Artichoke performance program notes, April 2017
As we have explored these songs from the early 20th century, the bizarreness, dysfunction, and sheer mishegas of this caste system based on skin color that is called “race” has revealed itself more and more. We’ve discovered that the tradition of minstrelsy permeates and pervades all of our popular entertainment, by black and white artists alike, and not only entertainment but our entire society. When Sophie Tucker took off the blackface and continued to sing the way blackface had liberated her to sing, she transformed popular vocal entertainment. Without minstrelsy, there would be no Elvis Presley, no Rolling Stones, and no Chuck Berry either. Huckleberry Finn’s Jim is a minstrel, as is Mickey Mouse, complete with the actual black face and white gloves.
To give one example of the mind-boggling contradictions of minstrelsy, consider the song “Alabama Jubilee,” written in 1915. It was first recorded by Collins and Harlan, a popular blackface minstrel duo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxuQfahVfBc&t=56s
This is a very popular song that has been recorded by hundreds of artists through the decades up to the present. The song portrays the uninhibited revelries at the “Alabama Jubilee,” for example:
Aunt Jemima who is past 83,
Shoutin’ “I’m full o’ pep, watch yo’ step, watch yo’ step!”
One legged Joe danced aroun’ on his toe
Threw away his crutch and hollered “Let ‘er go!”…
But here are the opening lines of the verse:
Hear the darkies tunin’ up, the fun begins.
Come this way, Don’t delay
Better hurry Honey Dear or you’ll be missin’
Music sweet, ragtime treat,
Goes right to your head and trickles to your feet…
At first glance, this appears to be a song that portrays the racist stereotype of supposedly carefree black slaves having a great party that we white folks would envy. But on reflection, who are the “darkies” that are tuning up their instruments? This is a song about a minstrel show! And what does a minstrel show portray? Supposedly carefree black slaves having a great party…
I am not qualified to do this topic justice, and will close with a quote from Ralph Ellison: “When the white man steps behind the mask of the trickster, his freedom is circumscribed by the fear that he is not simply miming a personification of his disorder and chaos but that he will become in fact what he intends only to symbolize; that he will be trapped somewhere in the mystery of hell.”