Before It Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy

By: Sheryl Kaskowitz (Providence, Rhode Island) //

Blackface minstrelsy was a popular and pervasive form of entertainment in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, and its legacy continues to haunt American popular culture. Whether or not songs have roots in minstrelsy can be difficult to determine; their lyrics have often been changed and their original performance contexts have become lost to history. Remnants of this slippery history can be found in well-known children’s songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and many others.

In a segment from Sesame Street, folk musician John McEuen plays banjo and sings “Oh! Susanna” on a farm.

Many college songs also have histories tied to minstrelsy, as blackface performance traditions remained strong on college campuses into the twentieth century. Both Pomona College and the University of Texas have recently grappled with the blackface roots of their official alma maters, weighing the power of tradition against the racist stain of a minstrel past. As the complicated negotiations over alma maters at these and other schools have illustrated, even if a minstrel song’s original titles, lyrics, and performance contexts have already been altered or forgotten, the historical fact of their link to blackface can remain potent. Songs can be powerful symbols, with meanings that intensify as associations with a particular song build up over our lifetimes.

So what should be done with these songs? For someone who has a painful association with a song’s racist history, the impulse to erase it seems logical; for others, it is enough to change the song’s lyrics and disentangle it from its past. And some African-American musicians have used their own power as performers to reinterpret and reclaim blackface songs, reshaping them for the future while acknowledging their vicious pasts.

The African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops frame their unearthing of minstrelsy traditions as an opportunity for revival and reclamation. They play the instruments typical of nineteenth-century minstrel troupes (banjo, bones, fiddle, tambourine) and talk openly about reclaiming African-American musical traditions that had been appropriated by white minstrel performers. Rhiannon Giddens—a banjoist, fiddler, and lead singer in the band—spoke in depth about her own reconciliation with and reclaiming of minstrel songs at a concert that she gave for the opening of a blackface minstrelsy exhibit at Harvard’s Music Library in 2015. She said that her entry into this music began with discovering the black roots and cultural exchange surrounding the banjo, and more research into the banjo’s history brought her to a nineteenth-century banjo primer that includes many instrumental versions of minstrel songs alongside other melodies.

Giddens said she “fell in love with” the “funky stuff, the syncopations” in this music, but couldn’t continue to ignore the words. She began to do research and found Gumbo Chaff’s book, published in 1847.

Gumbo Chaff’s Ethiopian Glee Book (1847) is one of the earliest publications of minstrel songs. Gumbo Chaff is a pseudonym for the book’s white publisher and arranger; the entire book is written in blackface dialect.

Confronting the racism of the songs she found, Giddens said she “almost had a heart attack. . . It’s really hard to go through. I just kept seeing these images over and over again.” But she still loved the music and was fascinated by the complex issues surrounding blackface—especially that black musicians were involved, and the issues of class that came up in early minstrel performances.

Giddens’s response was to take one of those tunes and rewrite the words, as she described it, “to say what I thought maybe some black folk were thinking but couldn’t quite say.” She wrote the song “Better Get Yer Learnin’” by taking a tune she liked with typically hateful lyrics and writing new words from the imagined viewpoint of an African American living during Reconstruction, focusing on the importance of education and the harrowing barriers to attaining it for newly freed slaves. Giddens said that after playing this song for a friend, “he remarked upon how the verses cut so deep but the tune is so happy. And that’s minstrel music, for me.”

Rhiannon Giddens talks about and sings her minstrel tune “Better Git Yer Learning” (includes Giddens speaking and performing in an empty theater as well as archival photographs).

In “Better Get Yer Learnin,” Giddens has turned the disconnect that she experiences in minstrel songs—a great tune queasily paired with degrading lyrics—and transformed it into a protest song. With a chorus that repeats the title phrase and an added warning (“Better get yer learning, before it goes away”), the verses give poignant voice to the lived experiences of African Americans during Reconstruction: “The year was 1863, the paper said that I was free / But no one read it to my ears, and so I slaved for two more years”; and “I heard about a school was free, way out east in Tennessee / before I got to go to town, the damned old Rebs had burned it down.”

The song’s power is multilayered: the contrast between the poignant, serious lyrics and their jaunty musical messenger makes the song’s protest message unexpected and thus forceful. The song illuminates multiple levels of transformation as an African-American performer—herself transformed when she came to understand the song’s history—replaced offensive lyrics with those that uncover, rather than denigrate, the experience of African Americans. This process of transformation provides a counter-narrative that challenges the minstrel tradition’s power of definition.

Within the contemporary jazz scene, the young African-American singer Cecile McLorin Salvant performs a song with blackface roots as a way to connect with and uncover the humanity behind minstrelsy. She chose to sing “Nobody,” the signature song of Bert Williams, a popular and extraordinarily talented African-American comedian who performed in blackface during the early twentieth century.

In a Fresh Air interview in November 2015, Salvant said that before she read a book about Williams’s life, she “didn’t even really know what blackface and minstrel shows were, let alone that black people actually were blackface performers as well, and how much that even influenced all of American entertainment afterwards.” She went on to express admiration for Williams’s craft and an appreciation for the complexities of his career: “Reading that a person can be black and still perform in blackface–making fun of black people for a living–and at the same time be a genius and be an incredible entertainer, and at the same time be extremely conflicted and just feel terrible for doing that, which is what Bert Williams felt–was so incredible to me.” For Salvant, “Nobody” was more complex than it might seem: “It was very funny, of course, because he’s just this pathetic guy who gets no respect. But it was also heartbreaking. . .  You don’t know if you want to laugh or cry.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant sings “Nobody,” live on WNYC’s Soundcheck

Salvant’s performance captures this mix of humor and heartbreak, reflecting the extraordinary conflict that she imagines within the experience of Bert Williams and other African-American performers like him. In the Fresh Air interview, she reflected on  the act of reclamation—the agency—in Williams’s blackface performances: “The idea of blackface itself is not just a terrible thing, I think. There is also the idea of these people reclaiming, in some sense, something that has been taken from them.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan discusses the legacy of black performers using blackface in his in-depth article about the recent musical Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, noting that African-American performers during this period were not allowed onstage unless they appeared in blackface. Contemporary African-American performers like Salvant and Giddens are imagining, reflecting on, and connecting with the experience of an earlier generation of black performers for whom blackface was a necessary evil of show businesses, and with the lived experiences of African Americans whose humanity acts as a powerful refutation of the racist stereotypes at the heart of the blackface minstrelsy tradition.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with these performers that minstrel songs deserve attention, or should they be avoided because of their racist past?
  2. Can you think of other examples of songs or symbols that have been reclaimed by an oppressed group? Do you agree that such reclaimed songs can be powerful forms of protest? Why or why not?
  3. If a university’s alma mater was discovered to have roots in blackface minstrelsy, what would you urge the administration to do? How are these debates about songs different from or similar to recent struggles with the legacy of the slave trade and institutional racism on university campuses? (Examples: renaming buildings at Yale and Georgetown; debating Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton; changing the slavery-related official seal of Harvard Law School; and many others.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s