Posts Tagged ‘Folksong and Music Hall’

Two Images of Blacks from the Age of the Victorian Music Hall

March 14, 2022

I found these two pictures in Edward Lee’s Folksong and Music Hall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1982). This is part of a history of popular music for schools. Other books in the series are, or were, on contemporary folksong, Jazz and Blues, Reggae and Caribbean music, Rock, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soul and Motown, and Tin Pan Alley. The picture below, of a Black man holding the hand of a little White girl as they go paddling on the beach in the chapter on the Minstrel shows. The caption for it says ‘The minstrel as a family entertainer. Another stereotype – the black man as simple friendly soul’.

I’ve mixed feelings about this. I can see that some people would find it patronising and offensive, but at the same time it also shows how Black American popular music was gaining an audience in this country. And that people were enjoying it and celebrating its performers, rather than treating them as some terrible threat.

Less controversial, I hope, is this picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, one of the first genuine Black American musicians to become popular and tour over here.

Discussing the impact of Black American music in Britain, the book states

‘Linked with the popularity of minstrel shows there was an increasing interest in black artists and in genuine black music. Early in the nineteenth century the actress Fanny Kemble, travelling in the southern states of America, had been struck by the ‘strange and wild songs’ of the black boatmen. These were probably an early form of shanty with a strong blues influence.

‘As the century passed, black artists began to make a name for themselves. Among the most famous was James Bland (1854-1911), composer of ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ (his first big hit), and ‘Oh Dem Golden Slippers’. In England a sensational reception had been given, in 1848, to Juba, an outstandingly talented black dancer, and later, in 1871, to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. It was they who made popular ‘Deep River’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, and ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’. It was through them that the genuine ‘spiritual’ became known and loved by white people.

‘But this was not all. The tumultuous receptions they had (ten thousand people at an open-air concert in Hull, for instance) was in part due to the powerful rhythmic effect of their music; it must have had what Jazz lovers later came to call ‘swing’. The gripping excitement of authentic black music had begun to be felt, and within twenty years, ragtime, the first internationally popular Afro-American musical style, was sweeping the world.’ (Pp. 79-82).

Brits have been listening to Black music for a very long time. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are also included in a collection of essays on Black and Asian British history, Under the Imperial Carpet, which is itself well worth a read.

As for the minstrel shows, I’m not nostalgic for their return. The music’s good, but Whites performing in blackface is racist and offensive, however much the Heil and Depress may defend it and get themselves furious about the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show. What I also find sad is that when people have tried to perform the old minstrel songs without the racist makeup, they’ve flopped. I don’t think there should be anything problematic about the music. But it is skewed and wrong that people only apparently want to hear it when it’s in blackface.