The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.
The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves, and were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:
Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:
A ring shout:
The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:
Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).
Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.
George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).
A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:
The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.
One of your first reading assignments, “Race and the Embodiment of Culture” by John Szwed, was published in the journal Ethnicity in 1975. Szwed makes reference to many music and dance forms, as well as visual imagery, across times, places, and cultures. This post is a compendium of the forms he mentions.
Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”
On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.
Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites (we will be studying minstrelsy in depth in a couple of weeks):
Amos N’ Andy:
Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:
3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:
now find ourselves becoming famished and desperate students of the discredited
and displaced in a pastoral of ludicrous dimensions.
What is a “pastoral,” and what does Szwed mean when he says that “we now find ourselves” in one? Give a musical example that reflects the ways that you believe mainstream America is “famished and desperate” for authenticity in culture.
Respond to the following questions in a comment on this blog post, using your first name only.
1. Amos and Andy were black comedy artists. Why do you think John Szwed includes them in his list of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy?
2. What does Szwed mean when he calls Mick Jagger a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface”?
3. On p. 30 of his article, Szwed says:
The irony of the situation is obvious: the low-status [racial/cultural] group, cut off from the sources of power and production in the larger society, is at the same time less alienated from its own cultural productions [than is the high-status group]. The twist is that the elite of society is free to draw on the lower group’s cultural pool. Were there ever more massive examples of the conversion of community life and culture into commodity than those in which black folk life has been turned into national culture in the US?
What he’s referring to here, in general, is the appropriation and consumption of black music — the “lower [socio-economic] group’s cultural pool” — by the “elite of society,” i.e. those who enjoy economic and cultural privilege. Szwed sees the irony of black music — a unique expression of a particular culture — going corporate/mainstream. The process of the commodification of black music has been going on ever since black music began to be recognized as a distinct style and genre in the nineteenth century, as we will see later.
Give an example of the process of conversion Szwed describes — of black American music or culture into national American music or culture — from your own lifetime. Name a specific song/artist/genre.
If you’ve seen the film 12 Years A Slave, you may remember that Solomon Northup (shown in a sketch above), whose memoir was the basis for the movie, was a musician. Northup wrote of his life as a free black violinist in New York State:
In the film, he’s shown playing at such dances, and he later strikes a bargain with two unscrupulous promoters to go on tour to Washington, D.C., which is where his troubles begin.
In his memoir, Northup also describes playing violin for a Christmas party in Louisiana after he’s been enslaved — an occasion at which the slaves were permitted to take off their masters and perform their own exaggerated versions of European high-society dances [this kind of parody would evolve into the Cakewalk]. Afterwards, the slaves
This patting is also known as patting juba, or just juba. It derives from sub-Saharan African music; the word “juba” means “to pat or keep rhythm” in the Bantu language. The patting of one’s own body as an instrument was an adaptation made by the slaves when drums were banned in the American colonies. And why were drums banned? You all remember this, from the 1964 film Zulu: chanting as preparation for war.
On Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty Congolese slaves (mislabeled by contemporary historians as “Angolan”) gathered on the banks of the Stono River near Charleston (in this period, Sunday was a day off for slaves). They commandeered a guns-and-ammo shop, killed the owners, armed themselves, and headed south, chanting and playing drums as “a call to arms, a preparation for battle.” As a 1740 account of the uprising described it:
By the end of the day, the rebels numbered over a hundred, dozens of whites were dead, and the leaders of the Stono Rebellion would soon be executed.
After the rebellion was put down, the colonies enacted punitive measures against blacks, including the death penalty for any slave who learned to read. Slaves were no longer allowed to congregate, earn money, or grow their own food — and drums were banned. Juba was in some ways a response to the drum ban: the body became a rhythmic instrument.
Juba is usually performed just with the voice and the body. The drummer Sule Greg Wilson says:
Juba was sung and percussed to throw off and discharge the negativity of the institution of chattel slavery. Thus, we find in Juba a vital, sacred act—not to be confused with the good-time community activity of Hambone. Though both use body percussion, they are–functionally–very different.
As Sweet Honey in the Rock say, “You don’t just sing juba, you have to do juba. . . the word is African, but doing juba was made up by our people when we had to express how hard and unfair it was to be slaves . . . maybe some evil person can destroy your drums, but can anyone stop a true drummer from drumming? . . use your body . . . become a drum.”
A children’s call-and-response version which does not shy away from the injustice of slavery.
When juba is done as a social or community activity, it’s often called hambone. Here, Danny “Slapjazz” Barber demonstrates and discusses its origins in the Stono Rebellion:
You can see how juba/hambone mutates over time into other forms. The first black dancer to perform onstage for white audiences in the United States was known as Master Juba (his real name was William Henry Lane). Charles Dickens saw Master Juba dance in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood on a trip to America. Dickens described this even in his 1842 book American Notes:
What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: “a regular breakdown.” The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding . . . marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.
[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.
Performing in blackface was a practice of long standing in Britain. Morris dance, a traditional form of English folk dance that emerged in the Middle Ages, derives its name from “Moorish,” i.e. African; the dancers were imitating what they believed to be exotic African dances, and the custom of blacking up persists, though it is now frowned upon by folk dance enthusiasts:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, blackface was a theatrical convention for white actors portraying characters of African heritage, and was not considered denigrating or disrespectful. This began to change (slowly) in Britain in the nineteenth century, when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge made a sensation in England and on the European continent for his portrayal of the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In early nineteenth-century America, on the other hand, white entertainers 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, claimed that he was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped in 2018, some critics saw the pose he strikes early in the video, when he shoots 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
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 itsconnectionto 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:
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
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,” 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 do you think this might have been?
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:
[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.
”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 a white woman, however well-meaning, 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:
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 in the past few years. 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.
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 Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Otello?
It was commonplace for white tenors to play Otello in blackface as recently as 2015, when the Metropolitan Opera officially did away with the practice. The Met’s statement:
This creates a conundrum for an opera company wanting to cast the best talent available. Only a handful of tenors in the world can sing the role at the highest level, and most (though by no means all) opera singers are white. The tragedy of Othello — his destruction at the hands of his jealous white servant, Iago — is very much based on his “otherness.” If everyone on stage is the same color, the drama is lost. Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Met’s Otello; he’s the heavyset guy in the uniform. It’s hard to tell him apart from the rest of the cast.
There are other ways to stage Othello to preserve its dramatic and artistic integrity. For instance, in 1997, Sir Patrick Stewart played Othello without blackface in a highly-acclaimed production that became known as the “photo-negative Othello“: Othello was white, and all the other characters were black.
In 2015, the Washington Post hosted a roundtable discussion of black opera singers on their feelings about blackface in Otello and other roles. The singers’ feelings about these practices may not be what you would expect:
The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What does he mean? Do you agree?
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.
Other artists, like Rhiannon Giddens, have subverted the minstrel ethos and reclaimed it. Giddens plays a replica of an 1850s minstrel banjo. She describes how she repurposed a minstrel song, probably “Blue-Tail Fly,” and turned it into a history of the Reconstruction movement for Black education (as well as an exhortation to students today):
Questions for discussion:
Is blackface ever permissible in our day and age? If yes, what would be the circumstances that would make it so?
Why do you think white performers have found it so irresistible to “black up”?
Do you think that minstrel songs should be “reclaimed” by Black artists?
Should they continue to be taught in school music classes?