Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Delanceyplace.com 07/10/07-Minstrels

In today's excerpt--the difficult, degrading legacy of minstrel:

" 'Minstrel,' that formulaic form of blackface jollity was, in fact, white America's foremost stage amusement from its inception in the 1830s till well after the Civil War. Overtaken by other ethnic forms of variety, such as Harrigan and Hart's Irish whimsies, and the industrialized vaudeville of the 1890s, it lingered on in the shape of large blackface troupes such as ... McIntyre and Heath, which provided W.C. Fields with his first non-juggling part in 1905. (Radio's Amos 'n' Andy ... took the genre into the 1930s and beyond.) The vagaries of 'political correctness' and severe cultural discomfort among show business historians have meant that this half-century of American cultural life has been firmly swept under the carpet until recent years, when a number of scholarly writers have sought to re-examine the residue. ...

"Most modern audiences would be strongly repelled, I have no doubt, by the grotesque physical appearance of nineteenth-century Minstrel: white performers, blacked up, with great exaggerated lips, dressed either in the ragged rube costume of the iconic 'Jim Crow' or the dandified 'Zip Coon,' delivering 'nigger' songs and comic monologues in a set pidgin-English mode, such as in this typical preacher's parody:

'Belobed black broden, me tend to dress my scorce to you dis nite on de all imported subject of language, an de various tongues ob difern nations and niggars, libbin and dead, known and unknown, an in so doing me shant stan shilly shally bour preface to do subject, but run bang at him at once like mad bull at 'dam haystack ...'

"In historical terms, it was a white clown and comic-song writer named George Nichols who reputedly first wrote down the antics of 'an old darky in New Orleans' nicknamed 'Old Corn Meal,' and it was another white performer, Thomas ('Old Daddy') Rice, who first danced the step known as 'Jim Crow' back in 1830. The first minstrel troupes were considered to be Dan Emmett's quartet of Virginia Serenaders and Edwin Christy's Original Christy Minstrels in 1841. There were soon dozens, and later hundreds of minstrel troupes performing all over the U.S., and the Virginia Serenaders toured Europe and Serenaded Queen Victoria in Windsor Castle, spreading the craze far and wide. Dan Emmett composed many of Minstrel's distinctive songs, such as 'De Boatman's Dance,' 'Dandy Jim from Caroline,' 'Root Hog or Die,' 'Turkey in de Straw' and many more, including what became, somewhat to his chagrin, the South's anthem, 'Dixie,' which Emmett wrote as a slave's dream of a mythical land of freedom: 'Den hoe it down an scratch yoa grabble / To Dixie Lann I'm bound to trabble / Whar de rake an hoe got double trigger / An white man jiss as good as niggar!' "

Simon Louvish, Mae West, St. Martin's Press, 2005, pp. 19-21.


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