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  • Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925 by Brian Roberts
  • Christopher J. Smith (bio)
Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925. By Brian Roberts. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Pp. 384. $90.00 cloth; $30.00 paper; $30.00 ebook)

Blackface Nation rests upon Brian Roberts's knowledge of nineteenth-century North American popular song idioms and the ways these repertoires reflect class, race, and geography. The book is an effective, topics-based investigation, solidly grounded in the primary [End Page 110] sources, of how social-justice tropes—most notably but by no means exclusively race-based—entered the soundscapes of the newly genteel urban middle class.

Though the title lays claim to a wide investigative range, Roberts's topic is better reflected by the subtitle, "race, reform, and identity," and its primary focus upon the "middle-class moment" of ca. 1833–50 (p. 13). He concentrates on a comparative investigation of the reception of two parallel genres: the early peak of working-class theatrical black minstrelsy, versus the rise of middle-class genteel entertainments, particularly in the performances of the Hutchinson Family Singers.

This juxtaposition provides a useful means for analyzing class tensions between different groups of white Americans: specifically, the frontier, immigrant, and working-class groups empowered by extension of the franchise to a wider range of white males, versus the newly-emergent middle-class, who sought to distinguish themselves through their choice of entertainments no less than their domestic politics. Hence, Blackface Nation is not really a study of blackface minstrelsy itself. Instead, like Eric Lott's seminal Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1995), Roberts' topic is the semiotics of the idiom, its capacity to "focus the anger of an emerging working class," and its contrasting reception by middle-class audiences (p. 101). Roberts's explication of artisan republicanism is excellent and his command of nineteenth-century social history enriches his discussion of specific songs and performers (p. 80).

The book is organized into roughly chronological chapters, which primarily focus upon the working-class origins of blackface minstrels and their audiences, and the emergent middle-class contexts and audiences of the Hutchinson Family Singers—he is especially acute in his analysis of the latter's family mythography. Chapter headings are effective and evocative, referencing as they do both historical moments and relevant social phenomena (e.g., chapter one "Carnival" addresses pre-nineteenth-century Anglo-European print culture as the source of broadsides and other street literature), political epochs (chapter two "The Vulgar Republic" post-1812), and demographics [End Page 111] (chapter three "Jim Crow's Genuine Audience" and chapter six "Love Crimes"). Roberts's strategy of shaping these chapters (particularly chapter four "Black Song" and chapter nine "Black America") through the listening experience of the ex-slave, abolitionist, and essayist Frederick Douglass is engaging and enlightening.

Roberts is most insightful in the central chapters (chapter seven "The Middle-Class Moment" and chapter eight "Culture Wars") in which he weaves together a richly-sourced account of the roots of various Antebellum reform movements, including Quaker communitarians, Shaker celibates, Boston Brahmins, and Concord Transcendentalists (p. 13). His foundation is a sophisticated cultural biography of the Hutchinsons, a Maine-based family act whose career and repertoire provides a soundtrack for analysis of the rise, antebellum apotheosis, and post-War twilight of abolitionist reformism and its "legacy . . . of contradictions" (p. 270).

Scope and range of coverage are a challenge in tracing the history and social impact of North American popular song: where to begin? Upon what genres to focus? Where—most significantly—to cut off the narrative? Roberts handles the first two questions effectively, but his concluding chapter ten, on the aftermath of minstrelsy ("Musical Without End"), faces a challenge. His address to the period 1870– ca. 1925 undertakes some of the most complicated synthesis of the entire text, tracing blackface aesthetics in urban expressive arts, and the way that "Minstrel-based perceptions would structure the way white people would see these more authentic forms of black music" (p. 284). However, the sheer volume and ubiquity of these manifestations requires conflating too many...


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