Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Eugene Stratton and Early Ragtime in Britain

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Eugene Stratton and Early Ragtime in Britain

Article excerpt

In 1869, the periodical London Society commented, "Good society hates scenes, votes every eccentricity of manners and demonstrativeness of demeanour bad form" (quoted in Cominos 1963, 42). This was a prevalent middle-class view in Victorian Britain. The restless, nervous energies of the industrial age, with its expanding urbanization, mechanization, and mobility, its ever-accelerating pace of change, its rolling back of existing cultural horizons, and its increasing awareness of non-Western cultures and peoples, seemed to many contemporaries to demand an increased control over social manners and morals, a stricter definition of the symbolic boundaries between national civility and order and their perceived opposites. Decorum, respectability, and moderation were bulwarks against the unleashing of newfound passions, pleasures, and aspirations-and the possible lack of self-restraint accompanying them. For "good society," these appeared to pose a formidable threat to the governing conventions of behavior and identity. Yet in one of the most respectable forms of contemporary popular entertainment, enjoyed by many orderly, genteel middle-class people, these conventions were disrupted and upturned.

Blackface minstrelsy in Britain depended for its very source of popular appeal on the opposite of those precepts enshrined in the concept of "good form." Its appeal lay in its garishly spectacular scenes, its eccentricity of manners, and its demonstrativeness of demeanor. "A nigger concert," wrote a correspondent in Dwight's Journal of Music, "without grimace and copious gesticulation would be simply an ill entertainment" ("Negro Minstrelsy" 1859, 68). The nature of English civility and self-restraint, steadfastness and duty, and cultivation and manners was defined in part against an essentialized black nature, a nature still being referred to in the 1930s as "the animal exuberance of the nigger" (Duval 1933, 658). This description was offered not in a far-right or fascist publication but in the official weekly periodical of one of the most respectable of the new media of communications, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), at a time when that stem guardian of morality and decency, Sir John Reith, was still at its helm as director general. The appearance of this description in The Radio Times, the publication listing BBC programs, is a measure of its still-widespread acceptance in Britain in the early twentieth century. "Nigger" minstrelsy had contributed to this acceptance, over a long period of white mediations of "blackness" that had coincided with the development of the British Empire and the "scramble for Africa." Minstrelsy, along with other forms of cultural representation, had established the sense of that "animal exuberance." By and large, the audiences of minstrel shows in Britain had accepted the "exaggerated and farcical antics of the black as authentic" (Lorimer 1975, 42), and to the degree that this was so, such "authenticity" was defined in contradistinction to British national identity and a racially determined British character. This of course raises the question as to why the British racially cross-dressed in blackface, why they put on the "nigger" mask and, having done so, become exhilarated by delight in the kind of "grimace and copious gesticulation" that was by definition so decidedly un-British.

The key to this question lies in how the British came to consider cultural difference, in this case a racialized form of cultural difference, during the process of becoming modern. Modernity as a way of seeing and experiencing the world relied heavily on a sense of contrast between its own orientation and its various exclusions, displacements, and projections of "difference." Strategies of symbolic expulsion, and of rendering inferior what was regarded as different, were integral to national self-definition in societies classifying themselves as modem, civilized, and advanced. In this way, what was construed as "racially" inferior became interior to national identity even as this was hidden behind its exterior front of civility and progress. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.