Content warning: racist, disturbing language and imagery.
The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out–if not in the word, in the sound;–and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:–
“I am going away to the Great House Farm!
O, yea! O, yea! O!”
This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,–and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.”
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.
— From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)
(Wedgewood china plate, early 1800s.)
In 1960, black folksong collectors Alex Foster and Michel LaRue (above) released an album called Songs of the American Negro Slaves. Listen to the entire album here; each song is very short.
Downbeat magazine called Foster and LaRue the leaders of “an organization of enthusiasts known as the Drinking Gourd Society” — a reference to the slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which gives coded directions to escape on the Underground Railroad. Many, though not all, of the songs recorded by Foster and LaRue are spirituals. Similarly, nearly, but not all, of the songs transcribed in the first published anthology of Black American folk song, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, are spirituals.
One of the earliest known forms of the African-American spiritual is the ring shout, which syncretized West African dance forms with Christian worship.
Watch “The Ringshout and the Birth of African-American Religion.”
For more on Southern pro-slavery theology, read this.
Some presentations of slave songs from films:
A work-song from 12 Years A Slave. Notice the similarities to the later prison work-songs of just a few generations after, with which you are already familiar.
Later in the film, a the community of slaves sings the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” after burying a fallen comrade. The River Jordan is a powerful and common metaphor in spirituals. In the Bible, the Jordan is the last frontier the Israelites must cross before they reach the Promised Land; for enslaved African Americans, the Jordan represents the last barrier to freedom — in this case, the freedom from slavery that comes with death. The main character, Solomon Northup, a free man who’s been captured and sold into slavery, struggles with his emotions and begins to feel himself a part of the community of enslaved people. His vivid emotional struggle suggests the emotional effects of enslavement on the interior life of the enslaved person.
“Run, N—–, Run,” here sung mockingly by the brutal overseer, was, according to John Lomax, an actual slave song. It first appeared in the 1830s after the Nat Turner Rebellion, when the consequences for escape became even more severe. The “patty-roller” is the patrolman.
The song survived well into the twentieth century. Here it is performed by a prisoner in a work-camp in Texas, from a field recording of the 1930s.
How does the meaning of the song change based on the time, place, and performer?
[Trigger/content warnings: lots of racist and ableist 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.
Kenan Thompson addressed this in a hilarious SNL skit in 2019:
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?
Nas accuses some hip hop artists of playing to minstrel stereotypes in order to make money for their record companies:
Public Enemy’s 1990 “Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” which blasts minstrel stereotypes in the movie industry:
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.
A meta-narrative from the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays an actor who plays a Black character, explaining method acting to Ben Stiller. TW: in addition to racism, the r-slur is repeatedly used.
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?