Ethiopian Quadrilles, Danced and Sung by the Virginia Minstrels

Ethiopian Quadrilles

Ethiopian Quadrilles

Location:               Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:        Lucy Long; De Boatman Dance; Massa Is A Stingy Man; Old Dan Tucker

Composer:            OnyQjva A. Nagerj

Publisher:             Firth & Hall

Year & Place:      1843; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B.154, no.7

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:   hasmsm.007

Basic Description

This cover shows an array of figures clustered in vignettes that are separated by zoological and botanical frames. Two at the top are surrounded by a snake while a third scene is framed by various botanical forms as well as corn and a possum-like animal. Those on the bottom, however, are framed by two long catfish. In clockwise order from the top, central vignette the following is visualized: a man in tattered clothes throwing his hands above his head in a spirited; one male holding a banjo while another figure in the background tries to corral two cows; one male walking in a perplexed manner while another offers no help as he tends to his leg; one man striking a pose;  a man with a protruding, rotund belly striding diagonally across the space while another male figure plays the banjo; one male dancing in pajamas while his partner plays a banjo; two men in a boat on a river attempting to kill an alligator using their banjo as a weapon.

Personal Description

The title of the music tells the viewer that the songs are part of show that would be performed by minstrels.  Thus the image’s humor, hodge-podge, collagish, and cryptic nature all make sense within this context.  The ambiguity of conceptual connections between the different portraits also ceases to be an issue as they may be an advertisement for separate skits that might have constituted one show.  Ethiopian Quadrilles combines a wide variety of elements such as snakes, banjos, a crocodile, plants and catfish.  While some vignettes are simple renditions of music and dancing, other more complex ones display individual moments from what promise to be longer narratives.  The elements of stereotype and caricature that are present also make sense within the context of minstrelsy.  This includes the distorted body of the male figure with the protruding stomach.  The most humorous scene, that in which two men purport to “knock out” a crocodile with a banjo, similarly, conveys to be a derisive message about intellect (or lackthereof).  This becomes clearer when one notices that the animated-crocodile is in no way menacing.

Reality Check


Peter Ogden and The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows

In 1842, the Philomathean Literary Society, an association of blck men and boys interested in literature, oratory and music became a lodge within the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.  Peter Ogden, a black Jamaican sailor living in New York City, who became odd fellow while in England, took their petition to Victoria Lodge in Liverpool after white odd fellows in the United States refused to initiate black men.  This became one of the major black fraternal organizations maintaining a large membership body.  When Ogden died in 1852, there were 32 lodges.  By 1863 there were 50 and by 1900, there were 2,253 with over 70,000 members.  The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows continues to this day and have a headquarters in Philadelphia.

(Source: Dodson, Howard, Christopher Paul. Moore, and Roberta Yancy. The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology. New York: John Wiley, 2000.)

The title of the music tells the viewer that the songs are part of show that would be performed by minstrels.  Thus the image’s humor, hodge-podge, collagish, and cryptic nature all make sense within this context.  The ambiguity of conceptual connections between the different portraits also ceases to be an issue as they may be an advertisement for separate skits that might have constituted one show.  Ethiopian Quadrilles combines a wide variety of elements such as snakes, banjos, a crocodile, plants and catfish which, do not in themselves seem to fit together.  While some vignettes are simple renditions of music and dancing, other more complex ones display individual moments from what promise to be longer narratives.  The elements of stereotype and caricature that are present also make sense within the context of minstrelsy.  This includes the distorted body of the male figure with the protruding stomach.  The most humorous scene, that in which two men purport to “knock out” a crocodile with a banjo, similarly, conveys to be a derisive message about intellect (or lackthereof).  This becomes clearer when one notices that the animated-crocodile is in no way menacing.

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One response to “Ethiopian Quadrilles, Danced and Sung by the Virginia Minstrels

  1. A set of contradictory impulses seems to shape “Ethiopian Quadrilles.” Certainly the elaborate composition was intended in part, as noted above, to advertise individual skits within a larger minstrel program. But the nine vignettes and strange organic frame that comprise the image also seem to advance certain arguments about the slave system itself. Read together, the small scenes and frame seem to align slavery both with exoticism and durability. The coiling and banded snake framing the upper three vignettes invokes a form of animal life that would have been unfamiliar, dangerous, tropical, and romantically exotic to the New York viewers of this image. This titillating invocation of dangerous exoticism is echoed by the nonsensical pseudonym at the center of the image, “A. NAGERJ ONYQJVA,” which was likely intended as an approximation of African speech. The two nocturnal vignettes just above the pseudonym, finally, shape ambiguous visions of mysterious rites: at left, a shadowy figure appears to ride a submerged alligator, while at right a group of four figures (perhaps fueled by the contents of the “Apple Jack” barrel in the foreground) perform a frenetic dance by the light of a glowing orb. Taken together, these visual and textual elements imbue slavery with a dangerous and romanticized exoticism. At the same time, however, the exotic reptilian frame at the top of the image invokes a traditional alchemical symbol for cyclical regeneration: the Ouroboros. Coiling around and biting its own tail, the lithographic snake ties the exotic slave system to the themes of permanence and infinitely sustainability.

    Two final details seem to engage the role of the slave in the regeneration of slavery. While perhaps functioning as exotic signs in their own right, the catfish at the bottom of the image also call to mind the sorts of animals that slaves caught, hunted, or trapped in spare moments to supplement their meager diet. Positioned at the bottom of the composition, these fish might even signal the foundational importance of the slave’s own initiative to the very survival of slavery as a system. The vignette at the center of the composition, however, would seem to refuse this possible reading. Depicting a “humorous” hunting situation in which a slave swings a banjo at an alligator, the vignette reframes the desperate ingenuity practiced by period slaves as nothing more than misguided buffoonery.

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