her 1979 “Shadows and Light” tour, Mitchell even used film to transpose “Art’s” face over hers at the end of the song “Furry Sings the Blues,” about her encounters with the dying blues musician Furry Lewis in Memphis (at the 4:14 mark):

In 1980, Joni made a short film, “The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks,” in which she transforms herself into “Art.”

What are the implications of a white woman taking on a black male persona? “Furry Sings the Blues” is not only a self-revelatory tale of cross-race cultural appropriation, but also of cross-class appropriation: Mitchell describes Lewis’s crumbling neighborhood in Memphis, notes that if you “bring him smoke and drink,” Lewis will sing for you, and ends with the admission that her “limo is shining on his shanty street.”

Is blackface ever permissible? Is it a different thing entirely when an innovative and admired artist like Joni Mitchell uses it? Or not?

Blackface has also been in the news lately. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.

The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.

White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.

Emma Hallberg Instagram stories https://www.instagram.com/eemmahallberg/ Credit: Emma Hallberg/Instagram

You may also recall Rachel Dolezal, the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who stepped down after it was revealed she was white.

The complex and fascinating story of British actor and director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon (below), an apparently biracial man whose parents were white.

Is it ever okay for a non-black artist to portray a black person onstage or in other media?

What about the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (this guy):

Playing Othello in the Verdi opera Otello?

The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What do you think?

And black artists have also been accused by critics of performing minstrel stereotypes.

Nas uses minstrel stereotypes to explicitly criticize such artists:

Spike Lee commented on blackface in his 2000 film Bamboozled, about a black television producer who creates a contemporary minstrel show. The show is meant to be ironic, but ends up being a hit. Lee used the following montage in the film.

Is it ever possible for blackface to be sympathetic? Respectful? Non-denigrating? If so, how? For some answers (or perhaps just more questions), read about some performers who believe minstrel songs still deserve attention.


For more on identity and performative blackness, read here and here.

21 thoughts on ““Ethiopian” Songs: Love and Theft

  1. I believe blackface should never be permissible even by popular musicians. When Joni Mitchell uses blackface it is still not permissible. In the context of theater I personally believe that a non-black artist should not portray a black person on stage especially if the actions of black character are stereotypes.


  2. Personally, I believe that not now, but in the past, it’s possible for blackface to be sympathetic. For example, in 1768, Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin wrote an aria called “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led”. As you can tell from the title, they are aware how sad the slaves were and they explain what a terrible life they have had and what they were going through. John Collins in 1792 wrote “The Desponding Negro”. This tells the story of an African American slave being transported from his homeland to America to become a slave. Also, in an English comic opera, The Prize, it is sung from the point of view of a white slave dealer who regret what he’s been doing. I don’t personally believe that blackface could ever be “respectful”, but I believe that in the past, it has been sympathetic and non-denigrating depending on who has done it and what their intentions were, such as the examples I gave above.


    1. Good points, Kalin.

      Interesting to note: In England, the movement for the abolition of slavery was becoming very powerful by the late 18th century, to the point that Britain abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and ended slavery in its overseas colonies (for instance the West Indies) in the 1830s. In the US, the invention of the cotton gin made cotton a hugely profitable crop around the same time, which led to the entrenchment of slavery in the US South.

      Do you think that the changing attitudes in the performance of blackface — from sympathetic to denigrating — reflected these social/historical/technological changes?


  3. I believe that black face minstrelsy back when it originated was not so bad. In most cases it was white people actually recording African Americans songs and dance. They would perform them on stage because the Africa Americans could not. Although it helped make black culture more acceptable it still is messed up especially now, to paint your self a different color and try to act like a different culture or race.


    1. You make good points, Colby The question, I think, is more the *intent* of the early practitioners of blackface minstrelsy like Dan Emmett and T.D. Rice. It’s worth noting, though, that minstrelsy was the first American theatrical genre. Do you think that there was “love” involved, as well as “theft”?


  4. To me seeing blackface as a form of sympathy would be disrespectful .From the blog post I would say that in its simplest form black face is the twisted image of what African Americans are or should be in the eyes of people like Dan Emmett.


  5. I somewhat have a little respect for what some of the artists have done with blackface to show and portray that African Americans were suffering and not having the best of all times as a slave and surviving in the lifestyle and conditions that were forced upon them like with the Aria “Dear Heart”. But regardless Blackface should not be permissible by anyone of a high status in entertainment or etc. I also really agree with Rebecca on the fact that a performance shouldn’t be performed by someone not of the race of the character or act they are trying to portray especially if there are major stereotypes in their act like the use of Blackface and etc.


  6. I believe during the time of its conception blackface could’ve been used sympathetically because it would’ve been harder to put that kind of message in when the general public was racist so it could’ve been used as a “Trojan horse” of ideas and experiences, but nowadays I don’t think it could be used that way mainly because it portrays a negative caricature and would almost always be perceived as a form of mockery. There are certain grey areas such as the opera singer but I think based on the appearance alone that it wasn’t meant as an exaggeration however it does seem to be “tone deaf” to history.


  7. I dont think blackface would be sympathetic regardless of what is shown. Its not okay for one race to make fun of any other race for peoples entertainment. I understand the things they showed, but its unacceptable. I agree with Kalin due to how can you make a song about how sad and bad slave lives were and the things that they were going? I couldn’t think most people wouldnt look at this in a respect manner regardless of circumstances.


  8. It is never okay for a non-black artist to portray a black person onstage or in other media, in fact, it is not permissible for any person not belonging to any cultural group other than their own to portray a person belonging to another group. For instance, when John Szwed suggests that artists, like Mick Jagger perform blackface without blacking up, Szwed believed that Mick Jagger, as many others, stole aspects of black culture without giving credit to the traditions he adopted into his own; hence, they appropriate aspects of black culture. Mick Jagger, as well as many other white individuals, adopt traditions belonging to various marginalized groups, especially black culture, without facing consequences; while the same minorities are regarded with contempt for the same traditions that are emulated. Mick Jagger, like many others, prosper while emulating other minority groups’ cultures and simultaneously discredit the roots of the traditions they absorbed into their own. It is never possible for blackface to be sympathetic or respectful. To participate in the act of blackface is to participate in ridiculing black individuals while simultaneously profiting off mocking them. The notion that one can simply ridicule another person through their fictitious fantasies of what their culture must be like, all while degrading them and simultaneously profiting off of such travesty, cannot be accepted.


  9. To me seeing blackface as a form of disrespect and sympathy.I believe blackface should never be permissible because its a culture not a costumes.I believe that non-black artist shouldn’t portray a black person on stage and replica of the songs due to showing a culture to portray. It could’ve been respectful if they didn’t use it as entertainment and actually let a African american individual tell it’s story.


  10. I belive that back then, at times blackface was more of a sympathetic act. It was a way for people to show what struggles black people faced to try and stop slavery and record some of their traditions. Now it is not acceptable because the people who use black face now are doing it in more of a derogatory way instead of a movement to stop something. Even back that I would think that it is still a stretch to perform black face but I would belive that they had better intentions.


  11. it think blackface in general is extremely disrespectful. but to say that all it is would be profoundly ignorant. in today’s day its seems so disrespectful because of where we are in racial tensions and disputes, but when it first happened it was no doubt a way to try and be accepting towards this group of people and even be meant for a positive thing. that’s not to it’s good, but at least we shouldn’t day it’s a completely “bad” thing in itself


  12. I think it’s a hard topic, because obviously I not only being white but also growing up in a small country town changes my perspective on it. My graduating class was 136 people out of every one there was 3 black people all of which I was friends with. I always try to respect people and not offend people, but I think sometimes asking questions or appreciating something can be taken as being offensive. For instance I don’t think Mick Jagger was trying to offend anyone or do blackface. I think he was simply trying to show bus appreciation for the blues style of music. I for instance love the sound and tonal color of gospel music, and I have sung songs not only in that style but also traditional gospel and spiritual songs. But it has never been to offend in any way shape or form, but more so to appreciate and try to do my part in keeping it alive. I’m sure that there have been people that did something on purpose with the full intent of black face but I think a large portion of the time people assumed others intentions.


  13. I believe some people do blackface in the sense to honor it but it comes off not necessarily in that way. They are being offensive without trying to. Like Jagger even though he was honoring the style people didn’t get the impression of being honored.


  14. I believe that music that’s sung or performed for the greater good of humanity is 100% okay. Whether it’s black music being sung by white people, or even white people music being sung by black people it should be okay to perform it, to show the world what music could be. I think that Mick Jagger had every right to use blues styles in his song and perform it how ever he wanted to. Everyone has a different perspective on what they think but at the end of the day, it’s just music that should be shared and performed by anyone who wants to do it. Many people factor social climate into music when it should be a separate issue. Music is music. Just enjoy it:)


  15. In my opinion, blackface is never okay and it’s a practice that should be completely eradicated. However, I do understand that the intention behind an act may not correlate to to the way an act is perceived. In the case of Mick Jagger, his intention may have been to replicate an old-school blues style that he admired. However, in practice his attempt to make the music sound more authentic may have come off as a caricature of black culture. To me, this issue isn’t completely black and white and it’s hard to say that either side is wrong in their thinking. In the case of Placido Domingo playing the black character Othello, I understand that there’s not exactly a large pool of black vocalists to choose from but I hope that as time progresses that would no longer be an issue.


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