Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: “Drat dat Mewel!”
Composer: Carl Walters
Lyricist: George Russell Jackson
Year & Place: 1893, Boston, Massachusetts
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-321
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0321
A caricatured couple, black-skinned and white-lipped, struggle to maintain composure, and to control a harnessed, yet swift-footed and bolting mule. The diagonal, upper-left-to-lower-right orientation of the scene contributes to its sense of movement, as do the peripheral top hat and watermelon flying through in the air and the two birds attempting to get out of the mule’s path.
Reminiscent of Currier and Ives’ notorious “Darktown” series (for which scenes of hapless blacks riding in out-of-control, horse- and mule-drawn carts were a recurring theme), this lithograph offers very little in the way of an artistically different or original “take” on racially-tinged slapstick. The bold (and also diagonally oriented) title “DRAT DAT MEWEL!” is the one pictorial element which, in tandem with the illustration, achieves a kind of fresh intervention into visual racist discourse, by way of a combination linguistic/pictorial assault.
Nellie Brown Mitchell (1845-1924) & Charles L. Mitchell (1829-1912)
Nellie Brown Mitchell was born in Dover, New Hampshire. While in Dover she studied with Caroline Bracket, who encouraged her to pursue professional singing. Her career as a soprano soloist began at the Free-Will Baptist Church, an Anglo-American Church, in 1865. In 1872, she left Free-Will Baptist to serve as soloist to Grace Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She remained there until 1876, briefly returned to Dover, and then served as musical director from 1879 to 1886 at the Bloomfield Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. While in Massachusetts, Brown studied voice at the New England Conservatory and the School of Vocal Arts. She received her diploma in 1879.
In 1874 Brown gave a series of successful recitals in Boston, and made her New York debut at Steinway Hall. In 1882 she debuted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From 1882 to 1885 Brown was “prima-donna soprano” with James Bergen’s Star Concerts. She resigned from her church position in 1886 and devoted her time to a concert career and her newly formed Nellie Brown Mitchell Concert Company.
During the 1880s and into the 1890s Brown reached the peak of her musical accomplishments. She was considered by many to be one of the greatest African American singers. She concertized often throughout the East Coast and the Middle West and, for many summers, taught at the Hedding Chautauqua Summer School in East Epping, New Hampshire. In the early 1880s Brown Mitchell invented and placed into U.S. patent the phoneterion: “an instrument used to reduce muscular tension in the voice.” In the 1890s she retired from the concert stage and focused on private instruction, advertising the “Guilmette Method” of vocal technique. She died in Boston in January of 1924.
Her husband, Charles L. Mitchell, was a prominent black New Englander, and a Massachusetts state legislator in the 1860s. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Mitchell spent his youth in Boston, apprenticed to a local printer. In the 1850s he worked in the offices of The Liberator with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and continued in that capacity until the Civil War erupted, when he enlisted with the all African American, Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Regiment.
His involvement in the 1864 Battle of Honey Hill (in which 89 members of the Union forces were killed) resulted in him being severely wounded and losing a foot. At the end of the War, Mitchell returned to Boston and, in 1866, was elected to the State Legislature. In 1876 Mitchell married Nellie Brown. During this period he also received a clerkship in the U.S. Customs House in Boston, and maintained that position for forty-three years. Mitchell died in Boston, Massachusetts in 1912.