The Christy Minstrels

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#1
If you're old enough you remember the New Christy Minstrels from the early 1960s, the leader of the folk revival with wonderful songs like Green, Green and This Land is Your Land. Well, they got their name from the original Christy Minstrels, a black-face group formed in New York in 1843. Though blackface had been a part of the American theater since the Revolution the Minstrel show as a standard form was developed in the 1830s. They were wildly popular through the middle of the 19th century in Northern cities where they originated and continued to be performed into the early 20th century when they were supplanted by Vaudeville.


upload_2017-7-15_5-36-39.jpeg

From Wiki: Sheet music cover from 1844.

According to Wikipedia: Christy's Minstrels, sometimes referred to as the Christy Minstrels, were a blackface group formed by Edwin Pearce Christy, a well-known ballad singer, in 1843, in Buffalo, New York. They were instrumental in the solidification of the minstrel show into a fixed three-act form. The troupe also invented or popularized "the line", the structured grouping that constituted the first act of the standardized 3-act minstrel show, with the interlocutor in the middle and "Mr. Tambo" and "Mr. Bones" on the ends.

In 1846 they first performed in Polmer's Opera House in New York City. From March 1847, they ran for a seven-year stint at New York City's Mechanics Hall (until July 1854).

After performing at a benefit performance for Stephen Foster in Cincinnati, Ohio on August 25, 1847, the group specialized in performances of Foster's works. Foster sold his song, Old Folks at Home, to Christy for his exclusive use. The troupe's commercial success was phenomenal: Christy paid Foster $15,000 for the exclusive rights to the song.
 

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#2
Added note: Minstrel shows reached their height of popularity in the 1850's, 20 years prior to the Happy Slave narrative supposedly pushed by the Lost Cause Mythologists in the post- Civil War era. It appears that this contented, happy go lucky slave imagery had been a part of the American way of thinking for a much longer time than believed by many.
 
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#4
One of the New Christy Minstrel's songs was "Follow the Drinking Gourd". I am not "techie" enough to find a link but, it is worth examining.
Yes, the song was written in 1928 and refers to the Big Dipper pointing to the North Star, the way to freedom. I always found Polaris at night when star gazing by lining up those 2 stars on the outer edge of the Dipper which point directly to the North Star.

From Wiki:
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" is an American folk song first published in 1928. The Drinking Gourd is another name for the Big Dipper asterism. Folklore has it that fugitive slaves in the United States used it as a point of reference so they would not get lost.[1][2] According to legend, the song was used by a conductor of the Underground Railroad, called Peg Leg Joe, to guide some fugitive slaves. While the song may possibly refer to some lost fragment of history, the origin and context remain a mystery. A more recent source challenges the authenticity of the claim that the song was used to help slaves escape to the North and to freedom.[3]

300px-Ursa_Major%2C_Ursa_Minor_and_Polaris.png


Polaris, the North Star, is found by imagining a line from Merak (β) to Dubhe (α) and then extending it for five times the distance after Dubhe (α) to Polaris (α Ursae Minoris).
Two of the stars in the Big Dipper line up very closely with and point to Polaris. Polaris is a circumpolar star, and so it is always seen pretty close to the direction of true north. Hence, according to a popular myth, all slaves had to do was look for the Drinking Gourd and follow it to the North Star (Polaris) north to freedom.
 
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#6
The Minstrel shows were relatively mild in the early years 1830s-1840s and in fact contained some anti-slavery messaging. In the 1850's however they became overtly racist.

From Wiki:

The rise of the minstrel show coincided with the growth of the abolutionist movement. Many Northerners were concerned for the oppressed blacks of the South, but most had no idea how these slaves lived day-to-day. Blackface performance had been inconsistent on this subject; some slaves were happy, others victims of a cruel and inhuman institution. However, in the 1850s minstrelsy became decidedly mean-spirited and pro-slavery as race replaced class as its main focus. Most minstrels projected a greatly romanticized and exaggerated image of black life with cheerful, simple slaves always ready to sing and dance and to please their masters. (Less frequently, the masters cruelly split up black lovers or sexually assaulted black women.) The lyrics and dialogue were generally racist, satiric, and largely white in origin. Songs about slaves yearning to return to their masters were plentiful. The message was clear: do not worry about the slaves; they are happy with their lot in life. Figures like the Northern dandy and the homesick ex-slave reinforced the idea that blacks did not belong, nor did they want to belong, in Northern society.
 
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#9
None other than Mark Twain, who is believed to have been a progressive voice in the era said this in 1906 about Minstrel shows:

The very first minstrel show probably occurred in 1843, in New York City. Within a year it became the most popular form of live entertainment in America, and it remained so from the time Tom Sawyer was a child up to the time MT began writing Huck Finn. It's known that MT loved the form -- in an autobiographical reminiscence dictated in 1906 he said, using a word that would have bothered almost no white Americans at the time but which now makes us wince, that "the genuine n***** show, the extravagant n***** show" was "the show which to me had no peer" and "a thoroughly delightful thing."

http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/huckfinn/minstrl.html
 
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#10
Fredrick Douglass didn't care much for them as you would expect. He said this about a troupe performing in Rochester, NY. :

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

 
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#11
A couple of weeks ago in another thread @jgoodguy wrote this about the Happy Negro myth in the South:

There are incentives to believe it. Political, social, religious and fiscal incentives. There are no incentives to disbelieve it and disbelief has potential penalties.
But it appears the myth actually began in earnest in the Northern states as shown by the widespread popularity of the Minstrel shows in that region.
 
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#15
The "father" of the Minstrel show genre is generally believed to be New Yorker Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He is also the creator or the stock character Jim Crow in 1828. The character appeared in Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburg, and Philadelphia before hitting the big time in NYC in 1832.

From: http://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/who.htm

cartoon.jpg


"Come listen all you galls and boys,
I'm going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow."


jimcrow.jpg


These words are from the song, "Jim Crow," as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. Rice, a struggling "actor" (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song -- some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as "Jim Crow" -- an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup -- his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then "Jim Crow" was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice's subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term "Jim Crow" was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as n*****, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.
 
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#16
A couple of weeks ago in another thread @jgoodguy wrote this about the Happy Negro myth in the South:
There are incentives to believe it. Political, social, religious and fiscal incentives. There are no incentives to disbelieve it and disbelief has potential penalties.
But it appears the myth actually began in earnest in the Northern states as shown by the widespread popularity of the Minstrel shows in that region.
To reinforce its Northern origins of Blackface Minstrel shows I offer the following from:

http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy

"White supremacy and the belief in black inferiority remained at minstrelsy’s base even though the structure of the performances and subjects discussed in the music varied over time. The genre shaped the nation’s views on race for over a century and reinforced white superiority well after the abolition of slavery. While some today assume that minstrelsy’s blackface has roots in the American South because of the genre’s focus on black degradation and slavery, minstrelsy was born and evolved initially in the North."

For the majority of whites living in the pre-Civil War North, slavery and black people were a distant reality, one that evoked mixed emotions. If slavery was the commodification of black labor, minstrelsy, with its focus on presenting authentically black songs and dances, was the commodification of black culture. However, the depictions of blacks in minstrel performances were exaggerated, dehumanizing and inaccurate. Instead of representing black culture on stage, blackface minstrel performers reflected and reinforced white supremacy."
 
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#18
Though the popularity of Blackface Minstrels began to wane after the turn of the 20th century, elements of the routines continued to be incorporated into the new Vaudeville acts. And they continued for many years, into the 1950s in some Adirondack region clubs.
In Tunbridge, VT, the last Blackface show was staged in 1991. See story below. Wow!

http://www.nyfolklore.org/pubs/voic30-3-4/blkface.html

Long after most Americans had found blackface minstrelsy demeaning, performances continued in isolated rural areas, with no apparent racist intent. In one declining community in New York’s North Country—a place whose residents had virtually no contact with African Americans and no reason to feel uneasy about “the other”—minstrel shows may have served to honor a folk tradition and to express community solidarity in the face of economic hardship. Respect for the show’s directors and self-conscious reflection on the town were additional factors. I explore the meaning, structure, and function of blackface minstrel shows in the context of Adirondack community life.
In the back of my grandparents’ closet in Colton, New York, where we sought out old prom gowns for dress-up games, was a relic—a wood silhouette in the shape of a banjo. It had strings painted on the front and lines of text on the back. My father told me that it had been my Grandfather Hurley’s stage prop when he played a blackface character called Tambo in Colton minstrel shows in the 1950s, and that the words on the back were entrance cues.

...

Shows in blackface are undeniably hurtful and demeaning. Recent scholars have argued that racism alone does not explain their popularity, however, and foremost among the functions they served their white audiences (Lott 1993; Averill 2003) was enabling actors to comment on their own culture in an uninhibited way. Musicologist Charles Hamm (1995) has taken this analysis further, suggesting that the persistence of blackface minstrel shows in small-town America was a nostalgic idealization of nineteenth-century values and a rejection of twentieth-century multiculturalism. Based on interviews with living participants and a study of scripts, scores, and photographs, I maintain that there were other important reasons why the people of Colton participated.

hurley2.jpg

Charles Palmer from Norwood, N.Y. as Al Jolson in the October 1958 Colton Community Minstrels production 23 Skidoo: A Musical Revue of the Nineteen-Twenties.Photo courtesy of the Colton Historical Society.
Hamm studied Tunbridge, Vermont, where the last blackface minstrel show was produced in 1991. Colton and Tunbridge resemble many small communities of the Northeast: They are sited along rivers that once powered small mills and industries; they have harsh winters, short growing seasons, and rocky soil unsuitable for large-scale agriculture; their white, working-class populations have never included a statistically significant number of people of color.
...
 
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#19
So all this begs a question. The rhetoric in today's discussions about the Civil War and the later monuments, etc. erected to honor Confederate soldiers is that it was all about preserving white supremacy. Yet at the very same time the Blackface Minstrel show phenomenon and related stage, musical and radio performances were still in vogue in the Northern states were all about white supremacy, were they not?
 
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#20
Though the popularity of Blackface Minstrels began to wane after the turn of the 20th century, elements of the routines continued to be incorporated into the new Vaudeville acts. And they continued for many years, into the 1950s in some Adirondack region clubs.
In Colton, VT, the last Blackface show was staged in 1991. See story below. Wow!

http://www.nyfolklore.org/pubs/voic30-3-4/blkface.html

Long after most Americans had found blackface minstrelsy demeaning, performances continued in isolated rural areas, with no apparent racist intent. In one declining community in New York’s North Country—a place whose residents had virtually no contact with African Americans and no reason to feel uneasy about “the other”—minstrel shows may have served to honor a folk tradition and to express community solidarity in the face of economic hardship. Respect for the show’s directors and self-conscious reflection on the town were additional factors. I explore the meaning, structure, and function of blackface minstrel shows in the context of Adirondack community life.
In the back of my grandparents’ closet in Colton, New York, where we sought out old prom gowns for dress-up games, was a relic—a wood silhouette in the shape of a banjo. It had strings painted on the front and lines of text on the back. My father told me that it had been my Grandfather Hurley’s stage prop when he played a blackface character called Tambo in Colton minstrel shows in the 1950s, and that the words on the back were entrance cues.

...

Shows in blackface are undeniably hurtful and demeaning. Recent scholars have argued that racism alone does not explain their popularity, however, and foremost among the functions they served their white audiences (Lott 1993; Averill 2003) was enabling actors to comment on their own culture in an uninhibited way. Musicologist Charles Hamm (1995) has taken this analysis further, suggesting that the persistence of blackface minstrel shows in small-town America was a nostalgic idealization of nineteenth-century values and a rejection of twentieth-century multiculturalism. Based on interviews with living participants and a study of scripts, scores, and photographs, I maintain that there were other important reasons why the people of Colton participated.

View attachment 149118
Charles Palmer from Norwood, N.Y. as Al Jolson in the October 1958 Colton Community Minstrels production 23 Skidoo: A Musical Revue of the Nineteen-Twenties.Photo courtesy of the Colton Historical Society.
Hamm studied Tunbridge, Vermont, where the last blackface minstrel show was produced in 1991. Colton and Tunbridge resemble many small communities of the Northeast: They are sited along rivers that once powered small mills and industries; they have harsh winters, short growing seasons, and rocky soil unsuitable for large-scale agriculture; their white, working-class populations have never included a statistically significant number of people of color.
...
Interesting thread !

It is amazing how long black face continued to thrive. Of course there was Amos and Andy which was very popular almost everywhere as both a radio and a TV show (and I remember the TV show from my childhood).

Many have never heard of Emmett Miller but he was a popular vaudeville singer and performer of black face and minstrel shows who actually made it to the TV era. His original shtick, aside from the black face routines, was his voice which he used to yodel songs. He's widely thought to have influenced Jimmie Rodgers to incorporate yodeling as they toured together before Jimmie was well known. Emmett also wrote Lovesick Blues which was made famous by Hank Williams (and features Miller's yodeling style). I think there's maybe some YouTubes of Emmett.

Just thought I'd throw that in.
 



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