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Jump Jim Crow

Last weekend I watched the movie 12 Years a Slave. While I was underwhelmed by the film, I thought I would continue my streak of writing about songs related to the historical films I watch (see Over There or Bust). So this week I wanted to look at the origins of the odious musical genre of blackface minstrelsy.

While most histories date the origins of blackface minstrelsy to Thomas D. Rice in the late 1820s, it is possible that the practice of performing in blackface on stage originated as early as 1799. On December 30, 1799, a Mr. Graupner performed "The Gay Negro Boy" in blackface as an intermission after the second act of Oroonoko at the Federal Street Theatre in Boston.

Throughout the next thirty years, numerous actors would be noted for their performances in blackface. Pig-Pie Herbert in 1815 sang the "The Battle of Plattsburg"--alternately credited to a Hop Robinson or Andrew Jackson Allen--and in 1823 Edwin Forrest played a Negro who danced and sang in the farce The Tailor in Distress. Unfortunately, the early annals of blackface are poorly documented and aside from these few instances recorded in an issue of Harper's Magazine from 1889, we know little of the genre before the late 1820s when Thomas D. Rice became the first popular blackface performer.

A young Thomas D. Rice.

Thomas D. Rice was born in New York in 1808. Early on he was a bit player at the Park Theatre where he performed in Bombastes Furioso. During the performance he apparently demonstrated some of his later peculiarities on stage and attracted so much attention away from the stars that he was dismissed from the production, though not before Sam Cowell found him--someone who wasn't even on the bill--as the only actor that the audience noticed.

By 1827 he was already a member of a touring troupe of actors who traveled throughout the expanding western territories. He was remembered by one stage manager as being "tall and wiry, and a great deal on the build of Bob Fitzsimmons, the prizefighter." Over six feet tall and blessed with a full head of curly hair, Rice played bit Negro parts for the troupe. Then, sometime during the 1828-1829 touring season the troupe visited Louisville, Kentucky.

There, according to another member of the troupe, Edmon S. Conner, Rice discovered the inspiration for his character Jim Crow. According to Conner,

Back of the theatre was a livery-stable kept by a man named Crow. The actors could look into the stable yard from the theatre, and were particularly amused by an old decrepit negro, who used to do odd jobs for Crow. As was then usual with slaves they called themselves after their owner, so that old Daddy had assumed the name of Jim Crow. He was very much deformed, the right shoulder being drawn high up, the left leg stiff and crooked at the knee, giving him a painful, but at the same time, laughable limp. He used to croon a queer old tune with words of his own, and at the end of each verse would give a little jump, and when he came down he set his 'heel a-rockin'.' He called it 'jumping Jim Crow.' The words of the refrain were: 'Wheel about, turn about, / Do jis so. / An' ebery time I wheel about, / I jump Jim Crow!' Rice watched him closely, and saw that here was a character unknown to the stage. He wrote several verses, changed the air somewhat, quickened it a good deal, made up exactly like Daddy, and sang it to a Louisville audience. They were wild with delight, and on the first night he was recalled twenty times."

The song that he developed from that experience--which some scholars consider apocryphal--was called "Jump Jim Crow." Its performance, and the persona that Rice adopted while singing it, became an instant success. He quickly became a celebrity and the idea of blackface minstrelsy became a sudden sensation.

A depiction of Rice's Jim Crow character.

The most commonly recorded version of the lyrics are as follows:

Come, listen all you gals and boys, Ise just from Tuckyhoe;

I'm goin' to sing a little song, My name's Jim Crow.

CHORUS [after every verse]

Weel about and turn about and do jis so,

Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

I went down to the river, I didn't mean to stay;

But dere I see so many gals, I couldn't get away.

And arter I been dere awhile, I tought I push my boat;

But I tumbled in de river, and I find myself afloat.

I git upon a flat boat, I cotch de Uncle Sam;

Den I went to see de place where dey kill'd de Pakenham.

And den I go to Orleans, an, feel so full of flight;

Dey put me in de calaboose, an, keep me dere all night.

When I got out I hit a man, his name I now forgot;

But dere was noting left of him 'cept a little grease spot.

And oder day I hit a man, de man was mighty fat

I hit so hard I nockt him in to an old cockt hat.

I whipt my weight in wildcats, I eat an alligator;

I drunk de Mississippy up! O! I'm de very creature.

I sit upon a hornet's nest, I dance upon my head;

I tie a wiper round my neck an, den I go to bed.

I kneel to de buzzard, an, I bow to the crow;

An eb'ry time I weel about I jump jis so.

Some white guy performing "Jump Jim Crow".

Within three years of its debut, "Jump Jim Crow" and the Jim Crow character were Rice's signature act and audiences clamored for their performance wherever he went. He soon expanded his repertoire, adding songs and characters to his show. One song, "Me and My Shadow," involved Rice coming on stage with a sack over his shoulder. When the music started he would open the sack to reveal a boy in blackface who would then mimic every move Rice made during the song, his small shadow.

In 1836, Rice sailed to England where he introduced blackface minstrelsy to London. Throughout the Thirties and early Forties, Rice was the premier performer in America, according to a Mr. Ireland, Rice drew more money to the Bowery Theatre than any other performer in the same period of time. He inspired numerous copycats, men who blackened their faces with burned cork and adopted various personas inspired by stereotypes of black behavior that ranged from Zip Coon to Gumbo Chaff. By 1843, however, Rice's performances as an individual were eclipsed by a new idea, the minstrel company.

In 1843, Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower created the Virginia Minstrels, who debuted in New York at Chatham Theatre. The Virginia Minstrels were the first "group" of minstrel performers. Previously, there had only been one or two men on stage in blackface but Emmett's innovation was to add additional actors and develop an entire show around the concept.

The Virginia Minstrel company.

It wasn't until three years later with the entrance to the scene of the Christy Minstrels, however, that the ultimate structure of a traditional minstrel show developed. First, a parade would progress in the area of the theater to draw a crowd and increase attendance. Then the show would be divided into three sections. During the first, the troupe danced onstage singing, then sat in a semi-circle in a set order depending on the characters: the interlocutor, Mr. Tambo and Bones, and the endmen. They would have discussions and songs in dialect for some time before ending the section with a walkaround in the style of a cakewalk. The second section, called the olio, was really entertainment over an intermission during which the behind the curtain scene was changed. This included European style entertainments, sometimes real sometimes in mockery, and a stump speech from one of the endmen. Then the afterpiece provided a skit set on a plantation featuring Sambo or Mammy-type characters. Sometimes this was a burlesque of serious plays, sometimes Shakespeare or others.

Blackface minstrelsy continued in America in some form through the 1950s. From Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer in 1927 to Mickey Mouse and Raggedy Anne--both minstrel archetypes--the blackface minstrel has been a major influence on popular culture ever since. A proto-musical, blackface minstrelsy was the precursor to vaudeville and the musical stage performances appreciated on Broadway today. And blackface continues to be a political lightning pole. Politicians and actors and other celebrities regularly are publicly called out for prior and even recent blackface antics. It is a shameful example of the racism that still exists today that this history of lampooning an entire race for the benefit of a white audience continues to influence behaviors and entertainment to this very day.

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

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