Showbiz Hooked the Kids of Cairo, Illinois

Seventeenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, December 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Following the Civil War, the children of Cairo, Ill., experienced an array of heroic models to emulate, including celebrity Americans and Europeans.

The community of 6,000 residents was remote yet strategically located at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, serving as intersection for a transient multitude from nationwide and abroad. Cairo kids encountered steamboat pilots, locomotive operators, military officers, civil engineers, politicians, doctors, authors, poets, philosophers, teachers, preachers and athletes, among intriguing types.

Figures of “show business” were powerful symbols for a Cairo youth, regardless of the kid’s socio-economic class, race, gender. Stage-struck children were common, given the influence of Cairo’s entertainment choices and glittering performers, ranging from circus to theater. Show organizers, talent scouts and news writers were regulars around town, juicing showbiz atmosphere.

The circus captivated Cairo kids. “No less than eighty-six youngsters white and black, male and female, were, at one time today, in full chase of the circus bandwagon,” The Cairo Bulletin reported on Nov. 18, 1870. “Their object was to hear the musicians in red coats ‘blow.’”

Cairo kids witnessed America’s grandest circuses, including the shows of Spaulding and Rogers, P.T. Barnum, Cooper and Bailey, C.W. Noyes, John Robinson, and Dan Rice. When a circus was due at Cairo, children gathered at the Ohio levee and railroad depot, turning somersaults and handsprings, popping handstands, singing and dancing.

All ages anticipated arrival of Dan Rice’s circus boat on a Saturday morning in September 1869. The steamer’s calliope organ boomed across the flatland, pumping music from miles out, and folks hurried to the Cairo wharf and immediate shorelines of Missouri and Kentucky. “The steamer Will S. Hays, with banners flying, and giving out strains of delicious music, sailed into port this morning with Dan Rice’s… circus on board, under the special management and direction of the irrepressible Dan himself,” The Bulletin reported.

Performers strode off the boat, down the gangplank; horses were led off and caged animals unloaded. Circus workers and levee roustabouts hauled equipment for show setup. “The canvass was soon spread at the corner of Poplar and Tenth streets, an eager crowd eyeing the operation, in delightful anticipation of the sights and sports of the afternoon and evening. While we write [at the newspaper office], the shouts of a delighted multitude reach us from the cover of the canvass.”

The big-top tent seated 5,000 spectators, with more tickets for standing room. Boys with no money plopped down outside, peering underneath tent flaps for “a thrilling glance at the horses’ hoofs as the animals lope around the ring,” the paper described. “Other youngsters find small rents in the canvass, not larger perhaps than a finger would fill… They tell [their] eager companions gathered about that they can almost see the clown; that they did see a man in spangles; that the bass drum stands in full view.”

Circus personnel and exotic animals posed a spectacle by merely shipping through Cairo. “Col. Robert Stickney, the famous bareback rider, arrived here from Memphis with a large circus yesterday, and had his menagerie wagons and other circus paraphernalia strung along [the] Ohio levee, with the intention of have them forwarded by rail to Pana, Ill., where he intends to give a show,” The Bulletin reported.

“Among his curiosities he had a horse—a hump-backed horse—that was about as intelligent as man could make him… At the command of Col. Stickney, he walked backwards, knelt down, sat on his haunches and stood up and walked around on his hind legs. The cages of the wild beasts were standing just below the stone depot on Ohio levee; some of them were open and were surrounded by a large crowd of curious spectators.”

Circuses visited Cairo year-round at the southernmost tip of Illinois, parking massive, domed barges and more showboats at the wharf and on Missouri landings across the Mississippi. Circus trains and special cars often parked along tracks circling this railroad town. Performers wintered in the area while show managers restocked talent and revamped programs. Watercraft and equipment were stored and repaired, new parts shipped in. In springtime circus outfits organized and launched from Cairo while others opened show seasons at the locale.

Cairo anchored northern end of the delta trough, flatland stretching south to the Gulf of Mexico, draining major rivers of the interior. National railroad and wagon routes intersected at Cairo, with Missouri situated across the Mississippi River and Kentucky across the Ohio. Cairo boosters proclaimed their tri-state vicinity as the navigation head for water, rail and trail through the continental heart, “a gateway between the Northeast and Southwest.”

The Barnum circus and accompaniments, arriving by some 150 railcars, attracted enough humanity to cover the little peninsula of Cairo Township. “There were people of all sizes, shapes, sexes and colors, who came from all around us,” the newspaper reported. “The trains were all full, the [railcar] transfer boats ditto, the ferryboat was crowded at each trip, and our streets were full of farmers’ wagons loaded with produce and children. The great Barnum took everything in, and no doubt departed with a snug sum of money.”

Circus was only a facet of amusements in Cairo. Dramatic productions had been popular since the floating theaters of troupes like the Chapman family, and stage venues on land had been established during wartime, when federals strengthened Cairo levees and installed pumps to reduce seep water.

Headliners of American drama, including Kate Claxton and Lawrence Barrett, played Cairo venues in the 1870s. Sol Smith Russell and Katie Putnam, former precocious players locally, were renowned in comedy and song. Russell was a Missouri native, Putnam of Chicago, but Cairo proudly claimed the youthful stars. Russell and Putnam headed major troupes touring under their names, with each boosting Cairo’s theater reputation by appearing regularly.

Variety format led river entertainment, with requisite sex appeal, and audiences loved Putnam, always applauding for encore. In Cairo and throughout the delta, Putnam enjoyed sold-out runs for “her exquisite songs, dances, and her unrivalled banjo solos,” per an advertisement. She adorned herself with diamonds and rubies on stage.

The market embraced performers such as Andy McKee, a comic and “breakdown” dancer. “Andy McKee first appeared professionally in 1865 at Cairo, Illinois,” author Edward Le Roy Rice noted in Monarchs of Minstrelsy. “Mr. McKee’s success was so pronounced with his eccentric dancing that he had little trouble in obtaining other variety engagements in Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

Illinois historian Roy Stallings concluded that Cairo competed mightily with Chicago in western theater. “In the post-Civil War period, amidst a general revival of drama in the United States, southern Illinois, and Cairo in particular, were beginning to develop their own brand of drama culture… Cairo was as important a center to southern Illinois and points farther south, as Chicago was to its surrounding territory. Cairo was not only immune to Chicago’s brand of drama, but she developed a drama that was more influential and more widely distributed than that of Chicago.”

“Southern Illinois’ own heritage was blended into the drama of the showboat, giving way to the age of the theatrical halls, and finally reaching the zenith of development in the last twenty years of the century,” Stallings wrote for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Showboats and fledgling theaters coexisted along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with the Cairo area long a center of floating entertainment. And that wouldn’t change for generations yet, well into the 20th century, as long as extreme southern Illinois and southeast Missouri remained swampy delta frontier. “The showboats had come into being to serve a region where civilization had been slow to penetrate, especially where… the social niceties of living were retarded by the environment,” wrote historian Philip Graham.

Famed performer Dan Rice remodeled a steamboat in the area, owned by Cairo pilot A.J. Bird, for their partnership’s launch of a show craft in 1880. Rice disavowed circus as passé and wasn’t much enthused about staging dramatic productions on the new showboat, in his speaking with a Kentucky newsman.

Rather, said Rice, native of New York City, his mission was to educate and to elevate “the people along the great Mississippi and its tributaries—to music.” Perhaps Rice was dishing more trademark hyperbole, or was indeed an aging performer, as critics alleged, out of touch with his time and place.

Because fine music already resounded in the delta, from Cairo south to New Orleans, progressing toward greatness.

Children of Cairo sensed achievement ahead for their rural, unique community, and teen Maud Rittenhouse identified entertainment as essential culture. The talented schoolgirl kept a diary of her life in Cairo during the latter 19th century—a vivid narrative to become an American bestseller, titled Maud. In 1881 she wrote excitedly of the new opera house in town.

“Three years ago people said all the hateful things they could about Cairo. Now they’re lavish in their praises…,” Maud crowed, “we are altogether citified.”

Select References

Afloat. (1837, June 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune LA, p. 2.

Amusements This Evening. (1865, Oct. 5). Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Around Town. (1879, Jan. 14). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Around Town. (1879, Jan. 18). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Atheneum! (1873, April 9). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Barnum Day! (1880, Sept. 16). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Barnum, P.T. (1927). Barnum’s Own Story. Viking Press: New York NY.

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

Cairo. (1869, May 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

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

Cairo, One Day Only. (1874, June 16). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Chapman. (1839, Aug. 15). New Orleans Times-Picayune LA, p. 2.

City News. (1878, Jan. 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan Rice’s Circus. (1869, Sept. 4). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan Rice’s Only Own Circus. (1869, Sept. 3). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Dan. Rice on the River. (1880, Feb. 29). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Dramatics on a Flatboat. (1884, Jan. 20). Louisville Courier-Journal, p. 14.

Everything Grand, New, Fresh and Bright. (1875, June 12). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p.2.

Friday and Saturday. (1880, Oct. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

From the St. Louis Evening Chronicle. (1880, Aug. 7). Ste. Genevieve Fair Play MO, p. 2.

General Items. (1875, March 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

General Local Items. (1880, Dec. 17). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local Items. (1881, April 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local Items. (1881, April 26). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local News. (1880, Sept. 24). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local News. (1880, Oct. 10). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

General Local News. (1880, Nov. 16). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

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

Great Central Emigrant Route. (1868, March 31). Stanford Banner KY, p. 3.

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.

Harrell, M.B. (1865, Sept. 19). The Cairo That Was: Number X. Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 1.

Immense Posters. (1869, Nov. 24). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

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In and Around The City. (1879, Oct. 28). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

In and Around The City. (1880, April 20). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Items in Briefs. (1876, Oct. 5). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Katie Putnam. (1882, Dec. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Lansden, J.M. (1910). A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale IL.

Lawrence Barrett. (1877, April 17). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Lennox’s Floating Theatre. (1848, Dec. 12). Louisville Daily Courier, p. 1.

Local Brevities. (1870, Nov. 18). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Local Report. (1879, Jan. 22). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Mayne, I.M. (1939). Maud. Macmillan & Company: New York NY.

Miss Kate Claxton. (1880, March 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Opera House. (1882, Nov. 26). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Personal. (1874, Dec. 12). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Return of the Veterans! (1869, Feb. 8). [Advertisement.] Cairo Bulletin IL, p.4.

Rice, E.L. (1911). Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from “Daddy” Rice to Date. Kenny Publishing Company: New York NY.

River News. (1875, June 29). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Rothchild’s Great Show. (1876, April 22). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

Sol. Smith Russell. (1882, Nov. 26). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

St. Louis, Cairo and Paducah. (1880, July 30). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.

Strang, L.C. (1900). Famous Actors of the Day in America. L.C. Page and Company: Boston MA.

Stallings, R. (1940). The Drama in Southern Illinois (1865-1900). Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 33, pp. 190-202.

Thalia. (1872, March 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

The Atheneum. (1869, Oct. 14). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

The Average Small Boy’s Ambition. (1879, April 3). Lawrence Chieftan, Mount Vernon MO, p. 1.

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The Springfield ‘Register.’ (1873, May 16). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 2.

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

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.

Select References

A Familiar Legend. (1874, June 27). Hickman Courier KY, p. 1.

A Good ’Un. (1839, Feb. 12). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

A Scrap of Minstrel History. (1885, Jan. 19). Atlanta Constitution, p. 162.

Amusements. (1889, June 2). Louisville Courier-Journal, p. 13.

Cartwright, S.A. (1851, May). Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race. New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, 7 (6), pp. 331-336.

Correspondence of the Evening Post, Barnwell District, South Carolina. (1843, April 12). New York Post, p. 2.

Demopolis. [LTE signature.] (1859, Aug. 24). Weekly Mississippian, Jackson MS, p. 1.

Dietz, Mary Martha. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

D.Q.I.’s. (1855, Nov. 3). Tarborough Southerner, Tarboro NC, p. 2.

Excursion to Waccamaw. (1867, May 12). Wilmington Daily Journal NC, p. 3.

Fenner, E.P. [Arr.] (1874). Cabin and Plantation Songs, As Sung by the Hampton Students. Musical Department, Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School: Hampton VA.

Fisk Singers’ Music Given to World Years Ago. (1946, Jan. 10). Kingsport News TN, p. 12.

For The Journal. (1859, Dec. 8). Wilmington Journal NC, p. 4.

Fourth of July. (1851, July 12). Tarboro Press NC, p. 2.

General Local Items. (1872, March 23). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 4.

Genuine Negro Minstrels. (1894, Jan. 7). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 16.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

Herring, H.C. (1906, Feb. 4). Music To-Day and Then. Charlotte Observer, p.2

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Masur, L.P. (2011, July 9). Olmstead’s Southern Landscapes. [online].

Musical Prodigies. (1857, Oct. 29). Richmond Dispatch VA, p. 1.

Norfolk Excursion. (1869, June 24). Greensboro Patriot NC, p. 2.

Notice. (1838, March 21). [Advertisement.] Raleigh Weekly Standard NC, p. 3.

Olmstead, F.L. [“Yeoman” pseudonym.] (1853, Sept. 1). The South: Letters on the Production, Industry, and Resource of the Slave States: Number Thirty-Six. New York Times, p. 2.

Parramore, T. (1989, April). Old Frank Johnson—And The Day the Music Died. State Magazine, 56 (11), pp. 8-9.

Sanjek, R. (1988). American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years: II, From 1790 to 1909. Oxford University Press: New York NY.

Shocco Springs. (1847, July 31). [Advertisement.] Raleigh Register NC, p. 4.

Singing for Freedom. (1857, June 26). Bangor Daily Whig and Courier ME, p. 2.

Slave Songs and Slave Music. (1874, March 15). Des Moines Register, p. 2.

Smith, S. (1859, Nov. 12). In a Tight Place, Pecuniary. Weekly Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock AR, p. 1.

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The Editor Writes Again. (1911, Jan. 26). Henderson Gold Leaf NC, p. 2.

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

River Entertainment Illuminated Cairo in Desolate Delta

Fifteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

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.

From the National Intelligencer. (1818, April 10). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, St. Louis MO, p. 3.

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 Email:

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.”

Select References

A Good ’Un. (1839, Feb. 12). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Appiah, K.A., & Gates, H.L., Jr. [Eds.] (1999). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England.

Baynham, Edward Gladstone. (1944). The Early Development of Music in Pittsburgh [PhD thesis]. University of Pittsburgh Graduate School: Pittsburgh PA.

Bert Williams: The African-American Minstrel. (2005, Spring). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 47, p. 103.

Charles Dickens. (1842, Feb. 14). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Circus! (1841, July 10). [Advertisement.] Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette MO, p. 4.

City Intelligence. (1846, May 14). New York Daily Herald, p. 7.

City Theatre. (1830, Dec. 24). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 3.

Co-Partnership. (1839, May 4). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Cockrell, D. (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, and New York NY.

Colored Music Makers. (1887, Jan. 17). Philadelphia Times PA, p. 4.

Correspondence of the Evening Post, Barnwell District, South Carolina. (1843, April 12). New York Post, p. 2.

Death of a Well-Known Citizen. (1866, April 23). Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 1.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

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

Drake, J.G., & Peters, W.C. (1835). Wound Not Thou the Heart that Loves Thee. George Willig: Philadelphia PA.

Dumont, F. (1896, April 5). The Origin of Minstrelsy. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.

Editorial Correspondence. (1846, Aug. 22). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Fire. (1845, June 13). New York Evening Post, p. 2.

Five Points House of Industry Slated for Destruction. (1913, Aug. 3). New York Times, p. 34.

For the Benefit of Mr. Wild. (1792, May 28). [Advertisement].

From The Reveille. (1849, May 17). Glasgow Weekly Times MO, p. 4.

Genius in Music. (1897, Aug. 1). Nashville Tennessean, p. 14.

Genuine Southern Music. (1857, March 27). Richmond Enquirer VA, p. 2.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Grand Wedding in New Orleans. (1859, Aug. 18). Detroit Free Press, p. 2.

Gray, J.H. (1907, April 11). Frank Johnson, Leader, and His Famous Band. New York Age NY, p. 1.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

He Is Truly American. (1889, Sept. 1). Why Pianist William M. Sherwood Is Fond of Chicago. Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Irving, Cooper, Brooks, Willis, Fay. (1837, Oct. 18). Wyoming Republican and Farmer’s Herald, Kingston PA, p. 3.

Kleber, John E. (2015, Jan. 13). The Encyclopedia of Louisville. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Latest Eastern Musical Publications. (1845, May 6). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 4.

Letter From New York. (1850, Dec. 21). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998). Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, England.

Local Affairs. (1844, Feb. 5). Philadelphia Public Ledger PA, p. 2.

Local and Provincial. (1849, Jan. 24). Manchester Guardian, England, p. 5.

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Louisville Song Writers. (1900, Dec. 9). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 29.

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

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Musical Prodigies. (1857, Oct. 29). Richmond Dispatch VA, p. 1.

Narine, D. (1995, June 18). African Music’s Journey to Mainstream. Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel FL, p. 1F.

Nashville, Aug. 15, 1844. (1844, Aug. 23). Detroit Free Press, p. 2.

Negro Melodies. (1838, Dec. 11). Columbus Southern Argus MS, p. 1.

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O’Connell, JoAnne. (2016, Sept. 29). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham MD.

Old-Time Minstrelsy. (1874, Sept. 11). Washington National Republican DC, p. 1.

One Night Only! (1848, Sept. 9). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 1.

Our Own Country. (1835, Feb. 21). Nashville Republican TN, p. 2.

Owen, R. (2001, April 20). PBS Celebrates The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. 44.

“Patting Juba.” (1915, Jan. 11). Atlanta Constitution, p. 6.

Pollack, M. (2005, April 3). A Subway Poet. New York Times [online].

Sanjek, R. (1988). American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years: II, From 1790 to 1909. Oxford University Press: New York NY.

Smith, Christopher J. (2011, Spring). Blacks and Irish on the Riverine Frontiers: The Roots of American Popular Music. Southern Cultures, 17 (1), pp. 75-102.

Soodalter, R. (Article accessed 2017, Oct. 21). Part Two: From Minstrel Shows to the Mines.

Strausbaugh, John. (2006). Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. Penguin: New York NY.

The Ethiopian Serenaders. (1846, Feb. 15). London Observer, England, p. 3.

The Polka. (1844, Aug. 23). Washington Whig DC, p. 2.

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Thompson, Brian. (1999, June). Book Reviews: Nineteenth Century: “Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World” by Dale Cockrell; “Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop” by W.T. Lhamon Jr. Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, 55 (4), pp. 919-922.

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

River Music, American Music Prior to Civil War

Thirteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

River traffic blew open the West after 1820, driving development and reducing isolation along major valleys. Boats arrived at wharfs and landings round the clock, all types of watercraft bringing people, technology, information, and culture—arts and entertainment. “The tremendous part the river life played in developing the ambitions and intelligence of the western settlers can never be estimated,” Ida M. Tarbell observed for McClure’s monthly in the latter century.

An entertainment core developed along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, including “floating theaters” that landed practically anywhere. “Almost every actor of the time with courage, ingenuity, and a crusading love of [the] art wanted to play the West. The river and boats were ready to provide transportation,” wrote Philip Graham, author of Showboats: History of an American Institution.

The famed Chapman family revolutionized entertainment on water during the 1830s. The talented Chapmans garnered grassroots acclaim from aboard their showboats—a series of flat barges until purchase of a steamer—literally delivering their extraordinary performances in drama, comedy and song. The Chapman Floating Theatre started each trip from Pittsburgh, wending southwest to Cairo then south to New Orleans, and stopped at every shoreline mustering an audience, town or plantation, especially with good fishing.

“Most of the wealth of the region gravitated toward the rivers, and audiences along their banks needed entertainment and were anxious to pay for it,” Graham observed. Modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music/American Music, noted that early audiences “responded to whatever was available. They could alternate between a melodrama and a Shakespearean tragedy, a minstrel show and a concert by Jenny Lind.”

River entertainers, in turn, learned to expect anything. A Shakespearean troupe worked down the Mississippi on a flatboat in 1835, self-billed as the “Ark Theatre,” staging Hamlet dockside at one village. “Here were music, madness, moonshine—philosophy, poetry and performances—comedy, tragedy and farce, all [on] water,” recounted an actor in attendance.

Lo, a real villain untied the barge, casting it adrift to “our horror and astonishment…,” the actor recorded, “finding ourselves in the mighty current of the Mississippi, floating downstream, without sail or rudder, at the rate of five miles an hour!” The craft was run ashore safely, but far downriver. “I will not tire your gracious patience with the details of our tramp through interminable swamp and across muddy creeks,” sniffed the dramatist. “Suffice it to say, that half the party lost their shoes and all their tempers, and that at about sunrise the next morning, a set of squalid, tired, bespattered and hungry wretches were seen entering the village.”

A theater audience lost control on a summer night at Louisville, indoors under gas chandelier and candlelight. “Louisville was a grand harbor for flatboat men and steamboat men,” explained a Courier-Journal account, decades later, recalling “the free-and-easy style of manners which were sometimes witnessed in the old theaters.”

At Samuel Drake’s theater on the evening of Louisville legend, 1837, audience action eclipsed the stage show after a drunken boatman passed out in tier seating. Had the man slept quietly “the attention of the crowd of spectators would not have been diverted from the stage, where several stars were moving in all their luster,” the paper recounted.

“Alas! The sleeper snored. He emitted long rolls of nasal thunder whose noise threatened to drown out the deep-chested declamation of the actors.” Objections arose immediately at rear of the auditorium, from sweaty river men packed in “the pit,” a sunken area for standing only. “The admission fee there was only a quarter, and the demons of the pit entered their part of the theater through the basement… For such an assembly the sleeper’s notes of defiance were too provoking.”

The snoring continued and catcalls increased until the sleeper woke suddenly, enraged, to curse and threaten his critics. “A knot of men in the pit directly under him especially attracted his attention by their demonstrations… so he quickly leaped over the railing, right in among them and began making his fists play furiously around him.”

“But his courage availed him nothing,” The Courier-Journal continued. “The pit wanted a fight badly… the usual arrangements of the night were completely reversed, the spectators being converted into impassioned actors, while the professional actors, arranged in the spangles, plumes and tinseled finery of the drama, looked in utter amazement on the contest that raged below them.” The offending theatergoer was beaten to the floor, “an unsightly mass of rags, blood and filth,” and carried out. Stage actors resumed their work but warily, lacking the passion of boatmen.

Louisville boomed as gateway to the West and far South, capitalizing on slave trade among businesses. Population spiked, ranking Louisville among leading U.S. cities, and entertainment options grew proportionately. Big circuses were spectacles that stretched urban blocks, such as the G.R. Spaulding and Dan Rice shows, inspiring a holiday atmosphere. Louisville hosted ventriloquists, magicians and occultists, and “human oddities” like Tom Thumb, with his manager P.T. Barnum, of the traveling American Museum and menagerie.

Stars in drama, comedy and music, talents of America and Europe, played regularly in Louisville, typically at Drake’s theater or the Apollo Rooms of William C. Peters and partners.

Drake, as in his management practice since the legendary Green Street Theatre in Albany, employed stock actors at Louisville while allowing amateurs their stage turns. “The Drake family were a magnificent company in themselves,” said E.S. Conner, American actor who tutored under Drake. “Samuel and his sons Sam and Jim were artists, each in their line. His daughter Julia was a transcendent lovely and fine actress. She [became] mother of the renowned Julia Dean.”

W.C. Peters, like the elder Drake, was a charismatic English emigrant, a talented musician and capable entrepreneur. Classically trained, Peters performed, composed and arranged songs prodigiously. He came to Louisville from Pittsburgh, opening a music store and teaching piano and guitar; he founded a music library, circulating sheets of lyric and melody.

Peters branched into song publishing around 1835, right on time for serving America’s first native wave of popular artists. These maverick musicians, primarily whites from the North, needed independent publishers like Peters of the West and South, in the beginning. Their collaboration proved integral for the marketing of purely American music, ballads and spirituals of English and African origins.

This antebellum American music, foreshadowing genre offshoots to come, was forged of interracial sharing, of positive synergy between whites and blacks, yet roiled by racial insensitivity and malice. Interracial greatness entwined with racial conflict would endure for generations in America, and mark the evolving, epic music of the South.

“Ironically, much of the distinctiveness of southern music comes from the region’s long juxtaposition of the white and black races and from its widespread rural poverty and isolation,” wrote Charles P. Roland, historian and editor, in 1979.

“Aesthetically unsophisticated and, by the usual standards, deprived, poor southerners responded by preserving and developing a folk tradition of ballads and spirituals, of blues and jazz, and of hillbilly, country, and gospel music. Finally, strains from all of these types blended to help create rock, the nearest thing there is, perhaps, to an ecumenical art form.”

Select References

Afloat—Chapman’s Floating Theatre. (1837, June 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Amusements. (1889, June 2). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 13.

An Old Actor’s Memories. (1881, June 5). New York Times, p. 10.

Baynham, Edward Gladstone. (1944). The Early Development of Music in Pittsburgh [PhD thesis]. University of Pittsburgh Graduate School: Pittsburgh PA.

Booth, J.B. (1835, July 17). Theatrical Adventures on the Mississippi. Weekly Mississippian, Jackson MS, p. 1.

Brown, Maria Ward. (1901). The Life of Dan Rice. Author published: Long Branch NJ.

Chapman. (1839, Aug. 15). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Chillicothee’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Cockrell, D. (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, and New York NY.

Co-Partnership. (1839, May 4). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Death of a Well-Known Citizen. (1866, April 23). Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 1.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Drake, J.G., & Peters, W.C. (1835). Wound Not Thou the Heart that Loves Thee. George Willig: Philadelphia PA.

Dramatics on a Flatboat. (1884, Jan. 20). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 14.

Dumont, F. (1896, April 5). The Origin of Minstrelsy. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.

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

First Appearance of Mr. Felix. (1836, June 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Gen. Tom Thumb. (1850, Jan. 23). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

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

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

He Is Truly American. (1889, Sept. 1). Why Pianist William M. Sherwood Is Fond of Chicago. Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Kleber, John E. (2015, Jan. 13). The Encyclopedia of Louisville. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Latest Eastern Musical Publications. (1845, May 6). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 4.

Letter From New York. (1850, Dec. 21). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998). Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, England.

Local and Provincial. (1848, Oct. 18). Free-Trade Hall—“Juba” and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Local and Provincial. (1849, Jan. 24). Juba and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Louisville Song Writers. (1900, Dec. 9). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 29.

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

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Messrs. “Potters and Waters.” (1837, Feb. 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Music. (1848, Oct. 2). New Orleans Crescent LA, p. 1.

Music at Home and Abroad. (1866, April 21). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Music of the Future. (1891, May 19). Chillicothe Morning Constitution MO, p. 3.

Musical Notes. (1889, Aug. 25). Chicago Tribune, p. 28.

Narine, D. (1995, June 18). African Music’s Journey to Mainstream. Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel FL, p. 1F.

New and Popular Music. (1849, Jan. 24). Nashville Tennessean, p. 3.

O’Connell, JoAnne. (2016). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham MD.

Owen, R. (2001, April 20). King of Pop: PBS Celebrates the Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. 44.

School For Young Ladies. (1836, Aug. 27). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 3.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

Tarbell, I.M. (1896, July 12). The Mississippi Valley Fleet. Salt Lake Herald UT, p. 10.

The Circus in Earlier Days. (1880, Dec. 9). [Advertisement.] Milan Exchange TN, p. 3.

Theatricals In Louisville. (1881, Dec. 11). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p.9.

Thompson, R. (1955, March 19). A Saturday Night Historical Notebook. Dixon Evening Telegraph IL, p.4

Two Nights more of the Great Magician. (1836, June 6). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

William C. Peters, 1805-1866. (Accessed 2017, Oct. 20). [online]. United States Library of Congress: Washington DC.

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


Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South

Twelfth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Monday, October 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Twenty-year-old Noah Ludlow figured he could sneak away from loved ones without informing them of his adventurous plan, or foolhardiness.

It was July of 1815 in Albany, N.Y., and Ludlow’s widowed mother fretted enough already. Her youngest son had left a business apprenticeship upon his father’s death, only to land at the local theater, of all places, where he pursued “a passion for histrionic fame,” as Ludlow later recalled in memoirs. “My mother was a very religious woman, of the strictest sect, and my father a man who found no particular pleasure in the so-called amusements of the day; therefore my very early youth had been kept free of such ‘delusions’ as theatres.”

Now Ludlow was leaving home to be an actor in the “far, far West,” having joined a theater troupe bound for Kentucky. Eastern actors with paying jobs had rejected the “wild scheme,” so troupe organizer Samuel Drake, Sr., solicited novices like Ludlow. “He told me very candidly that he was going on a voyage of adventure, which possibly might result disastrously,” Ludlow recounted. “I was too glad of an opportunity to embark in what had become now my entire ambition, to hesitate an hour in giving him an answer.”

Ludlow accepted enthusiastically but rued the thought of leaving his mother and young sister, and he told them nothing. Ludlow forwarded baggage to the Albany coach office then, at daybreak of his departure, crept through the family home. “I quietly walked from my bedroom, and as I passed that of my mother, the door standing ajar, I beheld her on her knees in prayer, and heard her utter these words: ‘Oh, Father! Be with him in his journey through life, and keep his soul from sin.’ My heart nearly failed me… I rushed out of the house and saw her no more for 10 years.”

“This was the first regretful act of my life,” Ludlow later confessed. “Reflection soon brought to my mind the anguish of that mother who almost doted on the son that had left her without a parting word, and the thought haunted me like a ghost.” An older brother disavowed Ludlow, calling him a “genteel vagabond” unworthy of family name.

Nonetheless, Ludlow and the rest of Drake’s humble troupers were following a destiny—“pioneer actors of the West,” by a later pronouncement—for a country yet unfolding. Modern historian Louis Gerteis, specializing in entertainment lineage of St. Louis, observed: “In  a  period  of  American  history  that  textbooks  traditionally  associate  with  the ‘politics of the common man,’ an outburst of theatrical entertainment brought an abrupt end  to  a  long-standing  American  bias  against  theatrical  entertainment. The period between 1820 and 1850 marked an unprecedented era of  theatricality.”

In summer 1815, the humble Drake company of 11 actors and actresses were harbingers of a movement, “a stream of theatrical migration westward,” observed Gerteis. The troupe traveled rural New York, working little theaters, presenting productions of tragedy and comedy interspersed with song. Ludlow took the stage at Cooperstown, overdoing his villainous character in “damned bad” fashion, Drake criticized, but novelist James Fenimore Cooper enjoyed the show and encouraged “our pioneer efforts in the cause of the drama,” Ludlow recalled.

At Canandaigua the group outfitted with a pack wagon, small carriage and three horses for the 150-mile trek southwest, to headwaters of the Allegheny River. Able troupers walked the distance, like Ludlow. The wagons and horses were sold at Olean, N.Y., a river access point of few cabins where Drake purchased a flatboat for transport south to Pittsburgh. The American frontier confronted young Ludlow, born and reared in New York City. “The men, especially the young ones, were expected to ‘rough it,’ and rough it we did,” he wrote.

Another traveler joined the Drake party at Olean to complete a dozen for boarding the boat, of adults and teenagers. They were Samuel Drake, Sr., troupe manager, age 46, and his children Samuel, Jr., Alexander, James, Martha, and the youngest, Julia, at 15; Noah M. Ludlow; Frances Ann Denny; Joe Tracy, a stage hand; Mr. and Mrs. J.O. Lewis, with he a carpenter; and the young newcomer, Hull, an army lieutenant during the recent war with England, returning home to the Mississippi Valley.

Drake’s flatboat was a small barge of Kentucky “broadhorn” style, about 25-feet long by 15-feet wide, with sideboards and two compartments for sleeping. A long-stem paddle served as guidance system, mounted at rear, with hardwood poles for emergency maneuvering. The boatload besides people included food provisions, cookware, personal baggage, tools, and stage accessories: a drop curtain, green carpeting, and scenery backdrops, six painted on drapery such as a kitchen setting and a garden.

The party launched for Pittsburgh, 260 miles down the Allegheny, about 10 days by flatboat, and stopped the first night on an island—“for fear of wild beasts, less likely to visit us there than on the mainland,” Ludlow wrote. Coffee and food were prepared over campfire. “I must say, I never enjoyed a meal more in my entire life than that rural supper. After our evening meal, the men smoked, and the ladies sang, and the time passed delightfully.”

But daytime in July on the boat deck proved unbearable. The sun was searing amid drought for mountainous western Pennsylvania; the Allegheny stood at low stage with current at a crawl. Heat was miserable on the flatboat, and females suffered for their dense garments. A small canopy and umbrellas didn’t shield well enough so a scenery panel was unfurled for cover. Rest was finally possible but the rudderless barge drifted into a mill channel, dammed ahead. Men leapt overboard to halt the heavy flatboat, and they towed it back to the river by rope,  walking the bank and tugging against current.

At nightfall wolves yipped and howled along the Allegheny, having frightened the theater group since the overland trails of New York. Wolf packs prowled the river valley, seemingly the only beings after dark for boat travelers of remote Pennsylvania. “The country then was very wild, the buildings small log cabins, and the accommodations very limited,” Ludlow wrote later in memoirs, utilizing a personal diary of the 1815 trip.

On most nights the Drake party landed, mooring at a settlement if possible, where beds and food might be procured. The boat compartments slept the married couple in one, teen girls in the other, while everyone else sought a comfortable way to lie down. A barn with hay or straw suited the men, if available. One night the river-weary troupe landed late at a darkened homestead “indicating cleanliness and plenty,” Ludlow wrote. “It was a substantial Pennsylvania farmhouse, large and well built.”

The owner came out in greeting, an affluent doctor and farmer who rousted his family to meet the “comedians.” A 10 o’clock supper went on in the kitchen while peach brandy was served in the music parlor. Sam Drake, Jr., classically trained in violin, was impressive in “scraping off” a Scottish ballad and English opera melody, accompanied on piano by the doctor’s wife. The army veteran Hull “astonished us all…,” Ludlow attested, “by sitting down to the piano and playing one or two marches and some other pieces in a very creditable manner.” Merriment continued past midnight, and everyone who needed a bed was accommodated on the estate. The gracious hosts also sent a ham, live chickens and vegetables downriver with the travelers.

A few nights later the Drake troupe reached headwaters of the Alleghany River, “Three Rivers,” where the former met the Monongahela to form the Ohio. “About nine o’clock… to our great delight, the glimmerings of a city broke into our view,” Ludlow recalled of arriving at Pittsburgh. The flatboat docked and the young males went downtown in search of lodging and excitement. Even in darkness, the city’s trademark of coal industry was apparent in soot-covered buildings and streets.

The local theater was sooty too, as the thespians discovered. “It was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city [and] had been built, I think, by some amateur in theatricals,” Ludlow wrote. “It contained a pit and one tier of boxes, as they were called… The decorations, if such they might be termed, were of the plainest kind, and every portion bore the Pittsburgh stamp upon it—coal smut.”

Drake’s troupe cleaned the theater to open a Pittsburgh season of productions, which quickly drew 400 spectators nightly, including miners, boatmen, foundry workers, mechanics and livery drivers. Ludlow would remember “beautiful ladies” and a formative period of his career. “The success I met with in my first two weeks in a regular theatre, and in a city of no small consequence even at that early day, gave me great hopes that I might ultimately become an actor of some notoriety. In thought, I saw a realization of my youthful daydreams. [Drake] was obliged, owing to the limited number of his company, to give me characters of importance to play, quite beyond my inexperience to do justice… But my ambition was great, and I labored hard to gratify its cravings.”

The triumphant actors launched from Pittsburgh in a bigger, better flatboat, to float the Ohio southwesterly for 400 miles. Several of the northerners experienced the South for first time, touching down in Virginia then Kentucky, slave-holding states along the great river. At Limestone, Ky., the group unloaded and Drake sold the barge, obtaining more wagons and horses for an overland tour to Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville.

The Limestone port led into Kentucky where Daniel Boone and frontiersmen had battled Shawnee Indians until the 1790s. Now U.S. territory stretched to the Rocky Mountains, Boone and followers were resettled outside St. Louis, and native tribes were removed or contained. The new West and South were open for entertainment of actors and musicians.

The Drakes went on to establish the Louisville City Theatre, an American showcase for drama and music in the Ohio Valley. Historians anointed the Drakes as a first family of popular entertainment in America.

Noah M. Ludlow opened the first showboat in 1817, a hundred-foot barge without steam power at Natchez on the Mississippi River. Later he co-founded theaters in New Orleans, Mobile and St. Louis. Ludlow partnered with Sol Smith, another New York native thespian, as they “dominated the theatrical world in the South and West for nearly two decades and became noted for their fair dealings with performers,” according to a modern analysis.

Arthur Hornblow, author of a 1919 history on American theater, saluted Ludlow and the humble Drake troupe of lore: “The pampered stage favorite of today who gazes idly out of the [train] window, as his private car speeds smoothly across the continent… can have little idea of the hardships and perils the pioneer actors of the West had to face when they set out a hundred years ago to carry the message of Thespis through the American backwoods.”

Select References

Bakeless, J. (1939). Daniel Boone: Master of The Wilderness. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln NE.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

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

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

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

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

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

Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Eleventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Saturday, September 30, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

America’s early steamboats shocked witnesses along the major rivers, conjuring fear in many, doom in the very naive.

Thurlow Weed was a boy at Catskill, N.Y., in 1807, when he joined chums on an island to watch Robert Fulton’s maiden steam voyage up the Hudson. “We had heard for several days that some sort of vessel was coming up the river against wind and without sails. Such a thing was regarded as utterly impossible,” Weed later recalled, as a prominent newspaperman.

“Finally we saw the monster coming, vomiting fire and smoke and throwing up sparks. The paddlewheels were not covered. We were frightened almost out of our senses, and at first ran out of sight, but presently took courage and cheered the pioneer steamboat with the people that lined the bank of the river.”

A Fulton-backed steamboat launched on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in late 1811, christened the “New Orleans.” The $38,000 steamer was built “for the navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to carry goods and passengers between New Orleans and the different towns of those rivers,” eastern newspapers reported.

“We are told she is an excellent well-constructed vessel;  about 140 feet long, will carry 400 tons of goods, has elegant accommodations for passengers, and is every way fitted in great style. It is supposed that she will go 35 miles  a day against the stream… considerably faster with the current.”

The news moved slower downriver from Pittsburgh than the boat, however. The Ohio and Mississippi valleys—encompassing most western states and incorporated U.S. territories—stood hardly informed that a “steam boat” was en route. And epic earthquakes would raise tension as the foreign machine appeared on western waters.

The New Orleans steamed into Louisville, Ky., by moonlight, alarming inhabitants of both shores, Indiana Territory as well. “The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumor of such an invention had never reached,” The Louisville Courier later recounted.

Farther downstream on the Indiana shore, the steamer attracted settlers who expressed “great alarm,” but not because of the boat. Locals attested of hearing “strange noises on the river and in the woods.” They claimed the shoreline shook earlier that day, “insisting that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble.” Indeed, the earthquakes of 1811-12 had begun from an epicenter in Missouri Territory at New Madrid, along the Mississippi River, some 170 miles southwest of the steamboat’s location.

Small tremors had been undetectable aboard the steamboat on the Ohio, with the loud engine’s rattling everything, but deck occupants felt jarring that night at anchor. The next day, as a crewman would recall, “we heard a rushing sound, violent splash, and finally saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and lapsing into the watery abyss. It was a startling scene… the crew spoke but little.”

The steamboat reached the mouth of the Ohio a week before Christmas, at confluence with the Mississippi River, and crewmen moored on the southern tip of Illinois Territory, future site of Cairo settlement. Directly across the Mississippi sprawled a vast alluvial plain—Missouri Territory of swamp and virgin timber, sparsely populated. A few folks met the steamer on the Illinois side, woodcutters drawn to the landing by talk of “a great monster walking upon the water.”

But earthquakes had become everyone’s concern. Massive shocks erupted as the steamboat headed southward on the Mississippi around Dec. 19, 1811. “Trees along the shores of the river were seen waving and nodding… and all this violence seemed only to increase,” the Louisville paper recounted. “The steamer New Orleans had no choice but to pursue its course down the river… a fearful stream, now unusually swollen, turbid and full of trees.”

The boat docked for a time at New Madrid village, seismic ground zero where the “greatest distress and consternation” gripped residents. “Part of the population had fled in terror to the higher grounds; others prayed… as the earth was opening in fissures on every side, and their houses hourly falling around them.” Superstitious types blamed the steamboat, declaring its manifestation in concert with a current comet at night triggered catastrophic earthquakes and likely end of time.

Thirty miles downstream, at Little Prairie village in future Pemiscot County, Missouri, the steamer was “brought to by the cries of some of the people who thought the earth was gradually sinking,” stated a Natchez dispatch. “Some distance below the Little Prairie the bank of the river had caved in to a considerable extent, and two islands had almost disappeared.”

The steamboat chugged on, passing the Chickasaw Bluffs where Memphis would soon rise, to reach Natchez on Dec. 30 and load cotton bales, the ship’s first cargo. The steamer finally docked at namesake city New Orleans on Jan. 10, 1812; Louisiana statehood was pending, three months away.

“The New Orleans entered the American bloodstream at a propitious moment,” observed modern author Robert H. Gudmestad in his Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. “The Louisiana Purchase had recently doubled the country’s size and Americans were eagerly moving over the Appalachian Mountains.”

By 1860, states of the great Mississippi drainage basin boasted almost half the American population. “The interior South—those slave states west of the Appalachian Mountains—figured prominently in these changes,” Gudmestad noted. “Its population shot from 806,000 to nearly 7 million people… When the New Orleans completed its first voyage, over 17,000 people lived in New Orleans. Fifty years later, 168,675 people dwelled there. Memphis, a city that did not exist in 1812 and owed its existence to riverboats, was the country’s thirty-eighth largest city in 1860.”

“A decade after the first riverboat touched the New Orleans levee, over seventy steamers prowled the western waters. By the time Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House, the number surpassed eight hundred.”

Select References

A Talk With Thurlow Weed. (1878, July 1). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Bagnall, N.H. (1996). On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

La Pariere. (1884, Jan. 6). Opening The Ohio: Initial Trip of the New Orleans, Made During the Convulsive Earthquake of 1811. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 9.

Latrobe, C. (1856, Feb. 15). First Steamboat in the West. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 1.

Natchez, Jan. 2. (1812, Feb. 22). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, St. Louis, p. 2.

Steam Boat. (1811, Oct. 18). Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, p.2.

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

Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Tenth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

With the 19th century concluding in America, as the first musical notes of jazz and “ragtime” rose along the Mississippi River, a pioneer pop artist was remembered again for his great old song.

Nelson Kneass was famous before the Civil War, playing his hit Ben Bolt on piano and banjo, when the sheet music sold thousands in America and abroad. The legend revived during the 1890s, long after Kneass died in rural Missouri. A popular novel and stage drama featured Ben Bolt, the “plaintive melody” sung by comely heroine Trilby O’Ferrall—under hypnosis of the evil Svengali, no less—and suddenly fans worshipped a dead pop star in Kneass.

Kneass was a Pennsylvania native who sang Ben Bolt as early as May 1847, according to advertisements of the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, although initially he might’ve used music of other composers. Various musicians were adapting the song from a poem, in forgettable versions, until Kneass arranged his smash hit. “Kneass was not only an excellent singer but also a very capable pianist, a versatile banjoist, and a talented composer [presenting] first-class entertainment,” observed historian Ernest C. Krohn.

Vocalist Joseph H. McCann said Kneass produced his golden take of Ben Bolt during a riverboat trip they shared from Memphis around 1847, steaming up the Mississippi then eastward on the Ohio. Kneass finished his composition on a landing at Grahamton, Ky., and summoned McCann, according to Will S. Hays of The Louisville Courier-Journal. “If we are not mistaken, Mr. McCann was the first person who ever sang [Ben Bolt by Kneass]… He did so from the manuscript,” reported Hays, a noted lyricist and columnist. McCann toured with the famed Kneass Operatic Troupe and other companies, but ceased in the early 1850s to open a music store in Louisville, among his successful business ventures.

Kneass continued in entertainment but his name faded in the war period. Struggling financially, Kneass complained of receiving paltry royalties for Ben Bolt, a tune beloved in America like Home Sweet Home and the classic Oh Susanna—which Kneass had introduced, incidentally, on stage. A wife died in a riverboat accident while his drinking and declining health caused problems. One story had Kneass arriving at his own funeral, after missing for days, to stun family members and friends gathered round a corpse they’d mistaken for him, fished from a river.

The performer felt illness creeping by September 1869, stomach malaise, while a Kneass troupe toured northern Missouri. His condition worsened on a train ride and he succumbed that night, Sept. 8, at a boarding house in a railroad town named Chillicothe. Nelson Kneass died virtually penniless at about age 46, leaving a young wife and children. His widow could afford $6 for the burial but no gravestone, and the family relied on charity for money to travel home in the East. Surviving troupe players made do from Missouri, largely on their own.

Publicity, praise revived for the showman in his wake. “Nelson Kneass… is dead,” announced a theater critic, unidentified, in The Memphis Appeal. “He was one of those men that worked hard, lived poor and died miserably. He was a genius.”

“He was a fine musician and composed much…,” saluted a newspaper commentary, widely printed. “Ben Bolt was sung in the lordly mansions and in the lowly cottages all over the land. There was a sadness and sweetness that touched all hearts alike.”

“He was the author and originator of very many popular songs,” said Sam S. Sanford, American stage legend, in remembering Kneass. “He and Stephen Foster are the two bards of the minstrels… Kneass belonged to Philadelphia, and as a boy was dressed in petticoats [impersonating girls] on the stage. He was with the Wood’s [minstrels] at Park Theatre in New York, when English opera was first produced. He died poor and unattended by friends… The publishers of Ben Bolt made $50,000 from that one song alone, and its author often needed bread.”

Eventually a modest granite marker was placed on the Kneass grave in Missouri, and the site stood undisturbed a few decades. Then came the “Trilby” sensation, 1890s, the sexy storyline made fashionable through a magazine serial, a best-selling book, and a stage production.

Neo-fandom for Kneass was vogue and visitors to the Chillicothe cemetery cracked into his tombstone, carrying away pieces. “Kneass’s grave was marked until within the last year or so, when curiosity and relic hunters have chipped souvenirs from the slab,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899, adding that “scarcely enough of it remains to show that a headstone had ever been there.”

Select References

A Monument To Be Built at Chillicothe, Mo., in Honor of Nelson Kneass, Composer of “Ben Bolt.” (1899, May 21). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 34.

Amusements. (1869, Sept. 19). Memphis Daily Appeal TN, p. 4.

Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, Aug. 12). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

Ben Bolt. (1869, Oct. 1). Fort Wayne Daily Gazette IN, p. 1.

Ben Bolt. (1894, Oct. 21). Washington Post DC, p. 4.

“Ben Bolt” Author in Missouri Grave. (1913, March 9). St. Louis Star and Times MO, p. 24.

Chillicothe Cullings. (1883, Dec. 11). St. Joseph Gazette-Herald MO, p. 3.

Chillicothe’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

Death of The Author of “Ben Bolt.” (1869, Sept. 25). Clarksville Chronicle TN, p. 1.

Free Concerts Every Evening This Week At The Eagle Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, May 27). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

From Thursday’s Daily, Sept. 16. (1869, Sept. 18). Weekly Atchison Champion KS, p. 3.

Grise, G.C. (1947, August). Will S. Hays: His Life and Works [master’s thesis]. Department of English, Western Kentucky State Teachers College: Bowling Green KY.

Hays, W.S. (1883, May 26). The Late Joseph McCann. Memphis Public Ledger TN, p. 1.

Krohn, E.C. (1971). Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer. Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, 7, pp. 17-41. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Missouri Points. (1897, Feb. 18). Kansas City Journal MO, p. 4.

Most Melancholy Accident—Death of Mrs. Kneass, Late Mrs. Sharpe. (1848, Feb. 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Naming Theatre “Ben Bolt” Revives Famous Old Song. (1949, Aug. 16). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 11.

Nelson Kneass’ Double. (1896, April 12). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 34.

Personal. (1868, July 4). Nashville Tennessean, p. 2.

Songs We Used To Sing. (1890, Sept. 20). Sterling Daily Gazette IL, p. 3.

The Kneass Opera Troupe [advertisement]. (1847, Oct. 16). Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 3.

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

The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Ninth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

During the 1960s, U.S. Highway 61 was reduced to a byway in southeast Missouri—and throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley—supplanted by Interstate 55 of the new federal road system. And traveling southbound from Cape Girardeau and Scott City, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning vista: the great delta flatland, stretching out of sight. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, seemingly melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.

Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, according to geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th century, with the delta basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than one thousand cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists concluded that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift of the valley, would never resolve for the encroachment of boulders far underground.

Pristine delta swamps and spillways were drained in the early 1900s, giving way to farms and communities from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. In the “reclaimed” delta, basic scenery amounted to level crop rows, on and on—gigantic expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines.

On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet it became the talent wellspring of American music. Multiple musical genres were impacted: gospel, jazz, blues, country, folk, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the primary delta factor, said music authorities and others, was the struggle of class and race for people who tried to forge a living from a harsh frontier.

“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Sam Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”

The delta musicians “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, a records magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks, in 1970. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

As a boy Johnny Cash helped family clear tangled swampland for their meager farm at Dyess, Ark., where floodwater was a constant threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.

“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”

Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday delta expressions. The language of her native southeast Missouri “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said in 2006. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”

“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”

Select References

Brown, T. [Prod.], & Perry, H. [Dir.] (1994). Rhythm, Country and Blues [VHS]. MCA Records: Universal City CA.

Chipmunks to Millions. (1977, Aug. 24). Manhattan Mercury KS, p. 15.

Drew, R. (1967, Aug. 19). Listen Hear. Pasadena Independent Star-News CA, p.7.

Eberhart, J.M. (2006, May 14). ‘The Land Is Rich’: Missouri Author Brings a Sense of Place to Her Writing. Kansas City Star, p. H6.

Elvis ‘Got Black Music Into White Homes.’ (1979, Aug. 17). Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, p. 15.

Fisk, H.N. (1944, Dec. 1). Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. U.S. Mississippi River Commission, War Department Corps of Engineers: Vicksburg MS.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian Music Legend: The Story of an Arkansas Rock Singer and His Band. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater Revives Its Delta Heritage. Los Angeles Times, p. B18.

Holbrook, J.M. (1994, June 6). Interview with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Holbrook, J.M. (2017, Sept. 14). Email correspondence with author.

Holbrook, J.M., Snowden, J.O., & Aide, M.T. (1996, Feb. 5). Interviews with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 55 Portion South Opened Today. (1965, Sept. 1). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Landforms of Southeast Missouri [map]. (1987). USDA-SCS-National Cartographic Center: Ft. Worth TX.

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

1956: Girls Mob Elvis from Missouri to New York

Eighth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, August 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Screaming girls confronted Elvis Presley in the South by early 1955, signaling his popularity. In southwest Texas his name wasn’t yet electric, “but his star was already destined to rise heavenward,” reporter Sam Kindrick later recalled. “He had that indefinable charisma which turns female innards to mush, female knees to rubber, and sends them into a hysterical state of screeching woozels. When he finished his performance in the Alpine High School auditorium, girls were hoisting their dresses so that Presley could autograph their petticoats.”

The “first Presley riot” concluded a show in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 13.  Elvis kidded about meeting every girl backstage so a mob chased him there, scaring his mother in the audience. That summer females tore away his shirts, including at the B&B Club in Bootheel Missouri. Soon Presley signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and sold a million copies of his Heartbreak Hotel.

Elvis starred on national television, easily passed a Hollywood screen test, and fan madness escalated. “Wherever he appears, screaming crowds of teen-age girls make his entrances and exits a test of strength…,” The United Press reported from New York City in spring 1956, “and the young rock-n-roll hillbilly, or ‘rockabilly,’ invariably ends up minus a jacket, shirt and tie.”

Presley said, “It’s all happening so fast that some nights I just can’t fall asleep. It scares me, you know. It just scares me.”

Weeks later, he showed up shirtless for a press conference in Kansas City, Mo. “Elvis wore a thin sport jacket, gray with black flecks in it,” reported The Kansas City Star Times, “and otherwise was entirely buff bare above the waist.”

Rabid fans necessitated the style, claimed Presley. “These people, teenagers mostly, kept tearing my shirt off—just had to quit wearing ’em,” said the 21-year-old heartthrob. “Never wear a necktie, of course. It can be dangerous—some girl grabbing at my neck could choke me. Never wear a belt. Seems like that’s what they go for next to neckties.” Presley said fans removed watches and rings from him. “They strip anything off me if they get a chance.”

The paper described Presley as “rather handsome. He has big, solemn eyes [of] gray-green, long brown hair cut ducktail and long sideburns.” Presley declined to smile for a photographer, “brooding” instead for the shot.

A newsman posed: “Now you’re in the big time and in the big money. How does it feel to be mobbed by teen-agers everywhere you go?”

“First of all, I wouldn’t say I get mobbed,” Presley continued at the airport presser. “I wouldn’t call a bunch of teenagers a mob. I’d just say they get very excited. They’re excitable… like down in Tulsa a few weeks ago they threw rocks to break out the windows so they could get at me. But when they get inside they only want to shake hands with me, get an autograph or maybe tear off some of my clothes for souvenirs.”

“Now, about being in the big time. It’s really great but I’m more nervous than I used to be… After a show I go up the alley to my hotel and in through a back door… so people can’t contact me. I got to get a little rest.”

A reporter noted that girls chased Presley far more than pop icons Frank Sinatra and Johnny Ray, previously.

“I don’t just know how big they went for Sinatra or Johnny Ray,” Elvis responded. “I hate to say how big they go for me. It would sound like bragging. I guess it’s because I sing rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is so hot right now.”

Shrieking females greeted Elvis at Kansas City Municipal Auditorium on May 24, 1956, when he took the stage with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. The music started and Presley went into action. “Between gyrations, Elvis jigs across the stage dragging the microphone after him and leaning at almost horizontal angles,” Bill Moore reported for The Star Times. “He whangs the daylights out of a guitar. He shouts and moans.”

The few policemen on hand sensed a bad situation. “Police gathered on the stage,” Moore recounted. “Others strode at a sort of a dog trot around the sides, attempting to herd the girls back—gently but just sort of firmly… Elvis got through four or five songs before the roof finally fell in. A girl got past the police, bounced up on the stage, and hugged and kissed her panting [idol]. A policeman got her off again, but the signal for the avalanche was on… [kids] poured over the front and over the sides of the stage.”

The United Press reported: “Rock and roll singer Elvis Presley and his band just gave up and quit in the middle of their show… hundreds of teenagers rushed up onto the stage, threw his drummer into the orchestra pit, tore a bright red coat off Presley, and damaged band equipment. Lights were quickly turned out and Presley and his crew escaped further danger from the crowd of mostly girls who reduced [Black’s] upper clothing to a collar of shred-like tassels.”

Moore watched Presley flee, with or without his side men. “Elvis fought his way clear of the hysterical swarm of teen-age girls that broke through the police lines, then he jumped into a motor car parked in the corridor backstage, and was off like a frightened gazelle.”

The Elvis escapade, only the latest to make headlines, amused entertainment columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in New York. “Elvis Presley’s brain trust is having a harder time keeping his name out of the papers than getting it in these days—the crown prince of rock ’n’ roll leads such a colorful life and has such impetuous admirers,” Kilgallen declared.

Presley had rare places to hide by Thanksgiving 1956. Not even in delta southeast Missouri, around relatives, could the pop superstar enjoy privacy. Holiday dinner for the Presley family was foiled, at least for Elvis to attend. Relatives were notified he couldn’t leave Memphis for the get-together at Sikeston, where the negative development dampened “considerable excitement,” according to a local newspaper.

“Sorry, girls, maybe another time,” the reporter cracked.

Not likely. Now Presley starred in movies, banking his first million dollars. People pursued him everywhere, media and all sorts, including sanctimonious preachers who condemned rock music. Fan mail brought 10,000 letters a week. Girls at Springfield, Mo., were irate to learn Presley had stopped in town on a train without public notice; a reporter who’d kept the secret in exchange for an interview received 300 nasty letters.

Elvis stalkers reached family members, who learned silence regarding the reclusive celebrity. Personal information about Elvis, like his coming and going, was becoming family confidential from Mississippi to Missouri.

If the public Elvis were gone along Highway 61, his effect carried on in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Presley’s former local presence and his exploding publicity—national spotlight, global fame in ’56—left lasting impact in the upper delta. More young males passed over activities like ball sports to concentrate on music.

A New York marketer joked he might move to Memphis and “open a used guitar lot.”

Series continues soon at

Select References

706 Union Avenue Sessions. (Accessed 2017, Aug. 24).

Bass, M.R. (1956, Sept. 18). The Lively Arts. Berkshire Eagle MA, p. 16.

Belser, E. (1956, March 30). Elvis Presley and His Guitar Locate Success. Corsicana Daily Sun TX, p. 3.

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and Country Boy Still. Burlington Daily Times-News NC, p. 41.

Elvis Will Not Be Here. (1956, Nov. 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 4.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Gardner, H. (1956, Nov. 6). Coast To Coast. New York Herald Tribune, p. 13.

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Johns, P. (2016, May 26). Elvis Comes to The Ozarks. Bolivar Herald-Free Press MO [online].

Kilgallen, D. (1956, June 4). Elvis Keeps Brain Trust Rocking. Washington Post, p. 32.

Kindrick, S. (1972, March 16). Offbeat: It’ll Be a Madhouse When Presley Appears. San Antonio Express TX, p. 22.

Lloyd, J. (1977, June 5). Elvis Presley: The Once and Past King. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 40.

May 13, 1955—Jax Fans Chase Elvis After Show, Tear Off His Clothes. (Access 2017, Aug. 24).

Million Sellers Launch Legend of a Heartbreaker. (1977, Aug. 20). San Antonio Express TX, p. 4.

Moore, B. (1956, May 22). Cool, Man, Especially Minus Shirt: To Keep Teen-Agers From Ripping Them Off, Singer Elvis Presley Just goes Without. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1, 2.

Moore, B. (1956, May 25). Rolls When They Rock: Elvis Presley Flees to Car After 20 Minutes On Stage. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1A, 2A.

Presley Says He’s Scared. (1956, May 14). Monroe County News IA, p. 8.

Robertson, H. (1957, Oct. 23). Presley Families Shudder When Telephone Rings. Harrisburg Daily Register IL, p. 7.

Ross, D. (1956, Nov. 11). Long-Haired Idol of Bobby-Soxers. New York Herald Tribune, p. D1.

Teenagers Mob, Break Up Show of Elvis Presley. (1956, May 25). Monroe News-Star LA, p. 10.

Wilson, E. (1958, Jan. 14). It Happened Last Night. Newsday, p. 4C.

Wood, D. (1956, April 19). Presley Leaves’Em Limp—8,000 Squeal at 1st Show. Tulsa World, pp. B1, B7.

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