Blacks Electrified Early American Music and Dance

Sixteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Friday, December 1, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In pop music of antebellum America, “negro” style was vogue, particularly among the younger set North and South, multi-ethic.

At a white debutante ball in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., females swung alluringly for young males, “like the negro dances of Virginia,” reported an attendee, “and the whole effect is pleasing.” At New Orleans, 1859, the striking dance of a black couple—a slave duo “wholly inimitable” in their movement together, gushed a witness—rendered white “minstrels and caricaturists hopelessly in the shade.”

Black artists jazzed high-society types at a wedding in New Orleans. A writer raved in The Weekly Mississippian, reporting: “The band was composed of sable musicians who poured forth a strain of melody such as I have never heard at a private party, and which would have charmed Calypso and her nymphs. The dancers performed to the admiration of all—in fact nothing could have been more perfect. During the festivities of the evening a negro played on the piano in the most faultless manner to relieve the band of fatigue.”

Slaves and free blacks dominated music jobs of the rural South, well before the Civil War. “In all of the southern [communities] there are music bands, composed of negroes, often of great excellence,” Frederick Law Olmstead reported from Alabama in 1853. “The military parades are usually accompanied by a negro brass band.” Olmstead was on assignment for The New York Times, logging accounts that led to books such as his The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States.

At Claiborne town on a bluff, nighttime overlooking the Alabama River, Olmstead met slaves at leisure along the streets. A young black male “commenced to sing, and in a few moments all the others joined in, taking different parts, singing with great skill and taste, much better than I ever heard a group of young men in a northern village sing without previous arrangement,” Olmstead noted. The lyrics were current, “a fashionable song of a sentimental character [that] probably had been learned at a concert or theatre in the village.”

“The love of music which characterizes the negro, the readiness with which he acquires skill in the art, his power of memorizing and of improvising music, is most marked and constant,” Olmstead wrote, adding rebuke of a Louisiana theorist making contemporary headlines. “Dr. [Samuel] Cartwright, arguing that the negro is a race of inferior capabilities, says that the negro does not understand harmony; [that] his songs are mere sounds without sense or meaning. My observations are of but little value upon such a point, but they lead me very strongly to the contrary opinion.”

Slave musicians produced revenue for owners while some drew pay for themselves. At Florence, Ala., slave performer Christopher Brewer pocketed all income from his music, according to future grandson William C. Handy, the iconic blues composer. “Grandpa Brewer… told me that before he got religion he used to play the fiddle for dances,” Handy wrote in autobiography, 1941. “That had been his way of making extra money back in slavery days. His master… allowed him to keep what he earned from playing.”

“In his day, Grandpa Brewer explained, folks knew as well as we do when it was time for the music to get hot.”

Young Brewer was granted freedom by his owner prior to the Civil War, but other slaves purchased emancipation with music earnings, reportedly. “SINGING FOR FREEDOM,” a Maine newspaper headlined of a southern troupe in 1857. “Those deservedly popular performers, the Slave Singers, will give one of their rich and entertaining concerts at Norumbega Hall this evening. They are singing in one hundred cities in the North for the purpose of purchasing their freedom. Wherever they have performed they have been spoken of by the press in the highest terms.”

Frank Johnson, a black elderly freeman, fiddler virtuoso and dancer extraordinaire, reigned over the music of North Carolina in the antebellum era, with his recognition extending nationwide through newspapers. Born a slave around 1774, Johnson used music earnings to purchase his freedom and that of numerous family members by about 1830, according to news evidence and reminisces of friends and acquaintances.

“Frank Johnson has grown into an institution,” saluted The New Bern Times in 1866. “He has brought the science of brass band music to such a high state of perfection that few dare to compete with him, and as to the violin, it’s no use talking. If there is to be a fancy ball anywhere in the length and breadth of the land, Frank is telegraphed immediately.”

The Johnson Band of “Old Frank” appeared regularly for state and private events, ranging from the Roanoke River Valley south to Wilmington. An 1855 report was typically glowing, following a parade in Tarboro, N.C.: “Frank Johnson’s brass band, seated in an Olympian car, headed the column, and as may be reasonably anticipated attracted an innumerable crowd of all ages, sexes, and colors, who gave frequent and indisputable evidences of great enjoyment.”

For stage Johnson donned formal wear in stovetop hat, spike-tail jacket, and brass buttons. “I readily recall some of the pieces he played—Money-Muss, Mississippi Sawyer, Arkansas Traveler, Bill Evans, Forked-Ease, Bill in the Low Grounds, and Old Mollie Hare,” H.C. Herring recalled for The Charlotte Observer in 1906, of erstwhile parties with the black fiddler, half-century previous. “One of the most popular pieces in that section today, he composed… Picnic.”

“The steps of the men were past describing. The ladies would even slightly draw up their skirts and the most elegantly executed back steps, pigeon wings and broad shuffles could be seen… Waltzes? No.”

The band often played until sunup for mirthful fans but Johnson had detractors, particularly local preachers and congregations; never mind, Herring affirmed, Old Frank’s popularity didn’t wane. “To any listener there was a something in his music which defeated all efforts of the Methodist and Baptist churches to suppress dancing.”

Johnson catered to Southern Democrat aristocracy in his business, and the black freeman supported states’ succession and the Confederacy, even providing battle music for Carolina troupes early in the war. Approaching age 90, however, Johnson left the whirring bullets and exploding shells for calmer surroundings. Johnson rued surrender and fall of the Old South in 1865, white friends recalled, events such as Sherman’s march of conqueror Union forces through the Carolinas. The Goldsboro Patriot reported Johnson’s band irked Navy brass years after the war, for playing Rebel rally songs aboard a steamer in Norfolk Harbor, broadcasting Dixie and Farewell To The Star-Spangled Banner.

Old Frank Johnson died in 1872, possibly a centenarian in age, and 2,000 admirers attended his funeral in Wilmington. Ex-slaves had surged ahead in American music, meanwhile, revolutionizing entertainment in society without human bondage.

Many Afro-Americans aspired to make a living in music; many dreamt of stardom and affluence, a few realizing it already. Black talents were eclipsing whites in minstrel entertainment and leading in the upstart variety formats of “vaudeville” and American burlesque. Job opportunities flourished along major river valleys and lakes,  New York to Missouri, with riverboats, saloons, urban theaters and rural halls among the music venues.

Gospel music took national spotlight, on the rising fame of Afro-American singers from Fisk University and Hampton Institute. Most of the college students had been enslaved as children. Sheet music sold by the thousands, prompting Hampton’s release of a volume, Cabin and Plantation Songs. “The slave music of the South presents a field for research and study very extensive and rich,” wrote Thomas P. Fenner, Hampton music director, in the songbook’s preface.

Fenner, a white music composer and arranger, believed free Afro-Americans could elevate the art form in a renewed nation. “It may be that this people which has developed such a wonderful musical sense in its degradation will, in its maturity, produce a composer who could bring a music of the future out of this music of the past,” he wrote from Nashville.

Fenner envisioned a black pioneer of American music, and thus was the prodigy in-waiting, an infant son of former slaves at Handy’s Hill community in northern Alabama. The child was William Christopher Handy, named after his slave grandfathers, William Wise Handy and Christopher Brewer, and destined to be known as Father of The Blues.

W.C. Handy was born in 1873, or Eight Years After Emancipation in the manner his religious parents, Charles and Elizabeth, marked the time.

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email: