The Black Opera.
(From the N. Y. Tribune, June 30, 1855)
If the lyricism of Stersichorus or of Anacreon be regarded at an embodiment of the characteristic sentiments of the ancients; if the genius of Aleaeus and of Sappho perpetuated the mysterious music of the olden fane, unvoiced before—why may not the banjoism of a Congo, an Ethiopian or a George Christy, aspire to an equality with the musical and poetical delineators of all nationalities? It may indeed be urged that the banjo is not as classical an instrument as the lyre of the ancients—that the metrical compositions of the colored race and their imitators fall a trifle beneath the standard of excellence at which custom has rated the poets of antiquity—that the use of the jaw-bone and bellows, of Mechanics' Hall notoriety, cannot be countenanced by the votaries of aesthetic pursuits. All this may be urged by the erudite stickler for conventionalities and accepted by others of his class, but the world will go on believing, as it now believes, that truthfulness to nature is the vitality of Art; that music is only true to its high mission when it expounds the subtle philosophy of the soul, the language of the heart, the mystery of the senses, with the infinite emotions, passions, thoughts, which constitute the nature of man; and that whether the instrument which subserves this purpose chances to be a lyre or a banjo, or whether the people whose lives and emotions are thus perpetuated be the highest or the lowest type of the human family, the result is still the same, differing only in the standard of its influence and the character which that influence assumes. Absurd as may seem negro minstrelsy to the refined musician, it is nevertheless beyond doubt that it expresses the peculiar characteristics of the negro as truly as the great masters of Italy represent their more spiritual and profound nationality. And although the melody of "Long-Tailed Blue" may not possess the intellectual properties of an aria by Bellini, yet it will contain as much truth to the humanity of which it assumes to be the exponent, and quite as much enthusiasm will be manifested by its listeners.
Whether the black opera originated in Numidia, or on the banks of the Nile, history nor tradition saith not. Its first appearance in "good society" may be set down to 1822, when, in a drama produced at Drury-lane Theatre, in London, Dibdin introduced the character of a negro, who, in the course of the piece, sang a ballad, of which we give one stanza:
"Ribal King he make great strife,
The "dingle, jingle, tangaro" is the only portion of this composition which smacks of originality; the rest was tame and vapid, but suited to the audience for which it was intended. About the same time O'Keefe, in the operetta of Paul and Virginia, borrowed the idea of a colored solo, and gave a very passing and characteristic melody. Subsequently, Carney Burns, the clown of a circus company performing at the Park Theatre, sang, between the acts, a composition which he termed "Gumbo Chaff." Its popularity was immediate, and the eccentric Carney immediately became an object of considerable importance; but the appearance, during the same season, of an illustrious competitor for the palm of negro lyricism caused his star to fade and gradually disappear. It was at this epoch that Mr. T. D. Rice made his debut in a dramatic sketch entitled "Jim Crow," and from that moment everybody was "doing just so," and continued "doing just so" for months, and even years afterward. Never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written of, and nothing dreamed of, but "Jim Crow." The most sober citizens began to "wheel about, and turn about, and jump Jim Crow." It seemed as though the entire population had been bitten by the tarantula; in the parlor, in the kitchen, in the shop and in the street, Jim Crow monopolized public attention. It must have been a species of insanity, though of a gentle and pleasing kind, for it made hearts lighter, and merrier, and happier; it smoothed away frowns and wrinkles, and replaced them with smiles. Its effects were visible alike on youth and age.
The success of Mr. Rice called out numerous imitators. "Sittin' on a rail," "Getting up stairs," "Long-tailed blue," "Zip Coon," &c., succeeded each other rapidly, and for the time being Negro Minstrelsy was the ruling power. "Goosey Gander," and "Old Dan Tucker" came afterward—and who is there that cannot recollect the enthusiasm with which the first appearance of "Dandy Jim" was hailed? How often that colored gentleman came from "Caroline," it would be impossible to estimate, but we suppose it would bear comparison with the number of occasions on which the ancient and venerable darkey was made to sing "Carry me back to old Virginny." The homeliness, the truthfulness of these compositions, established their popularity. There was nothing facetious in them; they filled a void in public amusement, which was beginning to be sensibly experienced, and from their very naturalness appealed to the sympathy of the multitude. Particularly was this the case with the younger portion of our population, most of whom have grown up to be men and women since then. For if the songs were of a humorous character, it was humor of a positive, gushing kind—boisterous fun, just suited to the nature of youth, and not without its effect upon the risibilities of the oldest; or if the air was a saddened one, there was a pathos in its mournful simplicity, quite as impressive as any waves of melody which ever gushed from the soul of a composer. Who has not often observed the tear of sensibility moistening the cheek of youth, while listening to the primitive strains of "Uncle Ned"—that poor old colored gentleman, who has gone "where the good darkies go"? Ah, those tears constituted one of the blessings of that youth, which has now departed. Sorrow and disappointment have doubtless weighed heavily upon many a heart since that spring of life passed away, with its smiles and tears. We can no longer smile at "Lucy Neal," nor weep at the pathetic story of "Uncle Edward." And, in the meantime, has there been no change in the feelings of the true originators of this music—the negroes themselves? Are the great mass of those held to labor on Southern plantations the same careless, brutalized race they were twenty years ago? We believe not. Let the Southern traveler of to-day compare notes with one who went over the ground even ten years ago, and he will find a striking change in the mental characteristics of this unhappy people. The gay laugh and cheerful song are not heard with former frequency; there is less of that noisy exuberance which not long since was regarded as a trait in the African disposition. The old, unmeaning compositions of the plantation have fallen into disuse, and if they sing now there is memory in their songs. Plaintive and slow, the sad soul of the slave throws into his music all that gushing anguish of spirit which he dare not otherwise express. And yet the careless reviewer of events, observing not the causes or consequences, mourns what he terms the decadence of national negro minstrelsy!
The "Virginia Minstrels" was the first organized band of performers that appeared in public. This comprised the following individuals, who have since enjoyed considerable notoriety in their vocation: Dan Emmett, Whitlock, Pelham, Frank Bower, E. P. Christy and George Christy. The Company afterward changed their appellation to "Christy's Minstrels." The first performance they gave was in Water Street, Buffalo, 1842. Being very successful in the new experiment, they traveled through the West and South, where George Christy acquired that intimate knowledge of negro character which has since made his performances so acceptable. It was in Lexington, Kentucky, that he first saw the jaw-bone and bellows accompaniment introduced by a juvenile specimen of the African race, and he was the first who used these doubtfully melodious instruments in the concert-room. E. P. Christy was among the first to harmonize songs for public performance. We can well remember when the well-known ditty of "Lucy Long" made its appearance, and with what success its author, night after night, informed the audience that he had—
"—Just come out afore you
Among the most successful writers of Negro Songs may be mentioned Mr. Silas Steele, Cool White, Stephen C. Foster, and George Washington Dixon. The last-named individual is well known to Gothamites, both for his musical and literary proclivities. He was one of the earliest votaries of the colored opera, and his muse was among the first employed in its behalf. While performing at the Park Theatre he introduced the "Ching-a-ring Chaw," which afterward became so popular:
"Broder, let us leabe Buera land for Hettee,
This has the ringing sound of true metal. A long residence in the South doubtless furnished the material for many of the productions of the erratic Dixon, whose life was so checkered and full of incident. The "Coal Black Rose" was another of his popular melodies:
"Lubly Rose, Sambo cum,
This was a duet, sung by the author and a Mr. Leicester, and always with the most happy effect. Christy composed the next
musical popularity, "The Yaller Girls," which was followed by Charley White's "Bowery Girls." The rivalry existing between
these musical belles was excessive; but the public finally
decided in favor of the "Bowery Girls," and from that time forth the number occasions upon which they were asked if they proposed "coming out to-night," would be impossible to enumerate.
The first company of Minstrels established in this City was that under the management of Mr. E. P. Christy, in 1846. Their performances were given at Palmo's Opera-House—now Burton's Theatre. Finding their popularity on the increase, and seeing a prospect of establishing themselves permanently in the Metropolis, they shortly afterward removed to Mechanics' Hall, which they have since occupied. It is scarcely necessary to speak of the success which attended the experiment. In the year 1852 the number of concerts given by this Company was sixty-nine, and the receipts amounted to $1,848; in 1853 the number of concerts given was 312, and the amount of receipts was $47,972. The intermediate years corresponded in success with the last. Mr. E. P. Christy retired from the business in the possession of a fortune, leaving it to be carried on by George Christy in connection with Mr. Henry Wood. George had long been popular with the New-York public, and his career bids fair to be as successful in a financial point of view as that of his predecessor.
The Buckley Family were among the pioneers of negro minstrelsy. Their first appearance was in the Tremont Temple, Boston, in 1842, under the name of "Congo Melodists," and proved immensely successful. Subsequently they traveled through the South and West, and in 1846 visited England, where they performed successively at Drury-Lane and the Princess's Theatres. Returning to New-York, they located themselves in the Chinese Assembly Rooms, where they have since continued to produce burlesque operas, and become very popular with our citizens. The Buckleys consist of James Buckley, the father, and three sons—Richard, George Swaine and Frederick. Winnemore was formerly a member of this company, and early contributed to its success. They are at present assisted by persons of considerable taste and skill, and the entertainments which they nightly present attract numerous and respectable audiences.
There are at present a great many companies of negro minstrels performing through the country, the most celebrated of which are Christy's, Buckley's, White's, Ordway's, Campbell's, Peel's, Kunkle's, and the Empire Band. In fact minstrelsy has become a permanent institution in our society, and will undoubtedly maintain its position for many years to come. There is some truth in the assertion that the music has deteriorated. We find that Miss Nancyism of vulgarity assuming a place in the concert room among the votaries of burnt cork, bones, and banjos. The sickly sentimentality which has of late characterized the productions of the majority of these companies, as well as the wholesale plagiarism of music now systematically pursued, has had the effect of injuring the claims of minstrelsy to originality. Let us hope that this will be not longer tolerated by the directors of the colored opera. Instead of adapting trashy words to some defunct Scotch or German melody, let the aspirants after this species of lyric fame mingle with its originators and draw inspiration from a tour through the South and West. There is plenty of material to work upon; and there is certainly no scarcity of room for improvement.