Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925

Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925

by Brian Roberts

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As the United States transitioned from a rural nation to an urbanized, industrial giant between the War of 1812 and the early twentieth century, ordinary people struggled over the question of what it meant to be American. As Brian Roberts shows in Blackface Nation, this struggle is especially evident in popular culture and the interplay between two specific strains of music: middle-class folk and blackface minstrelsy.

The Hutchinson Family Singers, the Northeast’s most popular middle-class singing group during the mid-nineteenth century, is perhaps the best example of the first strain of music. The group’s songs expressed an American identity rooted in communal values, with lyrics focusing on abolition, women’s rights, and socialism. Blackface minstrelsy, on the other hand, emerged out of an audience-based coalition of Northern business elites, Southern slaveholders, and young, white, working-class men, for whom blackface expressed an identity rooted in individual self-expression, anti-intellectualism, and white superiority. Its performers embodied the love-crime version of racism, in which vast swaths of the white public adored African Americans who fit blackface stereotypes even as they used those stereotypes to rationalize white supremacy. By the early twentieth century, the blackface version of the American identity had become a part of America’s consumer culture while the Hutchinsons’ songs were increasingly regarded as old-fashioned. Blackface Nation elucidates the central irony in America’s musical history: much of the music that has been interpreted as black, authentic, and expressive was invented, performed, and enjoyed by people who believed strongly in white superiority.  At the same time, the music often depicted as white, repressed, and boringly bourgeois was often socially and racially inclusive, committed to reform, and devoted to challenging the immoralities at the heart of America’s capitalist order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226451787
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Brian Roberts teaches writing and history at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle Class Culture.

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Blackface Nation

Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812-1925

By Brian Roberts

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45150-3



Arriving in Boston by sea in 1815, you pass several islands as your ship sails the channel to the inner harbor. At last a view of the city appears, first as hills rising from the water: Beacon Hill, known in earlier and earthier times as Mount Whoredom; Negro Hill, now the city's most exotic neighborhood and a center for sailors' delights. Closer in, the landscape changes to a warren of piers, wharves, and warehouses, all reaching for the trade of Europe, the West Indies, and the American Coast. Chances are, your ship will land at Long Wharf. Extending some two thousand feet into the harbor, with its south side open for ships and the length of its north side lined with storehouses and shops, the largest vessels in the world can tie up at it, even at low tide.

Two years earlier, the city's docks would have been quiet, the result of war and blockade. Now peace has returned, along with the chaos of commerce. Disembarking, you make the walk toward land, weaving through sailors loading cargo, past shops and hawkers, at last to the end of the wharf. A right turn will take you to old Dock Square, once a landing for small vessels, now high and dry as a result of landfill and construction, the site of Faneuil Hall and the city's main marketplace. Along the way would be streets, smells, and sounds evoking the city's commercial energy: Market Street and Merchants' Row, the smell of tar, baking bread, and distilling rum; a soundscape of drums and hand-bells attracting buyers to shops and merchant stalls, the cries of mongers singing the virtues of meat and fish; the cobblestone-rumble of wagons and carts.

Instead of turning right, you turn left, where walking past India Wharf toward the Custom House, you turn up Milk Street. Running from the harbor's waterline to the Old South Meetinghouse, the street is primarily residential. Yet there, about three-fourths its length, at the corner of Theatre Alley and next to Samuel Shed's grocery, is a small shop. You might easily overlook it. Indeed, it seems city officials did just this. According to the Boston Directory, the street has several businesses, Shed's grocery along with a hairdresser, an apothecary, and a goldsmith. Each is marked as a shop with the letter S. The directory includes no such designation for this place. Here, at this tiny shop, you are standing before one of the centers of a nascent American popular culture.

This is the print shop of Nathaniel Coverly Jr. Like other Boston printers, Coverly produced pamphlets, handbills, and announcements for meetings. He would be best remembered for printing broadside ballads, single-page songs for the common tastes. Sold for six cents a sheet, the rag-paper ballads were meant to be enjoyed as keepsakes as well as lyric sheets for popular songs. Many had artwork above the lyrics. None included musical notation. Perhaps they were meant to be sung to a variety of tunes; more likely, the tunes were so well known that notation was unnecessary. They took their themes from a variety of sources, from history to politics to news of the day. The majority originated from traditional expressions and practices of common folk.

Coverly's broadsides represent Boston's street culture of the period. They are meeting points: between oral traditions and a modernizing technology of print; between vernacular expression and mass culture. Among their traditions and folk expressions, perhaps the most numerous would revolve around images of sex and carnality. This might seem hardly surprising. American popular culture would be fixated on themes of bodily expression. Yet Coverly's broadsides indicate that such expressions are not the result of progress or an escape from the repressive past. Instead, they are reflections of the past. They are expressions of one of the main dynamics of popular culture: the repression of vernacular traditions by an official culture, the persistence of these traditions along with their continual return in new forms. At Nathaniel Coverly's print shop and in the broadsides he printed between 1812 and 1815, you see the past and future of American popular culture.

The Containment of Carnival

For Nathaniel Hawthorne, American culture began with a carnival, a song, and a clampdown on free expression. His story "The Maypole of Merry Mount" placed these origins in the struggle between two New England colonies: the gloomy Puritan settlement at Plymouth and the more fun-loving village of Merry Mount. Hawthorne's Merry Mount was a place of colorful traditions:

All the hereditary pastimes of Old England were transplanted hither. The King of Christmas was duly crowned, and the Lord of Misrule bore potent sway. On the eve of Saint John they felled whole acres of the forest to make bonfires, and danced by the blaze all night, crowned with garlands, and throwing flowers into the flame. At harvest time, though their crop was of the smallest, they made an image with the sheaves of Indian corn, and wreathed it with autumnal garlands, and bore it home triumphantly. But what chiefly characterized the colonists of Merry Mount was their veneration for the Maypole.

In the colony's first spring, the villagers gathered to celebrate around this maypole, to dance, sing, and hold a wedding ceremony. Anyone could take part in the revels, including the local Indians, including a dancing bear.

This was the tradition of carnival. Literally the celebration of the flesh, of bodily expression and desire, the tradition was central to folk cultures throughout the world. Its origins predate recorded history. For generations, carnivals took the form of harvest festivals, springtime revels, or midsummer night-fests. In England, they appeared in songs and dances around maypoles or giant bonfires, in raucous celebrations overseen by the "Lord of Misrule." Or they took place in the more formal ceremonies to mark the winter solstice, appearing in ancient rituals centered on pines, firs, and holly. Symbols of summer's inevitable return, these evergreens harkened back to the pre-Christian old religion, to vernacular beliefs in elves, sprites, and forest people.

By the time of the English colonization of North America, traditions of carnival had long existed in a dynamic relationship with the official culture. The Church waged war on the old beliefs and pagan ceremonies. Church leaders coopted the ancient rituals, overlaying seasonal festivals with a calendar of saints' days and fasting times, folding the winter and spring revels into the holy days of Christmas and Easter. They contained the carnival, sponsoring their own versions of the festivals: with various special masses, thanksgivings, and even the old "feast of fools."

Through this dynamic, the carnival took its modern form. It became a brief period of licensed transgression, sanctioned by authorities as long as it did not get out of hand. During the time and place of carnival, normal hierarchies could be ignored or reversed: passion could be raised above reason; magistrates could be burned in effigy; common fishermen might be crowned kings and lords. Carnival was a world upside down, a place of "carnivalesque" expressions, a time of playful and chaotic alternatives to the seriousness of day-to-day life. In time, the tradition took on ambivalent meanings. To be sure, carnival allowed common people to vent frustrations against the forces of order. It also remained dangerous. Even sanctioned carnivals could get out of control.

According to Hawthorne, leaders at nearby Plymouth saw the revels at Merry Mount in just this latter way, as a subversive threat to their Christian order. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "there were men of a sterner faith than those maypole worshippers." These were the Puritans, "dismal wretches" whose "festivals were fast days," whose maypole was the "whipping post." Toward the end of the story, the zealots arrived to put an end to the revels. Their leader, Governor Endicott, ordered the maypole chopped down and the revelers whipped. He had the dancing bear shot, suspecting "witchcraft in the beast." For Hawthorne, the scene was the wellspring of a culture rooted in a struggle between "jollity" and "gloom." In his version of events, gloom came out the winner: the nation's Puritan past would be dark and bleak.

Hawthorne based his story on a real event from New England's earliest colonial period. In 1627, at an English "plantation" or colony near Plymouth that had recently changed its name from Mount Wollaston to Merry Mount, there was a carnival to mark the coming of spring. The colony's members set up a maypole, a white-pine staff some eighty feet in length, decked with ribbons and flowers and topped with a set of buck's horns. They promised "good cheer" for "all comers." By all comers, they meant Indians.

According to the colony's official account, the event was a raucous affair, with drinking, much beating on drums, and the rhythmic firing of "guns, pistols and other fitting instruments." It also featured a song written for the occasion, which the revelers sang while dancing around the maypole:

Drink and be merry, merry, merry boyes,
Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes,
So to Hymen now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a roome.

Elsewhere, the song honored the "sweet nectar" of drink and the joys of Hymen, the pagan goddess of sexual fertility. One verse toward the end invited the Indian women in attendance to join the dance, declaring that the "nymphes free from scorn" would be "welcome to us night and day."

Just as in Hawthorne's story, the Puritans were not amused. According to Plymouth Governor William Bradford, the rival colony's leader Thomas Morton had declared himself a "Lord of Misrule." Merry Mount had become a place of "beastly practices" and "mad bacchinalians." Most disturbing was the maypole, the way it seemed to dissolve all order and hierarchy. "They also set up a May-pole," Bradford wrote, "drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies, rather) and worse practises." Not long after the maypole incident, the leaders at Plymouth had Morton arrested and charged with several crimes. Ultimately they banished the prisoner, primarily for trading weapons to the local Indians but also for the treasonous act of daring to break down the hierarchy between white colonists and the Indian subjects they needed to control and remove. They dispersed the colony at Merry Mount, burning its buildings, taking the time and care to obliterate all evidence of its existence.

Yet the repressed, as it is wont to do, returned in new form. First, Morton did not go away. In 1637 he published a book titled New English Canaan, a narrative that was half description of the natural beauty of New England and half scathing parody of the Puritans. The response of New England's magistrates was predictable: they made the screed the first banned book in American history. Still, references to Morton and Merry Mount kept cropping up in novels and stories, in the itching recognition that the conquest of America might have gone differently.

Meanwhile, gloom did not settle on England's American colonies. At its foundation, the carnival was an overturning of hierarchy and a celebration of the flesh. Undoubtedly, this was what made it such a threat. The institution of hierarchy, often and particularly in the form of racial hierarchy, along with the suppression of the body, would be perhaps the main characteristic of modern order. Yet even in Puritan New England, disorders and fleshy desires had a way of returning.

And the results could go to the brink of carnival. In 1642, magistrates at Plymouth indicted a teenager named Thomas Granger for the crime of bestiality. The boy, it seems, had committed buggery with a veritable ark of domestic creatures: a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey. Witnesses testified that they had seen the boy buggering the horse. Granger confessed he had done so — several times. Were onlookers laughing at this point? Most likely they were properly somber when, according to the laws of Leviticus, Granger was put to death and the animals were slaughtered.

Elsewhere, there were efforts to police society for more mundane examples of "fornication" and "lewd behavior." Town records at the colony of New Haven reveal that fornication was an elastic charge. In 1662 the New Haven court called a man and wife "to answer for their going together in such a sinful way of fornication as they had done before marriage." The court ruled the husband whipped and the wife fined four pounds. Lewd behavior was an equally capacious category of misconduct. In another case, magistrates charged a man with putting his arms around a woman in an "adulterous and filthy" manner. The court ordered him to stand in the pillory for an hour. There were no scarlet letters in such cases, and — officially, at least — no aspersions cast on the character of the accused. That, most Puritans believed, would be left to the mysterious judgment of their god. Instead, court members hurried through the cases and hoped the punishments would put an end to the episodes.

Some hoped the magistrates would look the other way. The problem was simple: to go looking for cases of carnival misconduct was to find them. By far the most common were the complaints against individuals for "disorderly night meetings." In February 1662, the New Haven court called a man and wife to answer charges that they had held a festival at their house marked by "playing at cards & singing & dancing." The court fined the couple five shillings each. In January 1665, magistrates charged a group of young men with "gross disorderly carriage" and the singing of "corrupt songs." This time the court judged their actions to be of "such a haynous nature" that it fined the men twenty-shillings each and sentenced them to sit in the stocks.

In these cases official power worked simply. The arrests for lewd behavior, the clampdowns on disorder, and the rules against corrupt songs all operated as oppressive forces. They could be directly felt and struggled against. The problem was that such power only worked to a limited extent. In 1687, Puritan minister Samuel Sewell reported that a maypole had been cut down by authorities in Charles Town, Massachusetts. Just as quickly, he noted, local fishermen erected a larger one in its place. In some places, local officials suppressed the theater. Yet everywhere groups kept alive the old winter revels, caroling raucous wassailing songs as they moved from house to house, staying warm through handouts of grog and cider. At Christmastime, others maintained the tradition of mumming plays and carnival processions, drunkenly performing old fables in costumed masquerade.

Where the crackdown worked best was where its power was more lightly felt. Consider, for example, the disciplining of dance. Long associated with carnival and the awakening of sexual passion, traditional dances could be wild affairs. They were the stuff of street festivals and village competitions, the lively hornpipes of sailors, the improvised jigs and reels of Scots-Irish peasants. In British North America, attitudes toward the pastime depended on region. In the Quaker colonies of Pennsylvania and West Jersey, dancing was forbidden altogether. In Virginia, the gentleman class encouraged it. Puritan leaders considered certain types of dance "lewd" and an "incitement to adultery." They forbade dancing on the Sabbath, or at places such as taverns or weddings, where it was likely to be associated with drunken excess.

Or they banned it when it challenged the official order. In 1684, a dancing master named Francis Stepney opened a school in Boston. He announced that he would teach dances for couples, or "mixt dancing," and proclaimed his classes would be held on Thursdays, the traditional day of sermons and public punishments. He also issued a shocking statement: in one dance lesson, he could teach "more Divinity" than could be found in the Old Testament. The Puritan response was swift and severe. Increase Mather wrote a screed against mixed dancing. The town's court shut down the school and issued a warrant for its founder's arrest. Stepney had no choice but to flee Boston.


Excerpted from Blackface Nation by Brian Roberts. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction
1 Carnival
2 The Vulgar Republic
3 Jim Crow’s Genuine Audience
4 Black Song
5 Meet the Hutchinsons
6 Love Crimes
7 The Middle-Class Moment
8 Culture Wars
9 Black America
10 Conclusion: Musical without End Notes

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