- Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925 by Brian Roberts
In 1844, the Hutchinson Family Singers performed for the first time “Get Off the Track.” Penned by the family’s lead lyricist, Jesse Hutchinson, the song linked the era’s primary symbol of progress to the abolitionist cause. “Roll it along! through the nation,/Freedom’s car, [End Page 385] Emancipation,” the family sang with increasing intensity. Unsurprisingly the song resonated with an antislavery audience; even William Lloyd Garrison reputedly danced in the aisle to its rhythmic beat. More curious, however, is the inspiration for the song’s melody. Hutchinson drew, or rather stole, his tune from a blackface song—Dan Emmett’s catchy “Old Dan Tucker.” How a blackface song could become the most recognized abolitionist anthem of its day is a driving question of Brian Roberts’s Blackface Nation. Indeed Roberts’s study challenges the oft-repeated assumption that antebellum reform movements were in conflict with American popular culture. Rather, early music culture in the United States reveals a quite different narrative, Roberts asserts. In his reading, popular musical genres, from the sea chantey to the alehouse glee, emerge as “revelatory” media, offering insights into issues of ethnic identity, class, and gender (7).
Blackface Nation mostly elucidates the impact of popular American musical practice on emergent middle-class values. The first two chapters set the stage, so to speak, for what Roberts defines as popular song’s subversive function in everyday life. The War of 1812 inspired political ballads espousing nationalistic ideals of liberty and freedom like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “A New Patriotic Song.” Equally common, however, were ballads supporting a culture of vulgarity that Roberts traces to the carnival tradition. “In this variant of patriotism,” Roberts notes, “love of country was twinned with love of self, provided one’s self was common enough, vulgar enough, and even disgusting enough to represent an ideal of absolute democracy” (70). In Chapters 3 through 8 Roberts complicates this tension further, turning to the influence of blackface minstrelsy on northern ideals.
Chapters 3 and 4 in particular examine how blackface minstrelsy gave voice to working-class anxieties even as it failed in its designation as “authentic” black song. The communitarian moment of the 1830s through the 1850s eventually shifted commercial popular culture’s attention to the middle class, however. As the subsequent chapters reveal, performers like the Hutchinson Family Singers and minstrel composers like Stephen Foster found success with parlor ballads that undercut the nation’s “bad habits” of bigotry and prejudice (15). This at-times competing musical culture ultimately reshaped how white and black Americans both understood and, in some cases, subverted their respective places in society. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, for instance, often ended their performances with “Old Folks at Home.” Even though this nod to [End Page 386] southern nostalgia strengthened a “minstrel perception of black people” (271), as Roberts observes in Chapter 9, their program also established a successful “model of black institution-building within a context of white supremacy” (270).
Much of Blackface Nation’s argument sounds familiar. Historians need look no further than William Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask or Jon Cruz’s Culture on the Margins to find similar studies of black music’s “discovery” by white elites.1 Eric Lott’s seminal Love and Theft likewise details the pairing of blackface minstrelsy to working-class identities.2 So too do works like Scott Gac’s Singing for Freedom, Nicholas Tawa’s High-Minded and Low-Down, and Daniel Cavicchi’s newer Listening and Longing reveal the impact of popular musical culture on middle-class reform.3 Although Roberts partially acknowledges this debt, his book occasionally follows too closely these earlier histories. Still, Black-face Nation does nicely succeed in unfolding a narrative that challenges the often all-too-tidy distinction between highbrow and lowbrow musical culture, bringing together a variety of musical genres and styles not commonly studied together.
“To a large extent...