The Georgia Minstrels Break Tradition

We often focus importantly on the elements of minstrelsy which tie each troupe together; the costumes, dialect, racial humor, and urban audiences, however the Georgia Minstrels were breaking this tradition as early as 1876. They were often asked to perform in vocal ensembles in churches and classical music performance venues, often part of a larger organized group’s performance.

One such performance was on March 12 1876 at the Boston Theatre where the Georgia Minstrels were invited to perform at the Grand Sacred Jubilee Concert, featuring the Grand Jubilee singers and others presenting works by Haydn, Rossini and other classical composers as well as Negro spirituals. Here is one piece which is from Plantation Songs and Jubilee Hymns (1881):

This piece is similar to many we have looked at already, as it repeats the phrase, “Den I dont want to stay here no longer” before jumping into the chorus which reads “Run home Levi, run home for de sun’s down.” The Georgia minstrels drew heavily on character songs and plantation songs, and not as much on Negro Spirituals.

It was novel for me to find out that there was a place in classical music and choral negro spiritual venues for minstrel songs. Though it is not clear whether or not the Georgia Minstrel singers dressed up fully as they would for a show, minstrelsy clearly had a place in American society as early as the the 1870’s.

Women in Minstrelsy?

Minstrelsy is often correctly thought of as performance done by and for the white man. In whatever form it took, it was undoubtedly offensive and purposeful in its sedimentation of black subversion. What I find interesting about women’s participation in minstrelsy come the late 19th century is not that it changed the purpose of minstrelsy, and certainly not that it was any less offensive. However, it does bring into question the intersection of race and gender in America.

Maty Barnard Horne [1845-1931] was one of the first female authors of minstrelsy scripts. She wrote various musicals, school productions, adapted others’ performances for the stage and of course, minstrel shows. Interestingly, she dealt with the social and political status of women during this time in America where voting rights for black men and white women were similar.

Here is one of her first shows, entitled Plantation Bitters. The text is highly racist yet also is one of the first shows in which women were cast on stage. This does not lend any credence to the tradition of minstrel shows, but rather shows a greater trend of white women weaponizing their status to further black oppression.

We see the same trend today, as some of you might remember the woman in central park, NYC during 2020 that tried to call the police on a black man for telling her to leash her dog. It has been a trend throughout history that I do not think the presence of women in minstrelsy does anything to combat.

More on Henry Krehbiel

When reading selections from Henry Krehbiel’s 1914 publication of Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, Music 345 was perplexed to compare his eagerness to embrace African American folksongs as American creations attributed to Black people in America to the writings of George Pullen Jackson in White and Negro Spirituals (1943). There was a general consensus among us that as history progresses, so do our politics. So I want to know: what was Krehbiel inspired by, and what can his background tell us about his research and publications?

I do not seek to answer this question in full with a blog post, however I do think it is worthwhile to consider where his inspirations came from. Henry Krehbiel was a first generation American growing up in a German speaking family. He started working for the New York Tribune around 1880 and soon rose to the title ‘music editor’ which gave rise to his writings on American music. His 1914 publication cited above is said to be inspired by his attendance of the World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. The World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was quite frankly a great show of American exceptionalism meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus in 1492 featuring over 200 buildings boasting neoclassical architecture as well as artists and musicians, including African American music from the Dahomean village.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.20019/.

The very music Krehbiel heard from the Dahomean village at the World Columbian Exchange inspired the musical, In Dahomey, a piano-vocal score written by Will Marion Cook and vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. According to some sources, this was the first publication of its type and was performed over 1100 times in the United States and England from 1902-1905.

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010193/.

The history behind the Dahomey village as it existed in America has somewhat of a different origin story. The kingdom of Dahomey was a West African kingdom located in present day Benin that was colonized by the French, so many of the artifacts on display at the World Columbian Exchange were actually collected by the French Colonial Office during the scramble for Africa between 1880 and 1885. Knowing that the Dahomey village in America was the product of colonialism and that Krehbiel was probably enthralled in an exotic fascination of their music greatly informs how we think about his research. This being said, Krehbiel’s colonial bias does not detract from the impact of  Dahomean music on American music as a genre. We must instead lend some more credence to the instrumental role African Americans played in creating the genre of American music.

Krehbiel’s interest in the music of the Dahomean village is somewhat analagous to Dvorak’s fascination with folksongs that inspired the New World Symphony which was also written in 1893. This work supposedly also contributed to his own research in gathering music from Americans and immigrants to study and write about. Knowing that Krehbiel, though not an anti-racist by any means collected his own research and information perhaps lends more credence to his work than Jackson who relies strictly on conjecture and other researchers.

Sources

Latimer, .Dwaune”The People & Products of Colonization” Expedition Magazine 57.1 (2015): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 2015 Web. 06 Oct 2021 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=22585>

Abstract: “The Music and Scripts of In Dahomey.” American Music  Publisher: A-R Editions, American Musicological Society. https://www.areditions.com/publications/musa/the-music-and-scripts-of-in-dahomey-mu05-a025.html

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010193/.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.20019/.

Krehbiel, H. E. (1962). Afro-American folksongs : a study in racial and national music. F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship : Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, with 116 Songs as Sung by Both Races. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1943.

Leadbelly, Lomax and Leftism

On the first day of musicology the class had a candid, inquisitive discussion about the origins of American music. We gracefully came to the conclusion that what we consider American music likely did not start with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s, and that it is more plausible that American musicking had been going on for hundreds of years before then, as Rhiannon Giddens suggests. We concluded by emphasizing the subjectivity of what American music is, and how identity and power often manipulate our definitions.

In researching early American music for this blog post, I noticed that much of the research I turned up quoted a father and son by the names of John and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax is quoted as a credible historian and ethnomusicologist of the time who travelled across the US and Haiti documenting and recording local musics. One especially enthusiastic source exclaims that few sources deserve greater praise than him for “the preservation of America’s folk music.” It is astounding that he recorded over 5,000 hours of song recordings from people across the world during his travels which is mostly all accessible through online databases.

I rested on one particularly interesting set of recordings which features a singer by the stage name of Leadbelly. The story goes that Lomax discovered Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) and his music when visiting the prisons in Louisiana where he was imprisoned for murder. When he got out, the Lomaxes took him on tours around the United States where he performed and gained popularity to the point where many of his songs are today considered folk classics.

At this time in America during the depression of the 1930s the Lomaxes were in search of a cohesive identity for Americans to find in music. The fact that they looked to cotton plantations, ranches, and segregated prison music was purposeful and undeniably has altered the documentation of American music. However they also altered the music in which Leadbelly was able to perform. Listen to a Leadbelly original, Mr Tom Hughes Town as it was originally recorded in 1934:

https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_track%7C286842

and now listen to this recording which was for the American Record Company:

https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C1141785

For our purposes, I think it is most important to understand simply that these recordings are much different in their storyline and musical style. The Lomaxes often changed his music or told him to learn new music in order to appeal to audiences, specifically Whiter audiences. The second recording is thought to appeal more to Northern, whiter audiences as it is less “sharp-sounding.” In order to gain popularity, they would even have him dress in his prison clothes and purposefully include his backstory in shows to get people interested.

This is a stark contrast to the movie made about him some 40 years later in the 1970s in which he ends up in prison for playing music in a segregated country club. (see photo attached) leadbelly

I think the alteration of Leadbelly’s music illustrates importantly how progressivism may act as a convenient disguise for perpetuating the inequalities that such an ideology seeks to overcome.

Sources

Lomax, Alan, 1915-2002, by Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide. (2001). In All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music (p. 1). San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books. Retrieved from Music Online: African American Music Reference database. 

Field Recordings Vol. 5: Louisiana, Texas, Bahamas (1933-1940) [Streaming Audio]. (1998). Document Records. (1998). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 

FERRIS, W. R. (2007). Alan Lomax: The Long Journey. Southern Cultures, 13(3), 132–143. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26391070
Filene, B. (1991). “Our Singing Country”: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past. American Quarterly, 43(4), 602–624. https://doi.org/10.2307/2713083
Leadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-1949 – Disc B [Streaming Audio]. (2006). JSP Records. (2006). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 
Monaco, J. (1977). Gordon Parks’ LEADBELLY. Cinéaste, 8(2), 40–40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41685809