Banjo singalong draws audience into minstrels’ story
What began as racist blackface shows grew into an art form that left an enduring mark on American culture.
Audience members filled the basement meeting room at the Park Rapids Library on Feb. 20 to sing along with songs dating as far back as 1846.
“If you want to talk about endurance or longevity in songs, 1846 and here we’re sitting tonight, singing it,” historian and musician Mark Bridge said of the song “Oh, Susanna” during a free program titled “Historical Notes: Songs from Victorian America.”
Underwritten by Minnesota’s Legacy Fund and a grant from the McKnight Foundation, the event focused on the art of American minstrelsy during the decades before and after the Civil War.
Later developing into vaudeville, it was originally a “very racist art form,” Bridge said, though ironically, it arose in the northern U.S. in blackface minstrel shows caricaturing the ways of southern black slaves.
Bridge noted that Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote the song “Dixie” in New York City, later saying had he known what the South would do with it, he wouldn’t have written it. Performers in blackface specialized in songs written by northern composers, originally as caricatures of southern black slaves. Entertainment often included thick dialects and lowbrow humor.
“Some of it’s just hard to understand,” said Bridge. “I actually have a minstrel stage book from back then, and the jokes are so stupid, I don’t even get them.”
Eventually, minstrelsy produced some cultural treasures that endure to this day. Prolific songwriter Stephen Foster wrote “Old Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and more than 200 more. He contributed the song “My Old Kentucky Home” which then-Sen. Stephen Douglas said “was probably the most important song that could ever be written to explain what it was like to be a slave, and to help bring on abolition,” Bridge said.
In its form as the state song of Kentucky, Foster’s piece has been altered in a way that Bridge said changes its whole meaning – replacing the now politically incorrect word “darkies” with “workers,” and so blurring out the sad picture of life as a slave who, after being sold at an auction, might never again see home and family.
Another emotionally moving example was Foster’s song “Hard Times,” stirring sympathy for the hungry and poor. But Bridge’s demonstration turned on a dime, illustrating that even the Civil War era had a sense of humor with the parody song, “Hard Crackers Come Again No More” – a reworking of “Hard Times” bemoaning the dry, hardtack rations soldiers lived on during the war.
To bring the joke to life, Bridge passed around samples of hardtack crackers he made himself – thick, dry biscuits that made a musical sound when banged together.
Another fun fact was that the nonsense song “Buffalo Gals” was often changed to name whatever town the minstrels were singing in, while “Camptown” wasn’t actually a fixed place but a gamblers’ tent city that followed traveling horse races.
A final tug on the heart strings came from Paul Dresser’s sentimental song “The Blue and the Gray,” which calls on the mothers of fallen soldiers from both sides of the Civil War to sympathize with each other in their grief.
The audience didn’t just sit back and listen to Bridge’s spiel. They joined him in singing several songs, guided by lyrics projected on a screen and or from a special songbook printed for the event. Bridge led the singing with his own wide-ranging voice and the intimate sound of a banjo.
Meantime, he sketched the evolution of the banjo from its African origins to the present day, including three examples he built based on historic examples. He called audience volunteers forward to accompany him on the tambourine and bones. He also showed paintings by American artists, paralleling the minstrel shows’ gradual movement from ridiculing their African American subjects to showing them as they are.
“He was very informative and entertaining,” audience member Connie Rogers said after Bridge’s presentation. “I think everybody enjoyed him.”
“Some of this I already knew, but not all of it,” said Keith Johnson, adding that what he found most effective was “the history lesson – a lot of things that a lot of folks here didn’t know.”
Asked what he thought was the best part of the evening, Ray Niedzielski said, “For me, that last song – when you think of the pain, what people went through, and the banjo being the instrument that was doing so much of the music at that time. It was the amazing part of the story.”
Fellow instrument maker Jeff Swenson said, “The singalong was fun, but I really enjoyed seeing Mark and hearing and learning about the minstrel shows and the different songwriters, and learning some history.”
“Mark does a great job,” Niezielski added.