Of Soundscapes and Blackface: From Fools to Foster
By Dale Cockrell
From the Introduction: Dale Cockrell has also added significantly to the body of knowledge about the performance of blackface with the publication of Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, in which he examines the folk origins of early minstrelsy from a musicologist’s perspective. In “Of Soundscapes and Blackface: From Fools to Foster,” he revisits that earlier study to ruminate on the great changes that can take place in a brief period through seemingly small actions. Beginning, like Lhamon, with the early character of Jim Crow, he draws a distinction between that character’s song—rough, prosaic, unmemorable (as a tune), requiring the performance of the individual parodist for its significance—and the song sung by and about “Zip Coon,” notably by the performer and scandal sheet editor George Washington Dixon, which was immensely popular at the time and is extant today (albeit with very different lyrics). The distinction between these two songs initiates a discussion of the shift in focus of the entertainment called “minstrelsy” during its very early years. The blackface character’s complex roots in social carnival, embodied by the very political, moralistic, scandal-mongering Dixon, become obscured by the effort of early minstrelsy to appeal to a broader audience, and to imitate (and parody) the popular touring concerts of the day. Cockrell pinpoints a particular evening, around New Year’s 1843, when everything changed. (I overstate the case; Cockrell is too fine a scholar to be quite so certain.) That evening Dan Emmett (serving the same pivotal function as he does for Lhamon) and Frank Brower performed an entertainment purporting to re-create the “sports” of southern plantation slaves. In an evening, blackface changed from the presentational parodic performance of the class, race, and gender politics of the audience to the representational delineation of someone else’s festivals of misrule. Though Stephen Foster later takes back the form to some significant purpose, what Cockrell explores here is the small, seemingly insignificant moment when the aggressively derogatory and segregationist uses of blackface began to overshadow and finally to repress the broader complexity of the tradition. Lhamon takes the long view, Cockrell the microhistorical view, in two essays that corroborate each other’s arguments.
Dale Cockrell is director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University and Professor of Musicology Emeritus at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers, 1842-1846, The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (a critical edition of the music referenced in the Little House books), and more than one hundred other books, articles, papers, and monographs. A former president of the Society for American Music, he is currently at work on Blood on Fire: Music, Dance, and Sex in Victorian America. Cockrell is also founder and president of The Pa’s Fiddle Project, an educational, scholarly, and musical program dedicated to recording the music of the Little House books and to reconnecting children with the rich music legacies embedded in them.