Friday, February 7, 2014

Thoughts on Minstrel Songs

Perhaps I should have included some commentary when I started posting minstrel song lyrics. I have not made these recent posts in order to provide any glorification to this popular nineteenth century form of entertainment. These songs perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans that were unfair and derogatory. The depictions of blacks on many of the songs' sheet music covers and the nonsensical lyrics put incorrect images of African Americans into white Americans' minds.  However, these songs - I believe - can help us form a better understanding of race relations during the era when they became so cherished.

Many of the minstrel songs were composed by men who had little actual interaction with blacks or had not spent much time in the South. Stephen Foster was from Pennsylvania, Dan Emmett was from Ohio - and although he was in a minstrel group called the Virginia Minstrels and is often credited with writing "Dixie"- Emmett like Foster was a man of his time and of limited knowledge of African Americans. George Christy, likewise, was from New York.

Some African Americans saw minstrels differently though. Frederick Douglass printed some thoughts in his newspaper the North Star in 1848 after seeing a performance by the anti-slavery group of singers The Hutchinson Family. Douglass praised the Hutchinsons' performance and contrasted it to black-face minstrel shows, which he saw as despicable depictions of African Americans:

"The circumstances attending the visit paid last week to our youthful and beautiful city, by these mountain songsters [The Hutchinsons], makes it deserving of special notice. The pro-slavery and narrow-souled demon had preceded them.—Old Hunkerism [Democrats], filled with pride and selfishness, dreaded the presence of these high-souled mountaineers in Rochester. It had no taste for their soul-enlarging and heart-melting melody. To defeat what it could not enjoy, was its first object. The Hutchinsons were described as poor performers; their popularity was said to be on the wane; abolitionism had ruined them. Other modes were meanly adopted to disparage them in the estimation of the people of Rochester. In this mean work of detraction, we scarcely need say that the miserable dough-face who edits the Cass paper [Democrat newspaper] in this city, and through whom our daughter was basely excluded from "Seward Seminary," on account of her complexion, very appropriately took the lead. This self-elected umpire of taste in the city of Rochester, claims as much skill in matters relating to the harmony of sounds, as he assumes with respect to the harmony of colors. We warn the good people of Rochester against attending either seminaries or concerts, on pain of being expelled from respectable and refined society, should they venture to do so before obtaining the opinion of this "most learned judge" whose word is sufficient to set at defiance and veto the wishes of a whole seminary of young ladies and misses. We believe he does not object to the "Virginia Minstrels," "Christy's Minstrels," the "Ethiopian Serenaders," or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens. Those performers are undoubtedly in harmony with his refined and elegant taste! Then those beautiful and highly sentimental songs which they sing, such as "Ole Zip Coon," "Jim Crow," "Ole Dan Tucker," "Jim along Josey," and a few other of such specimens of American musical genius, must spread over his spirit a charm, and awaken in his bosom a rapture only equalled by that celestial transport which thrills his noble heart on witnessing a TREMENDOUS SQUASH!"    

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