[Trigger/content warnings: Blackface minstrelsy, racist imagery, racist language, and racist depictions of African-Americans in the linked audio of minstrel songs.]
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.
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, 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.”)
Minstrel shows, known as “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” became wildly popular in the big cities of the new nation. 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 spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist, some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences might also have been attracted to minstrelsy’s connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. 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.
Recall, too, that W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by Stephen Foster — in his explanation of the development of black American music, which suggests that the racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they appear at first glance.
What is more, there were also 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. Can you think of some reasons why that might have been?
Whatever the case,
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:
Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow”):
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: