Dwight's Journal of Music
Unsigned Reprint
Boston: 10 July 1858

Obituary, not Eulogistic.

  We copied last week, under the title of "The Black Opera," from an old number of the Tribune, a sketch historical, and rather eulogistic, of the rise and growth of "Negro Minstrelsy." In the New York Musical Review (Dec. 7, 1854) we read, with greater pleasure, its "Obituary," which, to make the record of this curious antediluvian and Saurian period in our country's musical development complete, we also copy.

  Negro Minstrelsy is dead. Draw around its sable bier in tearful groups, ye lovers of Ethiopian absurdities. Ye grave men in city and village who have sought relief from the cares of the day in Sambo's antics and grimaces; ye fast young men and delicate maidens who have perfumed his haunts with Jockey Club and Eau de Cologne, come, yield the tribute of a tear to departed burnt cork and curled horsehair. What! Not one among the thousands who have compromised their respectability for an hour of his jibes and jocularities to follow him to his grave? Alas! not one! The gay crowd ignore his corpse, and pass by on the other side. They have, in the day of his popularity, retailed his jokes, entertained their friends with his trashy if not vulgar effusions, and vitiated public taste by patronizing his plantation caricatures to the neglect of wholesome, improving musical entertainments; but now, not even the peanut boys in the Bowery will admit that they ever affected the banjo or the bones.

  Negro Minstrelsy, we repeat, is dead. By this we mean that the characteristic "Ethiopian Melodies" have ceased to sell, and that, though troops of singers continue to blacken their faces, they no longer rely upon African platitudes as an attraction. Henceforth they must depend upon dramatic effect—the performance of burlesque operas, &c. This being the case, it seems a fit opportunity to pass in rapid review the rise, progress, and subsidence of the "negro music" mania that has within a few years past exerted so wide-spread and deleterious an influence upon the musical taste of this country.

  About thirty years ago, Way back of Albany, by MICAH HAWKINS, and other songs of a similar character, gained considerable popularity at the Chatham Theatre, in this city. The melodies were simple, and united to the low doggerel words that might very naturally be the effusion of an illiterate but wide-awake and funny negro, were very captivating to the vulgar. In 1831 or 1832, a celebrated clown, DAN RICE, made a great sensation among the Bowery Boys by his performance of the well-known negro song, Jim Crow, at the Bowery Theatre. This may, in fact, be considered the inauguration of negro songs. Master DIAMOND soon followed in Jim along Josey; and these songs, spawned in the very lowest puddles of society, at length found their way, like the frogs of Egypt, into places of admitted respectability. On so dark a subject, it can hardly be expected that we should be quite precise in reference to dates; but, as near as we can ascertain, concerted negro music was first performed in this city by Dumboltons Ethiopian Serenaders, at Palmo's, about ten or twelve years since. In 1842, CHRISTY began with a similar style of music in a dance-house in Buffalo, so low in its character that it was several times indicted for being a disorderly house. After traveling about the country, and coming occasionally to New York, he at length settled here, where he has since made a fortune. Dumbolton's Serenaders popularized Rosa Lee, Dearest Mae, Mary Blane, &c., a species of composition more nearly bordering upon respectability than the characteristic negro songs by which they had been preceded.

  DUMBOLTON'S troupe went to Europe in 1845, where their African caricatures met with great favor. In 1846, Christy's Minstrels commenced in New York with such pieces as Carry Me Back to Old Virginia, Stop that Knocking, &c. Negro minstrelsy now became the rage all over the country. Troupes of "serenaders," who blacked their faces and made buffoons of themselves, reaped a golden harvest, while the true artist, the educated and refined musician was starving. Success invested even bones and burnt cork with an air of respectability. Fashion sent her cohorts to mingle with the unwashed million at the shrine of Gumbo, and negro sheet-music had immense sales, being found upon almost every piano in the land, grave deacons smiling at its performance, and sentimental Misses pronouncing it "sweet." We have often felt comforted by the numerous and convincing proofs, that "honesty is the best policy." The friends of music have equal cause to rejoice in the evidence deduced from the history of negro music, that it is most profitable to gratify the tastes of the respectable. This accounts for the bleaching process that has steadily been going on in this style of music, observable in the gradual rejection of the plantation dialect, and the adoption of sentiments and poetic forms of expression, characteristic rather of the intelligent Caucasian. This becomes quite apparent when we compare Jim Crow, O Susanna, and other early effusions of the Ethiopian muse, with the later and more popular productions, Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Hazel Dell, &c. The truth is, genuine "negro music" is no longer written; and if it were written, it could not be sold. People have grown tired of its burlesques upon a degraded race, of its vulgarity, its silliness, and its insipidity. Henceforth they will be satisfied only with something worthy of being called music. Taking advantage of this change in public sentiment, BUCKLEY'S Minstrels, WOOD'S, and CHRISTY'S, have within eighteen months commenced the performance of burlesque operas, and introduced travesties upon "spirit knocking," "women's rights lectures," &c., all indicating that their chief reliance is upon good music, as far as music goes, and upon that, upon scenic and dramatic effects. The music they sing is Italian, German, English, or American. The mere fact that they continue to blacken their faces alters not its character.

  A word in reference to the cause of the negro music mania and its effects upon the musical interests of this country, and we have done. Its remains may then be wrapped in their cerements and toted off to the grave as soon as possible. The success of negro minstrelsy was not an accident, nor yet again a mere mania. There are philosophical reasons why it succeeded and why its day is now over. Its chief elements of popularity were:

  1. Its burlesque of the negro character. There is among all classes of the American people a keen appreciation of humor. This feature of negro minstrelsy, together with the interlarded jokes, conundrums, &c., appealed to this love of fun, and at the same time afforded amusement, where amusements were scarce. The humor of Ethiopian caricatures having been exhausted and the jokes become stale, this element has lost its novelty and ceased to be an attraction.

  2. The music was adapted to the popular taste, the melody being simple, flowing, and easily caught by the musical ear, while the harmony was of the commonest kind, being confined to the use of two chords, the tonic and dominant. Such common chords sung in tune, (as companies constantly practicing together could hardly help singing,) united with simple melodies and the rhythmic effects produced by the tamborine, banjo, bones, &c., made up an entertainment, so far as the music went, just on a level with the popular appreciation. We say such music "was adapted to the popular taste." We are glad to say it is so no longer. The American people are just emerging from musical childhood—putting away childish things—and are no more to be pleased with such puerilities. Hence the resort of "minstrels" to music of a higher order.

  3. These entertainments have always been cheap, thus bringing them within reach of the million. We commend this feature to the attention of concert-givers generally.

  Of the general effects of the rage for negro music upon the tastes and musical interests of this country, we think there can be but one opinion. It has degraded Art, diverted attention and patronage from worthy and elevating concerts, and made many a true musician feel that the only road to success was through the purlieus of buffoonery and badinage. It must be admitted, however, that its effect is not wholly bad. The burlesques and comicalities connected with these entertainments have drawn in many of the low and vulgar, who have first carried away with them and hummed and whistled and sung the simple airs they have there heard, until at last they have come to demand music worthy of the name. In our general detestation of its musical platitudes and insipidities, let us rejoice that, from the laws of the human mind, it could not exert an influence wholly evil.

  No event within the last half century has been fraught with more unmistakable evidence of the progress of music in this country, then the demise of this hybrid between a Bowery clown and St. Cecilia. We exult over its fall and take courage for American Art. Let Negro Minstrelsy be now borne to its grave amid popular rejoicings, the ringing of bells, and the booming of cannon. Let his winding sheet be the unsold copies of Uncle Ned, and let there be buried with him, as the emblems of his departed power, the Banjo and the Bones.