Friday, September 16, 2005

From the sublime to the ridiculous?

It's hard to listen to the CD compilation, The Early Minstrel Show,[1] without wanting to cringe, yet the music is so infectious and the sound (fiddle, banjo, tambourine and bones) is so attractive that it is quite disarming.

Disarming, perhaps, if you are white like me. For the music is in large measure nothing more (and nothing less) than Anglo-American folk music transferred to this unusual instrumental combination, and is as attractive as any conventional folk music in that style. But the songs are so laden with stereotype, so insistent on referring to African slaves or freemen through the exclusive filter of their color (“nigger”, “darkie”, “colored”, “yellow”), and so reluctant to assign qualities that rise higher than those one might attribute to a pet or farm animal, that is painful to listen to them.

Even the songs that actually attempt to highlight the inhumanity of slavery, such as the potentially touching Lucy Neal where the loving pair are separated by the hard-hearted slave dealer never really dignify the black man with the humanity that whites so freely assume they possess in excess.

No wonder musicologist and musician Robert Winans states in the CD notes that ‘the minstrel show helped create or reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks that have plagued American society ever since[2].” (Stereotypes that were alarmingly trotted out once again as African-American survivors of the New Orleans floods ‘looted’ shops for desperately needed water and food.)

The set begins with Dan Emmett’s De Boatmen’s Dance, as catchy a tune as one could wish for, and one of the least distressing songs lyrically. The instrumentals are all fun, jigs and reels transposed to the wonderfully colorful instrumental combination, and one of the solo banjo pieces, Dan Emmett’s Pea Patch Jig, shows an African influence in its use of syncopation. A precursor to ragtime from around 1850. The songs use racist stereotypes for amusement, and it is not hard to see why they would be very popular in a fundamentally racist society.

So do our changed attitudes today negate any worth whatsoever in this music? On one level, yes. It is simply impossible to listen to this music without applying the constant caveat that this is historical, of its time and place. But there is no reason why the lyrics could be changed and the same entrancing melodies and instruments be applied to music apt for our time. It certainly sounds a lot more fun than much of what passes for popular music today. And, yes, this is splendidly Corporeal.

[1] Vincent Tufo, Percy Danforth, Matthew Heumann, Robert Winans, David Van Veersblick, Peter DiSante, and Roger Smith The Early Minstrel Show New World Records 80338-2

[2] Ibid p. 2

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