by carl wilson

Famous & Dandy Like Amos & Andy


Today's Internet Scout Report includes a pointer to a repository of World War I sheet music that led me to an even more exciting resource for all those researchers who - as we saw at EMP last week - are working on minstrel and other early musical representations of (quasi)-black music: Brown University's online collection of African-American sheet music 1820-1920. The image above is the cover of the booklet for 1901's Don't You Never Take No Ten Cent Drink on Me by John Queen & Hughie Cannon (New York: Howley, Haviland & Dresser). The back page is an ad headlined, "Are You Tired of Coon Songs?" There seem to be hundreds more where it came from.

After my EMP reports, a couple of people asked why there suddenly is so much work on minstrelsy now. It's difficult to offer any single explanation. Sean offers a good general outline of the territory: "mostly because American musical culture has always been a culture of collision and fusion between black and white. Blackface is one of the hard bits of evidence of that. So's the banjo. So's jazz. So's all of it. It's never been the fashion to write about it. In fact it's anti-fashion, anti-trend, and some of it's very ugly. It's just a truth that's always been hard to talk about." But that doesn't quite answer the "why now" question. First, it's important to realize that by "now" we actually mean since the early 1990s, and especially since the publication of Eric Lott's Love and Theft, the groundbreaking work in the field.

Lott would the guy to ask, but I would hazard that for some scholars it's a roundabout response to the identity politics of the 1980s: It reached a point in all the debates over "appropriation of voice" and so on that the underlying implication was that people from different racial/cultural backgrounds (among other points of difference) could not speak to or with regard to one another without being accused of grave sins. This de facto segregation was incredibly intellectually and politically frustrating, especially at a point where the prevailing theoretical currents (Derrida, etc.) made it clear how eloquently and loudly difference itself speaks, and how meaning arises more from the friction than from any unitary position.

Meanwhile, in cultural history, there was an ongoing revision of the kind of myth of progress in pop history that "rockist" assumptions had drawn, as the cycle of appropriation and assimilation of black styles by white pop culture, the violence of that process and the complexity of its outcomes, was traced further and further back. Rock romanticism was being undone by that analysis, and minstrelsy just began to look like the founding moment of the whole thing, I suspect. (I also suspect that future scholarship will start looking at the roots of the roots, the pre-history of minstrelsy, as the beat goes on.) And it's also probably important that minstrelsy as an official institution was now almost a century in the past, so it's a much less touchy subject, perhaps, than it might have been a few decades earlier, when living people might have felt more overwhelmed by the spectre of blackface. (Although it's amazing how much it persisted in the most raw form in a lot of local American regional cultures - white high schools doing minstrel shows as recently as a couple of decades back, and so on.)

Also, since minstrel shows (and medicine shows and revival tents and the like) are at once a founding moment in American pop culture and tantalizingly close to the start of music-recording history, the more people looked the more they found its influence in every form - a skeleton in the closet of every genre, explaining a lot of the connections between blues and country and ragtime and pop that many people were keen to understand. And of course exciting work breeds exciting work, so people followed up on what was being done.

Finally I wonder if it has to do with the rise of hip-hop, as well - a wild strain of American culture that stood to one side of the blues-soul tradition, provoking investigations of its sources in further-back vernacular culture. Hip-hop also became a nexus for all the usual hard questions about the relationship between black culture, white culture (if you think there is such a thing) and commercial culture, and the minstrel show is pretty much the most stark and unassimilable image of that tension there is. The fact that all this work began before there was a character such as Eminem or the "wiggas" (an ugly term that's vanished now that it's gone from subculture to mass culture) - and even before the arguably self-caricaturing "blacked-up," hypermasculinized figures of gangsta rap and after - shows how closely wired to the zeitgeist the minstrel scholarship is. A look at Spike Lee's Bamboozled, a fraught but fascinating film, certainly helps demonstrate why blackfaced minstrels might be on our collective minds right now. And a lot of the Pop Conference papers demonstrated that minstrelsy, if not pictured in a monolithic way, also offers a model for the perversities of cultural encounter in loads and loads of other cases. As Lott says, "It's usually tricky to specify where minstrelsy or obvious cultural appropriation stops and something different and fresh begins."

In fact, I started my own EMP paper like this: "Every cultural moment invents its own ancestors, calls dusty figures out of the wings of history to model the latest in anxieties and desires. In the past decade in music discourse, blackface minstrel-show stars such as Emmett Miller and Bert Williams have suddenly become our contemporaries, crooning I Ain’t Got Nobody, cracking chicken-coop jokes and telling a tale of American longings for other selves, of pop’s original sins, of changeling babies and cuckoo’s nests."

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, April 22 at 12:57 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



It's fun to try and 'identify' a cultural beginning, but most of the time it's the connections that one wouldn't have otherwise drawn from the process that's the most valuable product.

(Today I learned something new about pop music studies. Thanks!)

Posted by Margaret on April 23, 2005 09:20 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson