Play That Funky Music?

Across the country, historical minstrelsy is re-emerging to the shock of many

All right, shoot them.
Caveat or no caveat, Vanderbilt musicologist Dale Cockrell thinks minstrelsy in its original format should never be performed. "It seems to me that to perform minstrelsy now necessarily is going to perpetuate stereotypes that are coarse, crude and offensive to many people," he says. "Minstrelsy is extinct and it's rightfully extinct, and to give representation to the stereotypes -- frankly, I find it immoral and appalling. I know the re-enactors are fanatical about being authentic, but you've got to draw the line somewhere, just as you don't use live ammunition when you re-enact battles. And this is live, this is political, and this is ammunition that simply shouldn't be loaded."

Daniel Partner, who on Memorial Day performed in blackface to a re-enactor audience in Fremont, believes in being as faithful to the original spirit as possible but is also willing to make certain alterations. "The thing about doing this music accurately, in music and presentation, is that there's a power that's difficult to explain," he says. "And I don't think we should revise or omit our history -- I think we should face our history. But you do have to watch out about the word 'nigger.' In a historical context, or when you can explain it to audiences in a good way, you can use that word. But often I'll change it to something like 'feller.'"

The Allentown Melodians won't be winning  Amateur Night at the Apollo anytime soon
The Allentown Melodians won't be winning Amateur Night at the Apollo anytime soon

Often, revising components of minstrelsy that offend us today can unintentionally remove the radical flavor of the original music. Most minstrel lyrics were written in what was imagined by the white, Northern songwriters to be slave dialect: lots of "Massa gib me dis" and "Martha goes a-runnin'." To replace the dialect with "proper" English would totally erase the historical significance: songwriters attempting to speak from the slave's perspective, which at the time was absolutely unheard of.

Joe Ayers, pro-minstrel musicologist and banjo historian, points to one of the most crucial and easily overlooked aspects of minstrelsy: These shows didn't involve white men going onstage to merely tell jokes about blacks; they were incredibly elaborate attempts by white men to become black. Minstrel troupes would compete with each other as to who could provide the more authentic portrayal of Southern black life, with white performers actually living on plantations to learn firsthand.

This was the genesis of the Elvis and Eminem instinct: the great white devotion to, and appropriation of, black culture. Minstrelsy paved the way for the respectful yet uncomfortably lopsided transmission between European and African sounds that fed directly into jazz and rock.

"One remarkable thing to remember about this music is that the banjo was an African instrument," Ayers says. "So some of these Southern players actually learned to play it from their fathers' slaves. That means a white man had to be willing to apprentice himself to a slave. You must understand that slaves were considered nothing back then -- they were bought and sold like cattle. So for a white man, who was free and powerful, to apprentice himself to learn that instrument is just mind-blowing."

Madonna? The Beatles?
On further scrutiny, the interplay between blacks and whites in minstrelsy rarely is as, well, black and white as it initially looks. The first professional black musicians in America came up through minstrel troupes, even wearing blackface, which creates a dizzying racial house of mirrors -- black men imitating white men imitating black men. Bessie Smith, the queen of the blues, began in minstrelsy. Ayers even argues that the Beatles were a minstrel group: a four-man string band with a heavy rhythm section that stole from blacks.

According to his view, the current debate is void "because minstrel music has never stopped being performed. When Madonna wears loose, ill-fitting street clothes and does what were once considered grotesque, lewd dance moves, that's minstrelsy. It's never stopped being performed -- it's only evolved."

If that's correct, the issue then boils down to what place performing in blackface has today. Because no matter the audience, the fact that a band such as the Allendale Melodians blacks up for a gig is going to offend many people. But others believe we can only learn from a warts-and-all history of the country.

In the end, perhaps that's the defining quality of minstrelsy: its power to stir up our most visceral of emotions some 170 years after its creation.

"Unlike a lot of old music, such as ragtime, this music is still edgy, it still cuts, it still makes you nervous," Partner says. "Because it's dealing with America's main issue, which is race, an issue we've never been able to figure out."

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