American Pop Music’s Bittersweet, Essential Beginning

Fourteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

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 Email: