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The Creolization of American Culture

William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy

Christopher J. Smith

Publication Year: 2013

This study examines the artworks, letters, sketchbooks, music collection, and biography of the painter William Sidney Mount (1807–1868) as a lens through which to see the multiethnic antebellum world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy. Christopher J. Smith uses Mount's depictions of black and white vernacular fiddlers, banjo players, and dancers to open up fresh perspectives on cross-ethnic cultural transference in Northern and urban contexts, showing how rivers, waterfronts, and other sites of interracial interaction shaped musical practices by transporting musical culture from the South to the North and back. The "Africanization" of Anglo-Celtic tunes created minstrelsy's musical "creole synthesis," a body of melodic and rhythmic vocabularies, repertoires, tunes, and musical techniques that became the foundation of American popular music.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

The creolization in the title of this book connotes a process of cultural exchange identifiable in many aspects of antebellum life. In the early-nineteenth-century United States, this exchange was particularly rich and particularly visible in the expressive arts; most specifically, in the sounding and bodily performance genres of participatory Anglo-African music-and-dance. ...

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pp. xv-xviii

The origins of this research arise from a combination of intuition and conversation: my intuition, as an American musician and long-time practitioner of both Anglo-Celtic and African American vernacular styles, that these immigrant musical traditions might share complex and tightly intertwined social histories. ...

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1. Recovering the Creole Synthesis: The Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy

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pp. 1-27

This book uses the artworks, letters, sketchbooks, music collection, ephemera, and biography of the vernacular painter William Sidney Mount (1807–1868), and similar materials from some of his predecessors and contemporaries, as a lens through which to see the multiethnic antebellum world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy, ...

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2. The Creole Synthesis in the New World: Cultures in Contact

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pp. 28-78

This chapter argues that the musical, cultural, and sociological resources for blackface’s creole synthesis were in place long before the founding of the Virginia Minstrels in 1843, the event conventionally identified as the watershed “beginnings” of the minstrel show. ...

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3. Long Island and the Lower East Side: Mount’s Background, Youth, and Apprenticeships

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pp. 79-121

This chapter narrows our focus from the western Atlantic and Caribbean to examine the creolizing maritime cultures of two islands— Long Island and Manhattan—that directly shaped William Sidney Mount’s personal and musical world. It explores the ways in which influences from those islands play out in the life of Mount himself, ...

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4. Minstrelsy's Material Culture: The Evidence of Mount’s Portraiture [Illustrations follow page 124]

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pp. 122-147

This chapter concentrates on insights provided by examination of the paintings from Mount’s maturity into the material culture of instrumental dance music in the “creole synthesis.” Principal evidence is drawn from four portraits of dance musicians that he painted in 1849 (Just in Tune), 1850 (Right and Left) ...

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5. Melody's Polyrhythmic Polysemic Possibilities

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pp. 148-172

Of any musical parameter—texture, instrumentation, tempo, timbre, and other—rhythm is the most essential component to understanding dance music, in any cultural tradition, in any sacred or secular context. More than any other parameter, what defines dance, or a dance, or a dance melody, or a dance performance, is rhythm— ...

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6. Akimbo Culture: Dance and the Participatory Pleasures of the Body

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pp. 173-209

This chapter explores the musical information that can be derived from visual depictions of blackface dance (particularly those by Mount himself), and works backward from that evidence to further reconstruct performance practice and the impact of performance practice on minstrelsy’s sound and experience. ...

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Conclusion: The Creole Synthesis in American Culture

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pp. 210-216

The goal of this book has been to use primary sources—demographics, tune repertoires, archival materials, and most especially iconography—as tools to construct a portrait of the multiethnic nineteenth-century world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy; to recover the sounds of that world; ...

Appendix: Blackface Scholarship

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pp. 217-234


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pp. 235-298


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pp. 299-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780252095047
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037764

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Music in American Life