The Minstrel in the Parlor: Nineteenth-Century Sheet Music and the Domestication of Blackface Minstrelsy

Article excerpt

The evolution of sheet music in nineteenth-century America positions the medium at rich intersections of popular culture, national identity, public and private space, and consumerism. As a popular culture medium, nineteenth-century sheet music expresses the exchange of ideas, standards, and assumptions that informed and demonstrated predominant attitudes of the American populace. As a marker of national identity, it measures changing attitudes about family, values, and patriotism. It serves to negotiate between public entertainment and the evolving boundaries of the American home. And it speaks directly to the expanding role of consumption--the burgeoning national habit of assuring cultural position through the accumulation of material objects. In short, nineteenth-century sheet music offers a telling account of the immediate challenges confronting most Americans at that time. That music and themes directly from or evocative of the minstrel stage held a dominant position in the content of sheet music of the day suggests that race both implicitly and explicitly informed the full range of assumptions and beliefs that were shaping American culture.

No music played a more central role in nineteenth-century American culture than the melodies generated in blackface minstrelsy. From the 1830s when individual blackface performers popularized routines that were meant to reproduce black dance and music for white northern audiences, to the end of the century when Tin Pan Alley song writers cranked out "coon songs" for consumers who took racial stereotypes for granted, blackface melodies constituted a central feature of American nineteenth-century popular culture. Melodies from the era still stand as some of the most well-known tunes in the canon of American song: "Buffalo Gals," "The Old Folks at Home," "Polly Wolly Doodle," "The Blue-Tail Fly," "Turkey in the Straw" (originally known as "Old Zip Coon"), and "The Camptown Ladies," just to name a few.

Even today most Americans know these melodies, although notably few know their origins. Given the enduring, even ubiquitous nature of these musical remnants of the minstrel stage, it is surprising how little Americans know of the history and impact of the blackface tradition that spurred them. Surprising also is the fact that although the minstrel tradition offers important insight into nineteenth-century American culture, relatively limited scholarship had been done on the phenomenon before the 1993 publication of Eric Lott's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (1) In this highly acclaimed book, Lott argues that previous scholarship on American minstrelsy rigidly adhered to one of two arguments--the earlier scholarship asserting that the nineteenth-century blackface phenomenon marked "a celebration of an authentic people's culture" (e.g., Constance Rourke's American Humor: A Study of the National Character [1931]) and the latter asserting that it marked "the incorporation of black culture fashioned to racist uses" (e.g., Robert Toll's Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America [1974]) (17). Seeing more in the content of minstrelsy than a dualistic tension between racism and authenticity, Lott demonstrates how in the nineteenth century "minstrelsy became a site of conflictual intensity for the politics of race, class, and nation" (8). In his words, previous scholarship (particularly in American Studies) had restricted itself "to addressing what is `most American' and exceptional about [forms such as minstrelsy] rather than the richer questions of how cultures work, are contested, divide and cohere, or how transpersonal historical structures consort with human activity to produce social and political change" (10-11). He then turns his theories toward a new analysis of the elements generally associated with the minstrel tradition: scripts, playbills, advertisements, music and lyrics, reviews and other first-hand accounts--and sheet music. …