River Entertainment Illuminated Cairo in Desolate Delta

Fifteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Sunday, November 19, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A century before rock ’n’ roll broke out in delta flatland, the riverine wilderness of southern Illinois and southeast Missouri stood covered in primeval swamp and timber. Bears, wolves, coyotes, panthers and snakes prowled the bottoms, among wildlife, along with humans of hardened soul, including woodcutters and boatmen, many societal outcasts. Thieves trolled the Mississippi River, pirate bands darting from the Missouri bush to attack boats and travelers.

Prior to the Civil War, development was far flung in the valley south from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Only two delta spots above Memphis were dry enough and accessible for sustaining a thousand inhabitants—New Madrid, Mo., renowned for earthquakes, and Cairo, Ill., infamous river outpost at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio.

“Cairo had a hard name,” observed local historian John McMurray Lansden. “It had a hard name because it was a hard place. On the rivers were and always have been many hard characters. The central location of the place drew many of them here.”

“The failures of land companies to overcome the natural obstacles in the way of establishing a town or city added to the unfavorable reputation the place bore. It was a low and decidingly uninviting point, and the travelers upon the rivers never spoke well of it. They could not.”

Cairo occupied the southern tip of Illinois, a washed-over peninsula pressed between forceful waters entering the delta. Developers had once talked big, promising rise of a commercial metropolis with impregnable levees, but settlement attempts failed repeatedly. The place was known by various terms for decades after a town was platted in 1818, including “Mouth of the Ohio.” The panoramic view from Cairo was nothing inspirational, griped a visitor, amounting to “low muddy bottom lands, and the unrelieved, unvaried gloom of the forest.”

Charles Dickens arrived in April 1842, landing aboard a steam packet at Cairo shoreline strewn with timber wads and flatboat wrecks. Dickens would label Cairo “dismal” in his subsequent writing, noting little but a silted wood lot and “half-built houses” suffering mold and rot. Floodwater had recently swept the timbered peninsula, with Cairo on about 30 cleared acres, and Dickens would remember “rank unwholesome vegetation” for “baleful shade.”

The famed British author dismissed Cairo as disease-laden and headed north by steamer on the Mississippi, which bothered Dickens too, for muddy, slimy water. Dickens’ disgust rekindled on return to mouth of the Ohio, “again in sight of the detestable morass called Cairo,” he recalled in the book American Notes. The steamer crew loaded wood at the landing while Dickens peered at a rickety flat barge of loosened timbers.

“It was moored to the bank, and on its side was painted ‘Coffee House’; that being, I suppose, the floating paradise to which the people fly for shelter when they lose their houses for a month or two beneath the hideous waters of the Mississippi.” Indeed, much the local populace of a few hundred occupied floating platforms permanently, living on boats and further structures lashed to the bank. Dickens’ refueled steamer left Cairo bound eastward on the Ohio, removing him from the Mississippi Valley of “troubled dreams and nightmares,” he wrote.

English writer William Oliver corroborated Dickens on Cairo, without the melodrama, after Oliver’s experience of being stranded by winter icing. Cairo scared Oliver, for the “vagabond-looking boatmen who were strolling about its desolate shores.” OIiver felt better during dinner in a riverside establishment, despite “two or three strange outlandish-looking gentry sitting around the stove.” Then the tavern owner perceived an insult from some Kentuckians—whom Oliver characterized as “choppers of wood”—and got mad.

Hairy men rushed to the dispute, gathering round, cursing and touching Bowie knives at their hips. The Kentuckians backed out from the saloon, threatening the barkeep and locals. Oliver watched wide-eyed; surely he’d heard American legend of half-man, half-alligator characters in the woolly West. Oliver recounted: “The Kentucks, having been joined by their companions, at the boat, now commenced shouting and firing guns in bravado, to see, as I understand, if they could induce their opponents to come out and have a regular battle; our landlord, however, merely went to the door and fired off a pistol, to let them know that he was prepared for them. Nothing more took place, and in a short time all was quiet.”

Mose B. Harrell would’ve sympathized with Dickens and Oliver, arriving at Cairo a few years later. It was unsettling, definitely, “to be set down… in poor unattractive Cairo,” wrote Harrell, who relocated to the town circa 1845. “The wharf was covered with drift and rubbish, the buildings were in decay… The ruin and desolation that brooded over the place filled me with a sinking, heavy-heartedness… I was full of the very erroneous notion that I had gained nothing by leaving Lawrenceburg, Indiana.”

Young Harrell’s perspective changed within hours, meeting folks and getting tipsy among “the largest crowd of reasonably intoxicated individuals I had ever seen,” wrote the future newspaperman. But the river town needed constructive entertainment, quality “amusement,” Harrell observed, along with, he indicated, a brightening touch of eligible females.

A male vocalist arrived from Missouri, singing and teaching from a hymnbook, only to get laughed out of town. The gospel man “left Cairo hugely disgusted at the people’s want of appreciation of the fine arts,” Harrell wrote.

Popular entertainment caught on, however, if not old religion. Circus spectacles touring the great rivers set up at Cairo, for example, drawing crowds led by youths from Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. “Young folks, go,” commanded promotional copy for the Spaulding & Rogers Circus, appearing frequently at Cairo. “The old folks will tell you that it is throwing money away, but [they] went to shows in the early time, and old as they are, still frequently find themselves in the ring, laughing with the rest.”

“The veriest cynic of them all must admit that the soul of the town receives some real benefit…,” reminded the circus promo, “from the glimmer of sunshine in the moment of pleasure.”


American entertainment set anchor along the Mississippi River prior to the Civil War, particularly at mouth of the Ohio. “Cairo, with its large floating population, was a good show town and soon attracted entertainers of every sort,” historian Harold E. Briggs observed in “Entertainment and Amusement in Cairo, 1848-1958,” for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

“The inhabitants craved recreation and amusement, and flocked in large numbers to see [traveling] circuses, menageries, museums, minstrel and variety troupes, tight-rope walkers, magicians, phrenologists and all types of musical programs. They welcomed theatrical troupes and were interested in their own lyceum organizations… Both the permanent residents and the transient population of this border settlement were much interested in all types of entertainment and as a rule furnished good audiences for the traveling companies and individuals.”

In April 1858 Cairo citizens watched a domed wonder approach on water, the famed Floating Circus Palace, rounding the river bend south of town. Arriving from New Orleans, the mammoth barn-like barge was painted shiny gold and white, boasting seating of 3,400 for the extravagant Spaulding & Rogers Circus. The triple-deck Palace was nudged along by the showboat James Raymond, pushing from behind, its steam calliope blasting music over the flatland. The circus flotilla docked across from Cairo at Missouri, landing with some hundred performers and exotic animals like elephants, for a period of performances and maintenance work. Show bills, printed fresh aboard The Palace, were posted throughout the tri-state vicinity of Cairo.

At sundown preceding a circus performance, bright lights and sounds attracted folks from everywhere. “The whole affair was so brilliantly lighted with gas…,” noted showboat historian Philip Graham, “it was worth a trip to The Palace at night merely for the effect of the unusual illumination, visible for a great distance on the bank.”

“The two boats were well provided with music. A large pipe organ supplied the rousing tunes for the main circus performance, and a chime of bells across the hurricane deck provided free concerts for the crowds that invariably collected on the river bank. On the steam towboat a twelve-piece brass band gave the concerts and played the interludes for dramatic performances.”

The Palace and James Raymond staged sold-out shows around Cairo until early May, when the steamer left for other locales while the giant flat barge was “laid up” in repair, according to Missouri reports. But it was rainy season in America’s vast interior basin, and water came quickly down the Mississippi, pooling in the northern delta.

Marshes filled out from Cairo in every direction, into Kentucky across the Ohio River, and particularly on other side of the Mississippi, through bottoms spanning southeast Missouri for a hundred miles. At high flood stage the shorelines and state borders became indecipherable, rendering Cairo Township a soggy wooded patch within fragile dikes, surrounded by sudden seas.

Disaster was pending with Cairo marooned amidst water 40 miles wide by hundreds of miles in length. Newspapers reported a tide speeding south from the foothills of Illinois and Missouri, around Cairo, and still rolling 160 miles farther, at the rocky bluffs holding Memphis aloft. Levees ringed Cairo but a break occurred about 5 p.m. on June 12, two miles north along the Mississippi. The community barely heard warning from men who sprinted in from the trees.

“Soon the water came rushing a mighty torrent, with a roar almost as loud as the cataract of Niagara,” an observer recorded. “Never have I witnessed such a scene as the awful night that followed. Sleep was out of the question, and by eight o’clock in the morning, Cairo, from having been an island, had become a vast lake…”

“The scene of distress was indescribable. High piles of lumber, all kinds of drift mixed with cattle, horses, hogs and domestic animals, were floating and swimming around in a mass together. Some 2,000 people, with what little of their effects they could save, were crowded on a narrow strip of the Ohio river levee, not over fifty feet wide… with cattle, horses, hogs, [etc.], which had reached dry land.”

“Cairo is ruined,” proclaimed a correspondent for The New York Tribune. “The water is from nine to sixteen feet deep throughout the town…. For miles on either side of both rivers, this low land extends and is all overflown… A splendid, large six-story brick hotel, recently enclosed but yet unoccupied, facing the Ohio levee, is cracking and settling, and will fall.”

But Cairo wasn’t a goner yet. The mayor announced flood damage was exaggerated, in his letter to The Chicago Times. “Cairo is far from being destroyed,” he declared. “A considerable portion of our town is inundated, but… loss as yet is inconsiderable, and will soon be repaired.” The mayor didn’t clarify whether he communicated from floating facilities, such as the Circus Palace, provided to Cairo for the emergency.

The large majority of citizens didn’t leave Cairo, taking shelter on floating decks, on the levee in rail cars and tents, and on higher floors of structures, until the water receded as always. The damaged new hotel was repaired and soon opened as the St. Charles, a beautiful building fronting the Ohio River, signifying community restoration.

The hotel quartered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, when Cairo boomed as Union command post of the Mississippi, finally  cashing in on location. “It was soon seen… that to carry on war much money was needed, and Cairo having become a great military station and depot, money soon began to make its appearance in a way never dreamed of by anyone in the town,” Landsden wrote.

“Rents went up higher and higher, new but rather temporary buildings rose in great numbers and in every quarter. Prices of all kinds of goods advanced beyond precedent, and it was supposed that the future of Cairo was now well assured…”

Dickens had called this place “ill-fated,” a prophecy to become manifest in the 20th century. But until then Cairo would thrive, particularly as entertainment showcase at mouth of the Ohio, offering great artists and performances in the desolate delta.

Select References

An Account From Louisiana. (1803, Nov. 24). New York Evening Post, p. 2.

Baton Rouge. (1858, Dec. 5). Baton Rouge Daily Gazette and Comet LA, p.2.

Briggs, Harold E. (1954, Autumn). Entertainment and Amusement in Cairo, 1848-1858. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 47, pp. 231-251.

Cairo, Ill., March 4th, ’63. (1863, March 13). Winchester Randolph Journal IN, p. 3.

Dickens, Charles. (1842). American Notes. John W. Lovell Company: New York.

Excerpts From a Traveler’s Note Book. (1848, March 10). New Orleans Crescent LA, p. 2.

Extract From a Letter Dated Cairo, Illinois. (1840, Feb. 1). Salt River Journal, Bowling Green MO, p. 3.

Extract of a Letter From Eddyville. (1804, July 4, Carlisle Weekly Herald PA, p. 3.

“Flint’s Recollections.” (1826, May 29). New York Evening Post, p. 1.

For St. Louis. (1839, Nov. 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 3.

From the National Intelligencer. (1803, Nov. 21). New York Evening Post, p. 2.

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Gentry, North Todd. (1937, April). Plank Roads In Missouri. Missouri Historical Review, 31 (3), pp. 272-287.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Great Rise in the Western Waters. (1842, March 30). New York Evening Post, p. 2.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 1). The Cairo That Was: Number I. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 4). The Cairo That Was: Number II. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 2.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 7). The Cairo That Was: Number IV. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 9). The Cairo That Was: Number V. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 11). The Cairo That Was: Number VI. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Illinois Intelligence. (1858, July 1). Chicago Tribune, p. 3.

In Spite of the High License. (1858, July 29). Quad-City Times IA, p. 1.

Lansden, John McMurray. (1910). A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. 2009 reprint, Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale IL.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Oliver, William. (1843). Eight Months in Illinois: With Information to Immigrants. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. 1924 reprint, William M. Hill: Chicago IL.

Political Divisions of the Territory, Inhabitants, Settlements. (1811, March 7). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, p. 2.

River at Cairo. (1858, June 24). Holmes County Republican, Millersburg OH, p. 2.

River News, &c. (1858, June 24). Vicksburg Daily Whig MS, p. 3.

River News, &c. (1858, Nov. 5). Vicksburg Daily Whig MS, p. 3.

Sketches. (1811, Feb. 14). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, p. 2

Surveying the Mississippi. (1851, March 5). Washington Telegraph AR, p. 2.

The “Banjo” En Route. (1859, May 28). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 3.

The Circus Will Be Here To-Night. (1858, Dec. 4). Baton Rouge Daily Gazette and Comet LA, p. 3.

The Flood at Cairo. (1858, June 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

The Flood at Cairo. (1858, July 4). Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette and Comet LA, p. 2.

The Great Show-Boats. (1858, Aug. 5). Glasgow Weekly Times MO, p. 3.

The Steamer James Raymond. (1858, Dec. 8). Natchez Weekly Democrat MS, p. 1.

Three Circuses at Once. (1858, May 22). Kansas Herald of Freedom, Wakarusa KS, p. 3.

“Wait for the Wagon!” (1858, May 6). [Advertisement.] Glasgow Weekly Times MO, p. 1.

West, Anne. (1940). It Happened In Cairo. The Rockledge Company: Flushing NY.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

American Pop Music’s Bittersweet, Essential Beginning

Fourteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Friday, November 10, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

As the United States began to divide over the issue of human bondage in the South, a musical bridge rose among whites and blacks—including enslaved players—to impact the country.

Decades before the Civil War, slave performers helped foster popular song and dance, as did free blacks in the North. “The new form of popular song coming to life in the United States after 1820 derived indirectly from the blacks, slave and free, who were becoming more evident in America,” wrote Russell Sanjek, modern musicologist and BMI administrator. Sanjek concluded that black artists, beginning in the slave era, contributed most to American pop music for more than a century, until advent of rock ’n’ roll.

During the 1830s “negro songs” of a romanticized South compelled white players and publishers.  “The South, both as a set of images and as a source of music ideas, exerted a powerful influence on American popular music long before the region developed musicians with national reputations,” remarked modern analyst Bill C. Malone. “As a land of violent contrasts, with picturesque terrain and exotic peoples, the South proved irresistible to poets and songwriters who saw in its lazy rivers, wagon-rutted roads, and old folks at home endless material for art.”

The budding mass media, solely print, addressed the music and dance of slaves. In 1835 a writer for Knickerbocker magazine met slave men in South Carolina, on a flatboat ferry “which they rowed, singing some Jim Crow songs, and chiming most merrily, as they kept time to the stroke of their oars.” A New York Post writer described plantation music: “When the work of the evening was over the negroes adjourned to a spacious kitchen. One of them took his place as musician, whistling and beating time with two sticks on the floor. Several of the men came forward and executed various dances, capering, prancing and drumming with heel and toe upon the floor, with astonishing agility and perseverance.”

Many writers portrayed enslaved blacks as happy, content, preoccupied with song and dance—myth that appealed to many whites of the North and South. But an account from Alabama in 1848 was chilling reality, about slave youths in transport on a steamboat, including “half a dozen girls from 16 to 22 years old,” recently purchased at auctions. “It made me feel absolutely sick,” a witness wrote in a letter reprinted by The New York Tribune. “Some of [the females] were quite pretty, and sang fashionable songs with much taste and feeling; they were all neatly dressed, and had rings and other jewelry. They were evidently petted house servants… They occupied a part of the cabin. Below [deck], and belonging to the same man, were a dozen poor fellows fastened to a long chain by a handcuff. These were common field hands. They had been bought, as well as the girls, in Virginia and Maryland, and were being taken to Louisiana to be sold to the planters.”

Slave musicians operated professionally in southern communities, as income streams for their owners, although in some cases the performers drew pay too. Whites, youths especially, were impressed by blacks who were musically gifted. “In the South, where a professional black musician had to be outstanding indeed, representing as he did a contradiction of the accepted folk myth that blacks were of a lower mental order, there were highly talented slave performers who compelled the admiration of both races,” Sanjek wrote.

A musical group of slave children, the “Lilliputian Band,” wowed southern audiences on a profitable tour for their owner in 1857. The oldest player was 10, reported The Richmond Dispatch. “They are natural musicians and handle their brass instruments with an ease and effect not disparaging to the most learned… It needs only to be seen to be appreciated, and makes one think ‘can such things be.’ ”

Slave bands played theaters, festivals and weddings in the South, like nuptials for a Catholic couple at New Orleans in 1859. The bride was of Spanish descent, the groom was Irish, the guest list glittering, the party in Garden District—but the slave entertainers stood out for a New York Herald correspondent. The scribe saluted the reception host for “employing colored musicians, instead of taking, as the aristocrats do, the Hauffner German band. It was acknowledged by everyone that these negroes played the best and most spirited dance music that they ever heard.”

Northward, free blacks broke barriers to influence music and choreography, led by Francis “Frank” Johnson, bandmaster-composer and horn maestro, and William Henry Lane, regarded as the world’s greatest dancer.

Johnson integrated Philadelphia parades of the 1820s with his marching bands of Afro-Americans, acclaimed by the general public if scorned by many white musicians. “Possibly of mixed blood, Johnson was born in 1792, and his musical education came first through eavesdropping,” Sanjek reported, “but later he was formally trained by musicians of both races who recognized his potential.” Johnson, famed for play on the keyed bugle and French horn, toured England with a brass section and string pickers in 1837-38. Queen Victoria gifted Johnson with a silver Kent bugle after his band’s performance at Windsor Castle.

News and music files suggest Johnson and his sidemen utilized syncopated sound, and improvisation, nearly a century before recognition of the term jazz. “Some of his musicians were extraordinarily expert and could materialize the situation… on their particular instrument,” J.H. Gray reported in 1907 from Philadelphia, adding that Johnson’s compositions held “considerable vogue in their day.”

In New York, early 1840s, the teen-aged Lane—known as “Master Juba” of jig and tap dance—was main attraction at Almack’s tavern, operated by free blacks in the Five Points slum district. The cellar hotspot was located five blocks east of Broadway in lower Manhattan, where Washington journalist N.P. Willis and friends toured one night in escort of a police officer.

Nearing the notorious Five Points intersection, the cop paused at a board fence along Orange Street, “pulled a latch and opened a door, and a flight of steps was disclosed… we followed into the grand subterranean Almack’s,” Willis recounted. “And it really looked very clean and cheerful. It was a spacious room with a low ceiling, excessively whitewashed, nicely sanded, and well lit, and the black proprietor and his [bartenders] were well-dressed and well-mannered people.”

The theaters emptied uptown, infusing Almack’s with females, and the joint jumped “merrily,” wrote Willis. “Several very handsome mulatto women were in the crowd, and a few ‘young men about town,’ mixed up with the blacks, and altogether it was a picture of ‘amalgam’ such as I had never seen before.”

English writer Charles Dickens visited Almack’s in February of 1842. Dickens requested a performance by Master Juba, as part of the author’s research for his upcoming book American Notes. Dickens would recall: “The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure.  Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshaled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.”

The couples danced stiffly until Juba sprang into action, “the lively hero,” Dickens wrote. “Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.”

Dickens was amazed, witnessing Lane’s work. “Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine… And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar counter and calling for something to drink.”

The first Almack’s nightspot was destroyed by fire in 1845, of a stable blaze that engulfed wood buildings and shanties along Orange Street [later renamed Baxter]. In the same period, William Henry Lane joined white performers in blackface minstrelsy, playing major stages of New York before packed houses.

“He was the first colored boy associated with minstrelsy,” Sam Sanford, white star of blackface, remarked of Lane in 1874. “Not to be irreverent, he was the John The Baptist [for Afro-American performers], preceding by a few years the Jubilee Singers, of Tennessee, who are now before the public with the full chorus of songs of which Master Juba’s were the herald. His voice was a promise then that in the future we should hear, as we now do, the organized melody of the Hampton [black] students.”

Lane, whose fame grew internationally through exposure of Dickens’ book and sold-out runs in London theaters, shattered entertainment barriers in America and the United Kingdom. Master Juba busted dance moves that M.C. Hammer covered 150 years later on MTV, concluded cultural analyst W.T. Lhamon, Jr. But Lane’s price to pay was racist minstrelsy, his enduring such content and even perpetuating it, so demeaning to Afro-Americans of his day and future.

Slavery abolitionists objected to blackface shows in the 1840s, and a century after the Civil War, modern critics harshly denounced minstrelsy for overt racism. Many academics wanted to forget these early American performers because of blackface, along with their milestone song-and-dance elements.

“Few subjects have proven more controversial or posed greater challenges to the historian of American culture than blackface minstrelsy…,” Brian Thompson observed in 1999, for Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. “Even though it dominated popular entertainment for decades in the nineteenth century, 150 years later its meaning continues to create discomfort. Few historians would even touch the subject until recently.”


William C. Peters, top music producer of the West by 1850, grew his business with young musicians and songwriters ignored by conventional publishers in the Northeast. Operating from Louisville and Cincinnati, Peters capitalized much like Sam Phillips would with rockabilly artists in the next century at Memphis, embracing cutting-edge music and talent initially missed by industry establishment.

“Louisville in mid-century—by virtue of its strategic location as a commercial center for both the western and southern territories—was ideally placed as a printer and distributor of popular music,” observed historian Ron Soodalter. “Louisville quickly became one of the busiest purveyors of popular music in the country.”

During the 1830s and ’40s, W.C. Peters, a composer, publisher and ballroom operator, represented music that met “popular taste” of a new nation, rejecting European dogma, according to a commentator named Logan, for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Logan praised composers and marketers like Peters for music “which suits the popular comprehension and feelings” of America. “Away, then, with your Italian operas and German [symphony] thunders. They are to us the tinklings of brass, senseless and unmeaning.”

Peters published some of the country’s first popular songs and stars, led by Oh! Susanna of author-instrumentalist Stephen Foster—later known as Father of American Music—and the classic Ben Bolt composition of multi-talented Nelson Kneass . Sheet music sold by the thousands, and Sam Sanford anointed Foster and Kneass as geniuses of American pop. Foster and Kneass each died prematurely, both needy, and Sanford echoed their families in the belief Peters shorted them on song royalties.

Thomas D. Rice was another historic showman associated with Peters, particularly around 1829, when the duo reportedly arranged a hit song based on slave melody and verse surrounding a figure , “Jim Crow.” Rice wasn’t the first white entertainer to apply burnt-cork makeup for imitating black people, whether accurately, inaccurately or derisively. But his Jump Jim Crow song and dance became an international sensation, positing blackface performance as standard American entertainment throughout the Victorian Era.

T.D. Rice “enjoyed a fame not unlike that of Elvis Presley in the late 1950s,” Sanjek surmised. “However, Rice’s best-known song, Jim Crow, never suffered the vigorous denunciation in the press and from the pulpit and Congress that Presley’s Hound Dog endured. When Rice made his first appearance in Washington, it was before an enthusiastic audience of national leaders.”

After 1832 Rice performed entirely in blackface, as did Sanford’s minstrel group of the ’40s, while artists like Kneass and Foster donned burnt cork for much of their time on stage. The large majority of early minstrels grew up in northern cities, even if audiences demanded they impersonate and pantomime southern “plantation” blacks.

Derogatory “comedy” was staple but also serious art forms, song and dance transcending skin color in appeal, with moves like the Irish jig and African tap, and ballads “plaintive” or bluesy, speaking poignantly for enslaved blacks and more troubled souls. “Minstrel music was an amalgam of all the rural folk styles (Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, German, African) and urban popular forms to which the minstrels were exposed, plus the original creations they were busily producing,” Malone stated.

Publishers like Peters rolled out “negro songs,” producing lithographed sheet music “generally illustrated with vulgar depictions of men and women in blackface and eccentric clothing…,” Sanjek noted, “drawn to satisfy the stereotyped vision of blacks as heavy-lipped, foolishly happy, lazy, shuffling, dancing, and generally gaudily clad.”

Such an illustration appeared on a Cincinnati front page in 1847, of white men in blackface and garb, prompting backlash from abolitionists in free Ohio. “It may be mawkish sensibility which leads us to view with such disgust the puffing of ‘nigger concerts’ by papers, whose editors claim to be par excellence the friends of the colored man…” The Anti-Slavery Bugle editorialized. “We say it may be a mawkish sensibility, or it may be sympathy with the downtrodden people who are caricatured by [white] ‘Sable Harmonists’ and ‘Ethiopian Serenadors’—we are willing the colored man should, himself, decide.”

Blacks did patronize minstrelsy, the entertainment rage of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington. In the South, slaves attended blackface shows. Many Afro-Americans supported the entertainment despite negatives, apparently, and a number aspired to perform themselves. “Americans of all ages and all social classes found irresistible the Ethiopian songs and dance steps played for them by an ever-increasing troop of actors in blackface,” Sanjek wrote.

Later in America, 20th century, many scholars were appalled by minstrelsy evidence, content blatantly racist for any era. Some analysts, during societal integration following World War II, outright dismissed antebellum minstrelsy as bunk. Stephen Foster was ripped and condemned by critics, despite his contribution to American music. Minstrelsy’s racist taint perhaps touched the legacy of W.C. Peters, with his name relegated to dusty history regardless.

In 1999 Thompson recorded: “Given its blunt external elements—both musical and visual—the predominant understanding since the 1960s has been that minstrelsy was little more than a representation of the worst of white racism.”

In 2005 The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education editorialized: “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century the minstrel show delighted white audiences across the United States. White comedians blackened their faces with burnt cork and gallivanted across the stage making fun of black people and always conforming public views that black people were lazy, shiftless, unintelligent, and oversexed. The popularity of the minstrel show was so great that black performers got into the act.”

Many modern critics empathized while also endorsing historic preservation and continued study. They documented old minstrelsy as an art form, an essential greatness of American music, carrying through future generations.

Foremost, minstrel music and dance brought races together in mutual admiration and learning. Before the Civil War, music spurred intermingling of races, particularly poor whites and blacks, from the northern urban centers to the river valleys west and south.

“Blackface minstrelsy, as pioneered in the 1830s and codified in the early 1840s, represents the earliest comparatively accurate description and imitation—specifically by Anglo-Irish observers—of African American performance,” Christopher J. Smith found for his 2011 review “Blacks and Irish on the Riverine Frontiers,” published by Southern Cultures journal. Smith observed: “The rightful condemnation of blackface’s racist caricature sometimes has neglected the enormous innovative impact of the black-white musical exchange which minstrelsy stylized upon the stage.”

Close examination of historic sheet music and other texts reveal ethnic origins varied for America’s early pop songs and dances. The slave models for minstrels prior to the Civil War, for example, often reflected musical elements acquired from whites. “Virtually all early blackface melodies were European in origin, first heard by whites and then altered by blacks,” concluded Russell Sanjek in 1988, historian of lyric and melody, for Volume II of his American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years. Sanjek listed song titles in point: “Sich A Gittin [upstairs] was a Morris dance melody; Gumbo Chaff used the old British tune Bow Wow Wow… and the song that precipitated an international vogue for black minstrelsy, Jump Jim Crow, was a London royal playhouse melody based on an Irish folk tune.”

The first wave of white pop artists blazed trails for blacks, according to a host of literature. “Commercial black entertainment, for instance, is largely indebted to minstrelsy,” declared Bill C. Malone, 1979, for his seminal Southern Music/American Music. “The Negro’s entrée to professional entertainment began when such all-black troupes as the Georgia Minstrels took their brand of minstrelsy to towns and cities all over the United States. The early black minstrel groups corked their faces, as custom demanded, and generally performed in a self-mocking manner that was degrading to their race.”

“Nevertheless, these pioneer performers created the commercial route that later black entertainers would follow and modify, and the original black minstrels included some of the most gifted song-and-dance men American audiences had yet witnessed, performers such as Sam Lucas, Billy Kersands, and James Bland.”

Blacks to follow included William C. Handy, a music prodigy at Henderson, Ky., in 1896, when he seized opportunity to join minstrelsy business that boasted “the best talent” in entertainment, he later recalled. “The composers, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers—the minstrels got them all,” Handy wrote. “For my part, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation when I received [an offer]. I took it for the break it was. The cards were running my way at last.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.