The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Hot Takes with Henry Hanchett

I have to commend Henry Granger Hanchett, a musician, doctor, and lecturer, on one thing: his choice of title for this piece, which was published in The Outlook (a New York magazine) in 1896. Posing the question, “What is ‘Good Music’?” in the title of an article implies to me that the author intended to answer that question to some degree of certainty within approximately one page, something most authors would be cautious of. In fact, Hanchett appears to have had few reservations about answering such large musicological questions, having also written during his lifetime a book with the title, “The Art of the Musician. A Guide to the Intelligent Appreciation of Music.”

In this particular article, “What is ‘Good Music’?”, Hanchett explores typical themes such as church music, the purpose of music, personal tastes, the roles of instruments and performers, and so on. However, what I found to be the most telling about Hanchett in this article, as well as the role of race and identity in his musical opinions, were his offhand comments about “Gospel Hymns”. He uses the example of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee [Swanee] River” being performed by a beloved opera singer, Christine Nilsson, to illustrate that even the most inferior compositions can be made into good music through a virtuosic  performance. In the midst of an article otherwise dominated by a casual and exploratory tone, Hanchett shifts to an exasperated condemnation of what he believes to be gospel music. He describes these “Gospel Hymns” as “not really worth the paper upon which [they are] printed,” having “no musical sense or meaning,” and overall, “not good music.”

As I attempted to get a clearer understanding of what Hanchett’s definition of a “Gospel Hymn” was, I searched for recordings of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (also called “Old Folks at Home”). This immediately led me to a video of Al Jolson, a popular minstrel show performer in the 1900s, performing the song in blackface in the movie Swanee River.

Diving deeper into the background and the lyrics of this song, it turns out that “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” is, in fact, a minstrel song written by Stephen C. Foster (and currently the Florida state song??). In addition to being written by a white guy for other white guys in blackface to perform, the song makes no reference to religion or the gospel. I may not know a perfect definition of what a Gospel Hymn is, but I’m pretty sure that this is not it. All available evidence leads me to assume that Hanchett hates this particular song, as well as the musical style, not because it is rooted in the racist practice of minstrelsy but because he actually perceives it to be genuine Black music and he’s just super racist. Although Henry G. Hanchett had his knack for musicological confidence, behind that confidence was the privilege and ignorance that make his opinions irrelevant today.

 

Citations:

Crawford, R. (2005). America’s musical life: A history. W.W. Norton.

Goldstein, H. (2001, January 20). Jolson, Al. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014435?rskey=pQuzQC.

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-good-music/docview/136934140/se-2?accountid=351.

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002283077?rskey=ittjn6.

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://songofamerica.net/song/old-folks-at-home/.

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002252809?rskey=Yle74c&result=1.

Southern, E. (1983). The music of Black America: A history. Norton.

Type Characters and Tap Dance

In doing research about tap dancing in film, I can across a little article titled “Topical Types… in Filmland”, which appeared on page four of The Plaindealer on May 24, 1935.1 Although initially attracted by the mention of the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson, the article’s subheadings kept me hooked:

Title and subheadings from article in The Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 1935.

Not only did it connect to the question of authenticity, which is another theme we’ve heavily discussed in class, but it also connected to another article I had recently read about Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and the persistence of stereotyping roles in Hollywood film.

Jackson, a correspondent for the Associated Negro Press Hollywood begins by remarking about how “Negro film critics and fans” are often deemed too “squeamish” to discuss “what is and what is not an authentic portrayal of the Negro”, specifically in Hollywood film. So, Jackson states that she has decided to conduct a “symposium” with well-known white critics instead. In this article, she recounts her conversation with W. E. Oliver who was the Los Angeles Herald Express’s dramatic editor and screen reviewer.

Throughout the interview, Oliver makes several interesting claims about the silver screen’s portrayal of black people, but the most interesting of Oliver’s insights come in the form of the examples he draws upon. Oliver praises the Nicholas Brothers’ performances with Eddie Cantor in “Kid Millions”. This illustrates his claim that the trend in Hollywood seems to be using black performers as talent rather than “type”. An advertisement for the movie in the New York times in 1934 makes no mention of the brothers, even in its cast list.2 In fact, the Nicholas Brothers really don’t play roles in the plot line, they really only serve as dancers in one scene.

Poster for the film “Kid Millions” mentioning the Nicholas Brothers and depicting them with Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Additionally, especially from a modern standpoint, the content of their performance is very problematic. The scene that the brother appear in is the scene where the characters are putting on a minstrel show for the entertainment of the passengers on a cruise. Opening the scene is Harold, the younger of the brothers, sings “Minstrel Night”, which begins with the phrase “I want to be a minstrel man”. Furthermore, when both brothers dance, it is only with Cantor in blackface, which is interesting and problematic because this is essentially the only time when the brothers interact with any of the main characters on screen.3

But the Nicholas Brothers are praised for their work in the film which “brought them to the fore in that picture”. This was their first screen appearance and their exceptional dancing got them noticed. During the song “Mandy”, they effectively tap circles around Cantor and the other film stars who can’t seem to execute the steps together or in time. Ultimately, the scene seems to demonstrate that while Cantor may be able to appropriate blackness by putting on his face paint, he cannot match “black artistry”.4

The second example that Oliver provides is Bill Robinson’s performance in the “Little Colonel”. This is “one of the latest films featuring a Negro character” and it provides an example of the black “type” characters. Robinson plays a butler in the romanticized post-Civil War south and fulfills the archetypal role as a sort of “other” adult for the young Shirley Temple’s character.5

Although the type-character is bemoaned, Robinson’s performance itself is praised. Jackson writes that “his dancing made up for whatever lacks on may find with his characterization”. Notably, this is the film in which Robinson performs one of his most famous stair dances, effortlessly leaping up and down a flight of stairs while tapping.

Again, while the actual role and subject matter may be troublesome, the actual performance of tap is regarded as a redeeming factor. In this way, the black dancers demonstrate agency even within the confines of their roles. Hollywood may be trying to keep them in their place, but they are tap dancing on the boundary.

1Jackson, Fay M. “Topical Types… in Filmland”. Plaindealer (Kansas City, KS), May 24, 1935.

2 Sennwald, Andre. “‘Kid Millions,’ Mr. Goldwyn’s New Screen Comedy, With Eddie Cantor, at the Rivoli.” New York Times, Nov. 12, 1934.

3 Hill, Constance Valis. Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. New York: University Press, 2000. 86-87.

4 Ibid, pg 90-91.

5 Vered, Karen Orr. “White and Black in Black and White: Management of Race and Sexuality in the Coupling of Child-Star Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson.” The Velvet Light Trap – A Critical Journal of Film and Television (Spring, 1997): 52-65. 

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?