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The original American popular music: Blackface Minstrelsy.

July 24, 2011

Below is information about a document seen briefly on an online auction site back in 2011. It dates to some of the earliest accordion history in North America, on the blackface minstrel stage in the 1840’s.  Creepy.  Basically, popular music in the United States starts with this tradition of white (Northern) men dressing up as black slaves and making comedy and melodrama about slavery.  It’s the first unifying musical culture that reached the whole nation, and the foundation of the music publishing industry that exists today.

Broadside. “Uncle Ned, as Sung by De Colored Society in General.”

Online auction of a minstrel songbook, available for hundreds of dollars.

Description of the pamphlet on sale, with commentary to establish its date of publication: [my emphasis on the related accordion history]

55] 1 4 3/8″ x 7 5/8″ Unbound sheet. First Edition.
A lament in memory of a beloved Black slave, deceased at advanced age, yet a hard worker to the end. Lamented even by his slavemaster. While undated, the text style, format, etc. show it to be in the period 1845–55.
Variants of Uncle Ned were part of the early history of minstrelsy in America. Stephen Foster is credited with an 1845 (published 1848) variant of this song (se Walters, Stephen Foster), which may have been the basis of all other variants. Fuld claims that Foster, despite his debts to minstrelsy, had never incorrectly or improperly claimed originality for his music.
The precise text of this broadside is printed with illustration in White’s New Melodeon Song Book of 1848, where it is reported to have been “sung by that inimitable performer, Mr. Charles White, at his Melodeon Concert saloon, New York.” White’s Band of Serenaders were among the prominent group of singers that includes the Christys, the Campbells and the Sable Brothers. Charles White (1821–?), according to the biography in his New Ethiopian Song Book (1850), abandoning horse racing and work as a druggist’s assistant, took up the accordion and singing with the Virginia Serenaders, the first band to introduce females to the business of minstrelsy. He claimed authorship of numerous songs including “Nelly was a Lady” and “Carry MeBack to Ole Virginia”, most likely the production of James Bland (see Toll’s “Blacking Up”; copyright was loosely observed in this period and rival claims to rights to songs by various minstrel groups were common). White had become the proprietor of the “Melodeon’ theatre and saloon on the Bowery in New York about 1838–41. In possible confirmation of the date of publication, we also have a Dickens novel published by Peterson in the 1855 with publisher’s ads for these songsters.
3/4″ tear in upper right margin, not involving text. Two corners lack tiny chip. Else, Very Good. White’s New Illustrated Melodeon Song Book (p. 24) and White’s New Ethiopian Song Book (pp. vii–xii), both published in the period 1851–55, by T. B. Peterson (Philadelphia, 1854). Podeschi D25-26 (for Peterson). Bookseller Inventory # 9602

For a brilliant and rightfully disturbing look at the historical tradition of making fun by stereotyping people who have less power than you, please see what might be Spike Lee’s most powerful film, Bamboozled, about the modern-day ramifications of black-face. Here’s the trailer for Bamboozled, which has no accordions in it (that I saw).  More on African American accordions and minstrelsy later. [editor in 2021: This page grew into my Accordion Revolution book’s, “Chapter 3: Blackface Minstrelsy: Roots in Racism.”]

And here’s the ending montage of images that generations of Americans watched with laughter, ignorance, obliviousness, or perhaps shame, disgust and pain.   That’s entertainment.

“In doing the research, what hurt me was the depth that I saw the hatred of us as a people.  To see the depths to which America showed its hatred via radio, film, television, songs, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben.  It’s just amazing.”

–Spike Lee.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2011 9:38 am

    Very interesting, but do please in future posts paint me a clearer picture of the accordion’s role in all this sordid milieu!

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