The Power of Images – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

While this well known adage has probably originated in comparatively recent times, the sentiment has existed for centuries. It certainly seems to have been the guiding business strategy of Frank Leslie, founder of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, whose success was largely due to the novelty and appeal of illustrations in news reporting. The paper, founded by Leslie in 1855 and printed for another 42 years after his death in 1880, was extremely popular in its day and now regarded as an important source of primary source evidence. In this blog post, I will focus on the extent to which this newspaper is a reliable way to learn about the musical activities of enslaved peoples before the Civil War, using one particular image printed Leslie’s 1857 newspaper as a case study.

The image in question is titled “Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” and can be seen below.

The illustration provides a wealth of detail about what holiday celebration might have looked like on a Southern plantation — central to the image is two black dancers and to the right a group of black musicians, one playing the fiddle and one playing the banjo (or similar instrument). The presence of white onlookers (presumably owners), shows that the celebration was not free of supervision.

The illustration provides strong evidence that enslaved people had and used musical instruments during their time off at celebrations, The musicality of enslaved people can be corroborated with other evidence, for example from colonial newspapers and runaway slave listings, which often make mention of enslaved people’s musical abilities on the violin, french horn, and other instruments (Southern). The setting of the musicians in this illustration also gives some evidence of the type of music being performed (most likely dance music). To this extent, the illustration is helpful in knowing some basic information about the musical activities on Southern plantations.

An excerpt from Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans, demonstrates the musical abilities of runaway slaves.

The illustration, however, also has some glaring omissions and hidden biases. One glaring omission is the location that the illustration claims to depict. The only indication provided is that it is on a Southern plantation, an indication that is very vague and generalized, making it easy to assume that that the celebrations of enslaved people were the same throughout the South — a fact that is, in all probability, false. This generalization shows a lack of respect for the musicians and also shows that this image is catered to the white imagination of his audience. Additionally, if a researcher was interested in more specific regional variation of musical practices, the illustration would be of no help at all. Of course, the newspaper’s aim wasn’t to respect the traditions of enslaved peoples or aid future researchers. The aim was to make money.

Keeping this purpose in mind is especially relevant for this particular publication. From 1855 to 1857, Leslie struggled to keep the newspaper in operation (Pearson). Publications from this time needed to sell. The paper was published in New York, so the audience was probably largely white Northerners, and the image likely caters to this subgroup, attempting to satisfy their curiosity about what life on Southern plantations was like. This could very well affect the way the scene is depicted.

Consequently, the illustrations in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are useful primary sources, but only if taken in context. The white audience and need to sell are key biases that must be recognized when working with this type of material, and while perhaps each picture is worth a thousand words, another thousand words may be necessary to analyze reliability of the source.



Pearson, Andrea G. “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly: Innovation and imitation in nineteenth-century American pictorial reporting.” The Journal of Popular Culture 23.4 (1990): 81-111.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Third Edition. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1997.

“Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. V, no. 108, p. 64. New York, 1857. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

But it Was Only a Dream: the White Myth of “Southern” Music

Sunny Side Boys, two youngsters, one of whom is on his back playing the fiddle, with an older man playing guitar. Bascom Lamar Lunsford is probably the man to the right of the picture holding a microphone above the fiddler. 1

This picture attempts to capture part of a tradition of country music that sums up the myth of the exclusively white origins of said genre. There is an exclusively white (male) band and given that one member can be seen playing on the floor; one that is good at what they do. Such a conception, as we have discussed in our class, seems to be largely due to the efforts of those folk song collectors and the record companies who wanted to commercialize the genre. In so doing, those scholars and companies attempted to eliminate the role of African Americans and their contributions to that style of music. So, one could say, it is not that others cannot recognize the contributions of African Americans towards the culture, it is the fact that record companies would make things “more white” to make more money that was the foundation for this erasure. This process was explicitly outlined in the writings of Erich Nunn we did for class. 2
BITHCERSHowever, what I found out while doing my research for this post is that the roots of this musical tradition can be traced back to the the US Civil War and the songs of the Confederate South. The two themes are prominent within it: a denial of black experience in the American South and this rural lifestyle as an idyllic lifestyle that is lost anywhere else.

War Songs of the South Edited by “Bohemian” 3










This song is only one example of many in a book of war songs but each follows this theme of a lost ideal society that was being faced with tyranny from the North. This song explicitly mentions slavery but alongside the beautiful natural conception of the South, ignoring the lives of a majority of people in that society! That idealization of the South implicitly glosses over major problems in that society.

If we understand the war songs of the Confederate South as such, It makes sense that they were the foundation for a future of denying African Americans a role in the creation of country music. The song above is one example of a history of erasing black contributions to the society they find themselves in.

Such an understanding of the pre-war South set the stage for the future conception of a rural lifestyle idealized even today in country music.Songs today in the genre revolve around the same ideas like trucks and tractors and lost love. Although in our time not explicitly negating the experience of African Americans in that rural lifestyle, it is built on a tradition in the genre of idealizing a lifestyle while simultaneously ignoring different lifestyles of many people within it.

1 Lomax, Alan. Sunny Side Boys, two youngsters, one of whom is on his back playing the fiddle, with an older man playing guitar. Bascom Lamar Lunsford is probably the man to the right of the picture holding a microphone above the fiddler. Between 1938 and 1950. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

 Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (2009): 623-49.

. “Lines to the Tyrant”. Page 30-34. In War Songs of the South. Edited by “Bohemian,” Correspondent Richmond Dispatch. Richmond:West & Johnston, 145 Main Street.1862.

3154 Conf. (Rare Book Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)