Sounds of the Metropolis: The Nineteenth-Century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna

By Derek B. Scott | Go to book overview

6
Blackface Minstrels,
Black Minstrels, and
Their European
Reception

African Americans and their cultural practices were first seen through the distorting medium of blackface performance, which began when New Yorker Thomas Rice copied his “Jim Crow” dance routine from an African-American street performer, and introduced it into his act at the Bowery Theatre, 12 November 1832.1 Charles Hamm remarks that the minstrel song “emerged as the first distinctly American genre.”2 Rice visited London in 1836. The first troupe, the Virginia Minstrels (fiddle, banjo, tambourine, and bone castanets) formed in New York in 1842, calling themselves minstrels after the recent success enjoyed by the Tyrolese Minstrel Family. Stephen Foster (1826–64), who composed for E. P. Christy, another pioneering troupe, had helped to win approval for the genre. He boasted, “I find that by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people.”3 His first big success, “Oh! Susanna,” was published in New York in 1848. “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” published in New York in 1852 and 1853, respectively, were both labeled “plantation melodies,” though the words of the former are in minstrel dialect and those of the other are not. Visitors to America sometimes mistook Foster’s songs and other blackface minstrel songs for African-American songs. Moritz Busch collected and published some of them as Negro songs in Wanderungen zwischen Hudson und Mississippi, 1851 und 1852;4 they included “O Sussianna” (“Oh! Susanna”) and “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which became “Gelbe Röslein von Indiana.”5 Minstrelsy overshadowed the achievements of black composers in the 1840s, such as the dance-band leader Frank Johnson.6

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