IMAGES OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
One of the strongest influences on the coming of age of American popular music was the trend that began in the 1830s and picked up impetus in the 1840s towards portraying African-Americans. Although these depictions often speak in the first person, they were done by white songwriters, and there is a strong argument as to how much, if any, African-American musical style came through in these representations. The muse of Foster, however, was nursed in the minstrel theater, and some African-American influence, real or claimed, is manifested in hundreds of items in this collection. African-American pieces by far outweigh references to any other ethnic group as subject matter in this collection.
We are coming sister Mary
by Henry C. Work.
There are genuine African-American pieces in this collection, notably works by free Philadelphia black composers Francis Johnson, A. J. R. Conner, and Richard Milburn, whose "Listen to the Mocking Bird" is one of the enduring songs of the period. There are also a few works published anonymously or by arrangers that purport to be genuine African-American songs, notably "And Dat's Another Pull Back." But, most music attempting to depict African Americans was written by whites and most of this music was composed for the minstrel stage.
By the start of the nineteenth century, white actors in blackface playing black parts (African American, Euro-African, African) was an established tradition on the American stage. The musical depiction of African Americans by blackface performers first became common during the period of this collection, notably in 1828, when Thomas "Daddy" Rice first performed as Jim Crow. At first, such blackface performers were solo acts, but by the mid-1840s, the practice of several performers presenting an evening-long show in blackface had become established. The first such group, the Virginia Minstrels, appeared in 1843--their name was a parody of the name of a popular European touring group, the Swiss Minstrels. For the first few years of the new form, it was the adjective, not the noun, that told audiences that the group was in blackface. Groups bore such names as the Ethiopian Serenaders, the Virginia Serenaders, and the Ethiopian Minstrels. The phenomenal success of Christy's Minstrels, a group that first performed in metropolitan New York in 1846, made the word "minstrel" the defining element of the group name.
The Christy Minstrels were by all standards the most important minstrel group of the period, introducing many important songs including several by Stephen Foster. Their leader and manager, Edwin Pearce Christy (1815-62), appears as a composer in this collection.
There are a few complications in working with minstrel music in this collection. There are a number of pieces in which the word "minstrel" has its pre-1840 meaning of "strolling singer." Some of the pieces identified as being performed by minstrel troupes--that is, real "minstrel music"--have no specific African-American reference. At the end of the period represented in this collection, minstrel pieces without African-American references predominate.
Minstrel and non-minstrel songs of this period depict African Americans in varying ways. Many
are comic, but there are also songs that express the
wrongs of slavery,
"Darling Nelly Gray,"
which is still well
known today. Evils-of-slavery songs are distinct from
which call for an end to slavery; the former show the tragedy without suggesting
a remedy. A subset of songs sharing elements of both groups is those inspired by
Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Other songs are simply love songs in ebony. In some songs, the relation to African-American
life is complex. There are
minstrel parodies of European music,
other songs to which the label "Ethiopian" has been attached purely for the purpose of selling
music. A good example of the latter variety is
"Wait for the Wagon,"
a song about western emigration that is occasionally described as an Ethiopian song.
"Pop Goes the Weasel"
appears once as an Ethiopian song. (Links for the
last two songs cited in this paragraph go only to versions identified as Ethiopian: for links to all
versions, use the title index.)