Jim Crow and the emergence of the minstrel show

On Maryland History

January 21, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

JIM CROW was an old Baltimore slave who made history. Inadvertently. He had the most menial of tasks, sweeping out stables. But the deformed old man had magic in his soul. He was a musical genius, though others would copy him and get the credit for it.

It was in 1818 that Thomas Dartmouth Rice, better known as "Daddy" Rice, came to Baltimore with one of the early traveling blackface minstrel shows. There was a constant demand for new songs and routines. Rice, sometimes called PeterKumpa"the crown prince" of minstrels, made many popular and famous. Rice happened to walk by a stable in the city and stopped to watch an old slave sweep and sing. And as he sang, the old man shuffled and then moved with jumps and contortions. Rice took notes.

He was so impressed that he turned the old slave's shuffling into a routine that became a classic. Rice copied the poor man's poor costume a baggy suit, patched trousers, a broad-rimmed hat, unlaced shoes with the left toe sticking out of a hole. Then with his right hand on his hip and his left hand held high in the air, Rice sang the old man's words.

"Come listen all you gals and boys

I'se just from Tuckyhoe,

I'm goin' to sing a little song,

My name's Jim Crow."

Then Rice would go into a shuffling dance with a posturing here and there before continuing with the refrain.

"Wheel about and turn about

And do jis so.

Ev'ry time I wheel about

I jump Jim Crow."

When he sang the words "jis so," Rice would leap into the air and roll his left hand about, directing it at the audience. The skit was an instant success. Rice used it regularly as a show-stopper as his own success grew. He adapted many songs and wrote many others that gained fame. None matched Jim Crow. Rice even brought the skit to London in 1836 and received popular British acclaim. Soon enough there were performers copying Rice's act and doing their own Jim Crow routines. Then countless parodies were made of the skit, often including some current event.

History was made by Jim Crow. "With it," wrote David Ewen, a musical historian, "the songs and routines of the black man became a fixture on the musical stage; the ground was prepared for the emergence of the minstrel show, just as a tradition had begun in American popular music ex ploiting Negroes and their musical and personal idiosyncrasies."

Jim Crow, of course, found a permanent place in the nation's language to describe a policy of discrimination and segregation against blacks in work, education and public facilities.

The popularity of minstrel shows soared as the last century continued. They could be regarded, as Prof. Samuel L. Forcucci declared, "as merely a nother example of white entertainers 'robbing' American blacks and exploiting their wares." But he added, "it must be stated most emphatically that minstrel shows, by themselves, were not an attempt to poke fun at blacks. Theatergoers were laughing with the black-faced entertainers, not at them."

In the years following the Revolution, there was an explosion of musical theater in the country. Cities and towns were beginning to grow, and there was a large audience eager for live entertainment. There were plays with music, ballad operas, straight dramatic plays with musical interludes between acts and finally burlesques that made fun of serious theater like Shakespeare. In the 1790s, some white performers began to blacken their faces to sing black songs. Some were serious, some were lampoons. One of the first was Gottlieb Graupner, who went on stage in Boston in 1799 to sing an already popular ballad, "The Gay Negro Boy."

Many followed including George Washington Dixon, who introduced "The Coal Black Rose," which was described as "the first burnt-cork song of comic love." Dixon, like Rice, was a pioneer in promoting songs into popularity, like "My Long-Tail Blue," a comic effort about a much too fanciful dandy. Both men are given credit for pushing "Zip Coon," an early minstrel classic. An instrumental version of the song is still a square dance favorite. We know it now as "Turkey in the Straw."

The words to "Zip Coon" were largely gibberish for it was a story of a Broadway dandy who pretended to be "a larned skolar." It took a master to sing though others, like "Buffalo Gals," were simple enough for everyone to join in. Early minstrel groups adapted their acts to the city where they played, Baltimore or any other:

"As I was walking down the street,

Down the street, down the street,

A pretty gal I chanced to meet,

Oh, she was fair to view;

Oh Buffalo gals won't you come out tonight,

Won't you come out tonight,

Won't you come out tonight,

Oh, Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight

And dance by the light of the moon?

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