Play That Funky Music?

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

Daniel Partner plays old-school American dance music, and he's exceedingly particular about how authentically he presents it.

Before we proceed, cast out of your mind the vision of a DJ spinning classic Detroit techno records circa 1982 and fussing over the vintage of his Adidas tracksuit. Partner, who grew up in San Francisco but now lives in New Hampshire, goes way, way further back than that -- call his the oldest school. He's a banjo player, and he plays sheet music first published in the 1840s, written in the most infamous and maligned style ever to emerge from the United States: minstrel music.

Minstrelsy was the first truly American pop-culture sensation: the original entertainment for the commoner. The medium emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, so white factory workers granted free time and extra cash by the Industrial Revolution would spend their spoils on a minstrel show -- a hodgepodge of dancing, joke-telling, singing and role-playing, all performed by a string band of white men duded up in black-painted faces and the oversized, ragged clothes of the poor. The entire production aimed to reproduce life on the Southern plantation and present the genuine music of the slave, often to Northern audiences with little or no contact with black people.

Written off by most mainstream historians and musicologists as nothing more than racist theatrics and overwrought melodrama, minstrelsy hasn't merited serious cultural study since its awkward birth. But a very small but steadily growing cadre of musicians from across the country intend to resurrect it. They're intently researching yellowing sheet music and sepia-hued photographs to ensure absolute authenticity -- from constructing period instruments and donning near-perfect replicas of clothing from the era to performing the old minstrel classics exactly as they originally were, sometimes even in blackface. The endeavor is done so faithfully that, as one modern-day minstrel player put it, "If you squint your eyes and your ears a little, you can travel right back to the 1840s."

Of course, such a journey would dump you in a briar patch of racial stereotypes repulsive to most modern-day Americans, so it's not surprising that there's a contentious debate over whether such a project is legitimate at all.

"Don't shoot us."
Only a half-dozen bands perform minstrel shows semiregularly, and a couple sell CDs. There's Partner's group, the Free and Accepted Minstrels of Old New Orleans; the Amoskeag Players from New Hampshire; the Second South Carolina String Band; and the Allendale Melodians, who proudly declare themselves "the only blackface minstrel troupe in America."

These entirely white groups perform almost exclusively for the "living history" community -- history obsessives who dress up and re-enact certain periods of the past, primarily the Civil War. It should be noted that no minstrel musician interviewed for this article thought the music should be played for general audiences, nor had any of the musicians performed in blackface in front of anything other than a controlled, closed audience, one that had first received ample historical context.

Minstrelsy, which hung around in its original form until the 1950s, was first dusted off in the mid-1980s by a few different history-obsessed musicians acting independently. Bob Winans, a banjo player and professor at Gettysburg College, had been studying the music academically and wanted to hear what it actually sounded like -- the zenith of minstrelsy predated recording technology. In 1986 he released on New World Records the first, and many say best, modern-day recording of minstrel music, The Early Minstrel Show.

Bob Kilham was a Civil War re-enactor at the same time, researching the songs the soldiers would play around the campfire.

"I discovered that they weren't just singing sea shanties and drinking songs like the re-enactors were," he says. "They were listening to the stuff they had brought from home, just as the Vietnam soldiers were listening to the Dead and the Doors. Minstrelsy was the national craze at the time, so these guys were listening to [foundational minstrel musicians] Dan Emmett and Joel Sweeney."

Kilham assembled a band in the traditional minstrel lineup -- banjo, fiddle, tambourine and bones (two rib bones or wood pieces played percussively) -- and called it the Amoskeag Players. The outfit, being one of the very first, earned a little cash performing within the living- history scene, so a few others followed suit.

Originally drawn to minstrelsy through his love of history, Kilham discovered that it struck a chord deep within him: "There's something in this music that just clicked in me, and it's all I play now."

For the most part, the Players and the rest of the bands focus on re-creating the music of minstrelsy and not the theatrics that accompanied it. Much of the acting and joking, especially in the minstrel shows after the Civil War, depicted African Americans as silly, grinning buffoons who happily relied on "massa" for their survival.

But Kilham and other amateur minstrelsy scholars believe this is a piece of American history, and no matter how unsavory, it shouldn't be swept under the carpet.

"Yes, we have done blackface minstrel shows for closed audiences as an experiment, as a case study," he says. "We borrowed a guy's 1850s schoolhouse, turned it into a theater, and invited all our museum friends -- people who would understand what we were doing. We put a caveat out: 'Listen, this is what we're doing, it's a historical thing, be prepared. When we sing the songs, we use the original lyrics, so be advised the N-word is coming at you: Don't shoot us. Because remember, when this stuff was written back in the 1850s, the Dred Scott case was arguing whether blacks had a soul or not. That's the culture this was coming from.'"

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.'"

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."

Scroll to read more Music News & Interviews articles

Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.