Between January 1889 and December 1895, at least one thousand lynchings of African Americans were perpetrated in the United States. This was a terrible period in the history of American race relations, yet it witnessed the emergence of ragtime and the birth of an African American popular entertainment industry. Out of Sight traces the events and developments, the contradictions and redemptive energies that characterized the rise of black popular music in the midst of an American racial cataclysm.
Professional jubilee singing companies experienced wrenching changes. During 1889 and 1890 heroic jubilee troupes headed by Fred Loudin, Orpheus McAdoo, and Sissieretta Jones carried the slave spiritual choruses to the public stages of every inhabited continent. But during the course of the 1890s, jubilee singing faded into the background, while the popularity of “authentic” minstrelsy soared. For the most part, the public no longer cared to differentiate between a minstrel and a jubilee singer.
Just prior to the commercialization of ragtime, a new style of “vaudevillized minstrelsy” expanded professional opportunities for a broad range of African American performers and musicians. Black show-business trailblazers such as Ernest Hogan, Billy McClain, and Irving Jones began to redefine minstrelsy by updating its black vernacular elements. Moreover, African American women finally gained the minstrel, vaudeville, and burlesque stage and exerted an immediate influence as dancers, singers, and comedians. On the other hand, ragtime minstrelsy became a sinkhole for the era's great black prima donnas, whose best efforts had failed to secure a place on the mainstream operatic stage, on account of racial prejudice.
Within the black communities, vocal quartets, string bands, mandolin clubs, and brass bands were supplying music for all occasions, from funerals to serenading parties and “rag” dances. The black community music of this momentous period was as eclectic as could be, and contained the seeds of almost every American music style that would subsequently emerge. Dedicated black music educators directed the up-and-coming generation of singers and musicians to new high levels of proficiency and professionalism. Antonin Dvorák's famous pronouncement of 1893, that “the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies, ” excited the process. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was an unprecedented cultural marketplace that helped define the terms underlying the impending commodification of black popular music.
The 1889–1895 era in African American music has not been previously subjected to much scholarly consideration. By the time we began our study, it was too late to gather oral history; there were no living informants. The raw materials that we needed to reconstruct the . . .