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Singing the Dream: American Sheet Music at the British Library: Part 3

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

Race, Slavery and Abolition

During the 1840s and 1850s, American audiences were introduced to a new form of popular entertainment - the blackface minstrel show, arguably the first distinct American musical theatre.

In the previous few decades, several blackface performers had won widespread acclaim, most notably Thomas D. Rice, whose "Jim Crow" shows were hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic. However, a performance by the Virginia Minstrels at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York in 1843 is now generally accepted as the original minstrel show, and its format - in which the performers sat in a semi-circle playing songs and trading wisecracks - was quickly imitated by other troupes.

Although the rapid rise of the minstrel show coincided with the growth of the antislavery movement, the portrayal of African Americans by these troupes was largely negative. In their depiction of slave-life, the shows often featured the 'happy slave' who was always ready to sing and dance to please his master. Ex-slaves were frequently portrayed as homesick for their old plantations, while the free black male of the North was depicted as a ridiculous dandy, trying but failing to fit into white society. On both the playbills and the sheet music, the black characters were frequently depicted grotesquely, with bulging eyes, enormous lips and foolish expressions.

Many minstrel songs were given new lyrics by anti-slavery campaigners, however, and songs by Stephen Foster - for example, "O Susanna", "Camptown Races" and "Uncle Ned" - were frequently used for this purpose.

Following the Civil War, minstrel shows gradually declined in popularity as audiences sought out the new musical comedies, variety shows and vaudeville acts being promoted by managers such as P.T. Barnum. Yet the racial stereotypes depicted in minstrel shows continued to permeate the entertainment industry well into the twentieth century, and minstrelsy's influence upon American music continues to this day.

De-Boatmen's Dance

De-Boatmen\'s Dance 11kb
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De-Boatmen's Dance. New York: William Hall & Son, 1847. H.1652.ss.10
Copyright © The British Library

One of the earliest and most successful minstrels troupes were the Ethiopian Serenaders who, in 1844, performed at the White House for the family and friends of President John Tyler. Their show was so well-received that the troupe decided to permanently "upgrade" the tone of their performance as a means of distinguishing themselves from other, more raucous, troupes such as the Virginia Minstrels. In 1846 they travelled to London where their concerts at St James's Theatre were so successful that they gave morning as well as evening performances. They were also invited to give private performances at the mansions of the British aristocracy, and they were finally called to Arundel Castle by special command of Queen Victoria.

 

Oh! White Folks I Will Sing to You: The Gal with the Blue Dress On

Oh! White Folks I Will Sing to You: The Gal with the Blue Dress On (13kb)
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Oh! White Folks I Will Sing to You: The Gal with the Blue Dress On. New York: C. Holt, [1848]. H.1652.ss.(4)
Copyright © The British Library

Christy's Minstrels were formed in Buffalo, New York in 1843, by Edwin Pearce Christy who had almost certainly heard of the recent success of the Virginia Minstrels in New York City. Christy's group was instrumental in the solidification of the minstrel show into a fixed three-act show. In addition to Christy himself, the group's original line-up included Christy's stepson, George Christy, who is often regarded as the greatest blackface comic of all time. In this cover, a portrait of George is included at the top of the page. The group were so successful that for seven years they were a permanent fixture at New York's Mechanics' Hall on lower Broadway.

 

Old Folks at Home. Ethiopian Melody

Old Folks at Home. Ethiopian Melody (9kb)
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Old Folks at Home. Ethiopian Melody. Written and Old Folks at Home. Ethiopian Melody. Written and Composed by E.P. Christy [or rather by Stephen Foster]. New York: Firth, Pond & Co., 1851. H.1652.ss.(39)
Copyright © The British Library

This song, popularly known as "Swanee River", was written by Stephen Foster "the father of American music". Foster signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels around 1849 and was determined to make blackface music respectable as well as profitable. This song successfully fused blackface with the nostalgic sentiments so common in contemporary parlour music, and became as popular in middle-class homes as in minstrel shows. Unfortunately for Foster, however, he sold the right to be credited as the author to E.P. Christy for $15 and it is for this reason that Christy appears as song's author in its earliest editions.

 

Lyrics from Uncle Tom's Cabin etc

Lyrics from Uncle Tom\'s Cabin etc (20kb)
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Lacy, F.E. Lyrics from Uncle Tom's Cabin etc. London: Leoni, Lee & Coxhead, 1852. h.1366.(1)
Copyright © The British Library

First published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe sold 300,000 copies in that year alone, and became the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century. Determined to cash in on its success, minstrel troupes in both the United States and Great Britain immediately incorporated elements of the novel into their routines. However, although Uncle Tom's Cabin condemned slavery, it did not clearly state the case for racial equality. Reflecting this ambiguity, some minstrel shows portrayed the slaves sympathetically, while others veered so widely from Stowe's intent as to be positively proslavery.

 

Poor Charlie, or the Old Slave Who Ran Away
& Was Carried Back to his Master

Poor Charlie, or the Old Slave Who Ran Away and Was Carried Back to his Master - cover (11kb)
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Dell, Daisy. Poor Charlie, or the Old Slave Who Ran Away & Was Carried Back to his Master. G.P. Reed & Co., 1855. (H.1780.n.41)
Copyright © The British Library

Following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the number of ballads lamenting the condition of slaves rapidly increased. This one is typical in its description of the loneliness felt by a slave whose friends have either been sold or have escaped without being caught.

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10


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