- Joseph Johnson's Hat, or, The Storm on Tower Hill
Because they take place over time, containing more text and music than is convenient to reproduce in passing, we refer to songs synecdochally: formally by title or first line, informally (or forgetfully) by a melodic phrase or part of a refrain. Because they are usually small things, songs themselves are synecdochal. Any performance of a song has the capacity to enfold a host of times and places within the moments of its own happening. In this article, I will focus on one man's performance of a single song, in order not to contract but to expand our sense of the dimensions a song might contain. My process is, at heart, the unpacking of another synecdoche: the one Georgian writers, later scholars, and many of my own close colleagues have taken to calling "the man with the ship on his head."
This man, Joseph Johnson—a disabled ex-sailor, ballad-singer, and busker of Afro-Caribbean origins—has fascinated many over the past two centuries. First documented by the antiquarian John Thomas Smith in an 1815 print and his 1817 study of London street figures Vagabondiana, Johnson was repeatedly referenced in accounts of street life and ballad culture throughout the nineteenth century.1 Like many of London's poorest performers, he was more often exoticized than understood by contemporary writers: used as a cipher, or reduced to the dimension most of interest to the writer. In recent years, the figure of Johnson has reappeared in British culture, with cameo appearances on page and screen.2 Modern scholars [End Page 545] have situated him productively within a broader racial and colonial context: Kwame Dawes, Mark Stein, and Eddie Chambers have each interrogated his London performances; Peter Reed and Kathleen Wilson have both discussed him with reference to the history of Jonkonnu.3 Yet, since none of these accounts have made him their focus, an understanding of Johnson as an individual still eludes us. And while recent scholars have explored the resonance between the vessel on Johnson's head and the transatlantic slave trade, I would like to try to understand what his performance might have meant in all its dimensions, to himself as well as to others. Rather than frame this as a rescue from the condescension of both posterity, and some of his contemporaries, I would prefer to think of this as an engagement with the multiplicities of song culture. To understand a song in a global city like Regency London, we must travel: to Jamaica and Versailles, and perhaps even Australia. We must also travel in time. Such is the nature of a performance like Johnson's—represented, recalled, misunderstood—that the thread leading to its center only unravels when tugged from its end: in this case, 2017. Here is an excerpt from the script of a major television series:
10:04:25 On screen caption on black screen London 1814.
10:04:32 EXT. WAPPING WALL LANE, WAPPING—DAY
It is afternoon in the busy dockside street. [. . .]We are taken along by a STREET BEGGAR. Strapped to his head he has a perfect replica of an English naval battleship, made from sticks and paper and leather. It is twice as big as his head and he balances it with care. He is accompanied by a gang of delighted children who follow him barefoot and hoot and laugh at his words as he chants out a rhyme. . . Suddenly they stop. They have seen something coming.4
From its opening credits, the 2017 BBC TV series Taboo nails its colors to the mast: Regency London is a global city. Though the program's aesthetics owe more to a steampunk take on Victoriana, and though its plot and [End Page 546] dialogue are cavalier with anachronisms, its vision is in one sense more historically percipient than most period dramas, in conceiving of London as being in dialogue with both west and east—from the respective ends of the metropolis itself, to North America, Africa, and Asia. Throughout its six-episode first season, Taboo develops a critique of the British slave trade, gradually expanding its scope...