Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kentucky in Minstrelsy

I have been developing a real interest in antebellum minstrelsy lately and one observation that I have made is that Kentucky comes in for its fair share of mention in these songs. Not that that is rare, as almost all Southern states make an appearance in these tunes, but the Bluegrass State seems to have had a special appeal to the composers. Historian William J. Mahar, in Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, explains that Virginia far out paced the other slave states mentioned in minstrel songs, but was followed by Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Sometimes the Bluegrass State appears in titles such as the above pictured "Julius From Kentucky," or Stephen Foster's famous "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night." But, in many more Kentucky is mentioned in the lyrics.

In "Ring, Ring the Banjo," Foster again references Kentucky, but this time instead of reminiscing of Kentucky, one gets the impression that the slave did not have such a good experience:
"Once I was so lucky, my massa set me free,
I went to old Kentucky to see what I could see;
I could not go no farder , I turn to massa's door,
I lub hum all de harder, I'll go away no more."

In "Darling Nelly Gray," written by Benjamin R. Hanby, in 1856, Kentucky is again a happy place for the slave who loses his Nelly to slave traders that take her to Georgia to "toil in the cotton and the cane."
"There's a low green valley on the old Kentucky shore,
There I've wiled many happy hours away,
A-sitting and a-singing by the little cottage door,
Where lived my darling Nelly Gray."

In Clare [Clear] de Kitchen,which dates back to minstrelsy of the early 1830s, Kentucky is mentioned as "old," not so much as old chronologically as old in being familiar and favored. Kentucky's mother state, Virginia, is also referenced :
"In old Kentuck in de afternoon,
we sweep de floor with a brand new broom,
an dis de song dat we do sing,
Oh! Clare de kitchen old folks, young folks,
Clare de kitchen old folks, young folks,
Old Virginny never tire."

Christy's Minstrels turned out "Happy Uncle Tom," in 1853, which refuted Harriet Beecher Stowe's interpretation:
"Oh, white folks we'll have you know,
Dis am not de version of Mrs. Stowe,
Wid her all de darks are unlucky,
But we am the boys from old Kentucky,
Den han de banjo down to play,
We'll make it ring both night and day,
And we care not what de white folks say,
Dey can't get us to run away."

It could be that Kentucky is mentioned so often due to its nearness to many of the composers of these songs. Foster was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and spent some time working in Cincinnati, and he had relatives in Kentucky. Minstrelsy, especially early on, seems to have followed the flow of steamboat travel, and Kentucky being prominent on both the Ohio and Mississippi River routes, could be another explanation. Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced much of the antebellum era's popular culture, and with much of the book being set in Kentucky, that probably also had something to do with Kentucky often being mentioned.

If you know of other references to Kentucky in minstrelsy I would be interested to hear about them.

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