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  • Blacks and Irish on the Riverine FrontiersThe Roots of American Popular Music
  • Christopher J. Smith (bio)

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Riverine environments became spaces in which behaviors adopted from more racially fluid milieus could meet and spread. A Savannah minstrel, ca. 1905

courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress

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Environments—geographical, demographic, historical, and contextual—have played a key role in American popular music, particularly in the case of minstrelsy, the nineteenth-century black/white synthesis that lies at the root of vaudeville, tap-dance, Tin Pan Alley, and musical comedy. Scholars have identified the role played by shifting antebellum conceptions of class, race, and politics in the creation of blackface minstrelsy, and the way the idiom ritualized or contested these conceptions, but, with a few brief exceptions, they have neglected the physical environments—the contested public spaces—in which the blackface synthesis first occurred. Place—particularly the boundary spaces of maritime and riverine environments on the southern and western frontiers of antebellum North America—was a key element in shaping the Anglo-Irish/African American cultural collaboration that made blackface minstrelsy possible. Received musicological history has depicted blackface as a phenomenon of northern urban environments, but this is to neglect the frontier contexts that both enabled black-white-creole cultural contact and provided inspiration for the first generation of blackface practitioners. As in the urban North (on the wharves of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and the rivers and new canals of the North-east and the "Old Frontier"), so on the landings and in the markets of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and harbor towns like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans: slaves, free blacks, and poor whites came together in a mutable, fluid, working-class environment in which tunes and dances, gestural and verbal languages could be—and were—borrowed, stolen, and combined.1

Blackface minstrelsy, as pioneered in the 1830s and codified in the early 1840s, represents the earliest comparatively accurate description and imitation—specifically by Anglo-Irish observers—of African American performance. These early blackface minstrel performers were involved in what would later be called participant-observation ethnomusicology: they went out to the wharves, docks, canals, and frontier towns; they watched, learned from, and imitated black players; and they brought those observations back for an urban working-class audience. While imitations of Africans had been a staple of Anglo-American popular theater since the mid-eighteenth century, these early caricatures seem to have been based verbally and visually upon loose evocations of those colonial Africans—from Jamaica, Barbados, and Haiti—most familiar to British audiences. Changes in early nineteenth-century characterizations reveal a shift of sources: it is evident that, by the time New Yorker Micah Hawkins performed "Backside Albany" in the 1815 production of The Siege of Plattsburgh (set in upstate New York), the African American sources being imitated had shifted to North America. Dialect, names, costume, and body language all reflected a new, black-white-creole mixture emerging in North American urban and frontier contexts.2

The rightful condemnation of blackface's racist caricature sometimes has neglected [End Page 76] the enormous innovative impact of the black-white musical exchange which minstrelsy stylized upon the stage:

One of the realities of American life is that certain features of African American performance style will remain strange and alluring to those outside the culture. Not least among such features is the making of hard social commentary on recurring problems of life, often through cutting and breaking techniques—contentious interactions continually calling for a change of direction, with alterations expressed in rhythmic, tonal, textural, and other kinds of figures … The motives of the Southern white dancers who engaged in the black jig at the end of their formal dances are not that removed from those of the white bluesman, rapper, or break dancer.3

There is good evidence that some of the most crucial informants for early blackface practitioners, like Daniel Decatur Emmett, George Washington Dixon, Thomas Dartmouth ("Daddy") Rice, and Joel Walker Sweeney, were themselves culture-crossing individuals. It is no coincidence that all of the early exemplars of the blackface minstrelsy synthesis—that first two generations...


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