Author Archives: Shahrazad

The Coal Black Rose

The Coal Black Rose

The Coal Black Rose

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

Title of Song:          The Coal Black Rose

Composer:              Snyder, White

Publisher:               J.L. Frederick

Year & Place:        1829; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B. 128, no. 28

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:   hasmsm.009

Basic Description

In the diminutive image here embedded amongst text and musical notation, an anthropomorphized rose appears.  The petals are arranged to constitute the face of a person approximating a pair of eyes, eyelids and eyebrows in darker hatching and a pair of lips.  Inserted between the eyes is a nose.  Framing this sexually ambiguous “flower-face” is an array of six leaves.  A second image appearing on another page of this sheet music shows a man with a banjo.  The contour lines of his body and the slight coloration suggest a cursory sketch.  Wearing a dark hat, the subject stands with head turned towards the viewer and his accentuated buttocks and calf protrude.

Personal Description

Among the numerous words to describe this image, ‘odd’ and ‘creepy’ seem particularly apt.  One has only to describe it as an “animated face-plant” to understand this.  Shrouded in ambiguity are any identifying or contextual features or characteristics.  What is clear is that artist is relocating the viewer in different visual realm.  This image’s illusion is conveyed by the lack of a connecting body, or any other visual cues that reference the real.  The second image then, should stand in striking contrast as the full body of a male banjo player is visualized.  Furthermore, the facial features of this man resemble those of the rose. Still, this image is also illusionistic for its curious lack of details and corporeal distortion.  Finally, its placement of the banjo where the male phallus might be is suggests an eroticism that might be derivative of the eras latent sexual deviancies displayed in other art forms such as minstrelsy.

Reality Check

Reverend Richard Allen

Richard Allen was the leading figure in events that produced the independent black church movement and led to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He also served as one of the early bishops of the AME church.  Allen saved enough money to purchase his freedom from his delaware master in 1777, the year in which he also was converted.  Within a few years he was preaching and winning the favor of Bishop Francis Asbury, the founder of American Methodism.  In 1786 he moved to Philadelphia, where he began to hold prayer meetings for his own people.  His proposal to set up a separate place of worship was opposed by whites and some blacks.  It was only after the officials of St. George’s Church, where he frequently preached, proposed to segregate the large number of blacks who came to hear him that it became clear to him and others that blacks should have a separate church. Allen was able to organize and dedicate Bethel Church in 1794.  In 1799 Bishop Asbury ordained him deacon and later he was elevated to the status of an elder.  His church became known as the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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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.

Dixie’s Land

Dixie's Land

Dixie's Land

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

Title of Song:  Dixie’s Land

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  bsvg200749

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  bsvg200749

Basic Description

A small band of men play music behind a dancing couple.  Their uniform attire of long coats and striped pants is punctured by one man who wears an cap crowned with an object reminiscent of a clock.  They play the triangle, an accordion, cymbals the banjo and flute.  Deviating from the grandeur of the scene, suggested by the panels of the wall in the background and the chandelier, the female partner of the couple has one bare arm while the other is covered by a long sleeve.

Personal Description

The lack of details and dark nature of the render that makes faces pictured anonymous detracts from any possibility of perceived individuality.  Additionally, there is a symmetry in both groups rendered with six musicians in the back and a pair dancing in the foreground.  Finally, both the dancers and musicians face an unidentified and unvisualized third party.  Together, these elements suggest that this image constitutes a type of performance.  In this way, the uniform attire of the band members might be understood as costumes.  Similarly, they seem to stand on an elevated platform or stage.  This image, thus recalls the shared culture of performance amongst blacks and whites, which took place both inside theater houses and in front of commercial store fronts.

Reality Check

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1866

Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” Five years later the school was in dire financial straits. George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the University. The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day.

They broke racial barriers in the US and abroad in the late 19th century.  In 1870, the group performed a concert of spirituals in New York City to raise for their home institution in Nashville.  The singers introduced ‘slave songs’ to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving the unique tradition known today as Negro spirituals.  During their long and distinguished history, they entertained Kings and Queens in Europe while simultaneously raising money for their university.

In 1999, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were featured in a PBS award-winning television documentary series, produced by WGBH/Boston.  In July 2007, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went visited Ghana at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy.   There the ensemble joined in the celebration of the nation’s Golden Jubilee, the 50th independence anniversary.  In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were selected as a recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts.  The award was presented by President George W. Bush during a ceremony at the White House.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue the tradition of singing the Negro spiritual around the world. This allows them to share this rich culture globally while preserving this unique music.

(Source: http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/about.html)

The Contraband Schottische

Contraband Schottisches

Contraband Schottisches

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

Title of Song:     Contraband schottische

Composer:         Winner, Septimus

Publisher:          Oliver Ditson: Lee & Walker

Year & Place:    1861; Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B-1016

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  hasm.b1016

Basic Description

This sheet music’s cover shows its viewer one moment from a longer narrative involving five characters.  A white male stands with his fist raised on two steps at the very top of the composition.  With a stern countenance, he wears a collared shirt as well as a bowtie, vest and sports jacket.  In his right hand he grasps a cane.  Below him in a pictorial space separated horizontally by a set of stairs are four black boys.  The child in the upper-right hand section of the pictorial space has turned his head to look back at the older man in the midst of running.  The other three seem to have stumbled and fallen over on to the ground.  The artist here has outfitted all four boys in the same attire which includes a billowy shirt and knickers.  While some have no shoes, other boys are in various stages of ‘shoelessness’.  The children, while in general disarray, maintain a jovial disposition as evidenced by the slight smiles of those in the foreground.

Personal Description

The composition, body language and written language of this image  suggest ambiguity.  While the comportment of the black bodies suggests that they are in trouble, having transgressed some unwritten rule, the term contraband that makes up part of the title could mean that they are the trouble.  The term contraband during this period referred to escaped slaves who fled from the South.  The lack of specific spatial markers disables the viewer from being certain.  Still, the positions of their bodies remaind curious.  The child in the upper-left portion of the space is practically upside down.  Similarly, the boy in the very front sits with his legs splayed open and the child in back of him lies on the ground horizontally.  And the boy who turns his head around seems to be suspended in mid-air.  The import of these observation is elucidated when they are compared with the only body that stands firmly, vertically upright, that of the older white male.  In both analytical contexts, his is a body that polices all of the others.

Reality Check

John J. Smith

John J. Smith

Born free in Richmond, Virginia, on November 2, 1820, John J. Smith moved to Boston at the age of twenty-eight. With an adventurous and pioneering spirit, Smith went West for the 1849 California Gold Rush but returned to Boston no richer than when he left.  At this time he became a barber and set up a shop on the corner of Howard and Bulfinch Streets.  His shop was a center for abolitionist activity and a rendezvous point for fugitive slaves. When abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was not at his home or office, he was usually found at Smith’s shop.

Smith, his wife Georgiana, and other leaders such as Benjamin F. Roberts worked in the 1840s and 1850s in the fight for equal school rights. Boston’s public schools were integrated in 1855 and Smith’s daughter Elizabeth, in the early 1870s, became the first person of African descent to teach in Boston’s integrated schools. John Smith also worked to fight slavery and he was one of the men who played a key role in the rescue of the self-emancipated slave Shadrach Minkins from federal custody in 1851.

During the Civil War, Smith stationed himself in Washington, D.C., as a recruiting officer for the all-black 5th Cavalry. After the war, Smith was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868, 1869 and 1872. In 1878, the year he moved to 86 Pinckney Street, he was appointed to the Boston Common Council. John J. Smith lived at this residence  until 1893.  He died on November 4, 1906.

(Source: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, http://www.afroammuseum.org/exhibits.htm; http://www.nps.gov/boaf/historyculture/john-j-smith-house.htm)

Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

Walking for dat Cake

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

Title of Song:     Walking for Dat Cake

Composer:         Braham, David

Publisher:          Wm. A. Pond

Year & Place:    1877; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:               Music B-156

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  hasm.b0156

Basic Description

This image depicts a warm scene of revelry and dance inside of a wooden dwelling.  Young couples move about the floor in formal attire with the boys in suits and the women in dresses. The adults in this image line the walls and the outskirts of the floor. One couple, consisting of a male and a female watch the festivities from the back, far left portion of the space. while another couple stands in the far right of the background near the entrance of the house. Dancing in the far left foreground, a matronly woman balances a plate of food on her head. She wears glasses as well as an apron. Mirroring her movements and creating a symmetrical composition, directly across from her is an older gentleman with a pipe in his right hand. In the background, directly in front of the window, a small, thin boy participates in the festivities by dancing on top of a table. Illuminating this joyous evening is a large, lit, fireplace as well as a candle on top of the mantle. Portraits, chairs pushed against the walls and a clock lining the wall remind the viewer of the space’s domestic character.

Personal Description

The fifteen individuals packed into this small space make this image extraordinarily crowded.   The source of the music is also conspicuously absent. The occasion for this dance and the individual identities of these people are also missing pieces of contextual information that the viewer cannot visually access. One might infer that these constitute free blacks from their fancy dress and participation in an activity of leisure.  All that the viewer can know for sure, however, about this image is that there is a group of black people dancing. In this way, it contains elements of caricature, as it reduces black identity to dance. Still, there are other dichotomies exist in this image. First, the artist chose not to create a grotesque illustration scene of debauchery that would have been more in line with the hypersexualized, revival-esque dance with which African-Americans were associated. Instead, the illustrator drew a restrained scene of civilized dance. This is, however, punctured by anomalies. A woman dances with food on her head and a boy dances on top of a table. Other characters are not clearly adults or children, straddling a strange space between youth and maturation.  It is as if the artist wanted to suggest that they can’t quite get it right. Thus, this image combines subtle stereotyping with an indirect critique of middle-class African-American life.

Reality Check

Reality Check - Walking for Dat Cake - Schomburg Digital Image Archive

Sketch from February 26, 1870 Harper’s Weekly

“There are now about one hundred buildings occupied by the schools of this [New York] city.  While all of these buildings are convenient and healthful, the newer buildings are a great improvement on those erected in former years.  They have been constructed on the best principles of arrangement, fitted with conveniences for teachers and pupils, supplied with the best kind of furniture, and are warmed and ventilated by the best apparatus.  They vary in size, some occupying only two lots, other six or seven.  It has been found that large buildings are much more economical and convenient than small ones; and not infrequently two thousand pupils, and even a larger number are well accommodated.

The sketches that illustrate this article will give the reader a very complete idea of the internal arrangements of our common schools.  The first gives an exterior view of one of the school buildings; No. 2 shows a lesson in object teaching in a class-room in a colored school; No. 3 a girls’ class in calisthenics; No. 4, a girls’ class in drawing; No. 5, a writing lesson.  These sketches were all taken from actual scenes and are accurate representations of them.”

Wait, my Children, Wait!

B152 - Wait, my Children, Wait!

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

Title of Song:         Wait, My Childrem, Wait

Composer:             Dekress, Charles R

Publisher:              John Church

Year & Place:      1880; Cincinnati, Ohio

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                  Music B-152

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:    hasm.b0152

Basic Description

A raucous scene of a group of boys who have disrobed and swim in a large body of water near a shore takes place in this image.  One boy, completely naked, dives into the water while the other float displaying an assortment of body parts.  While some are almost completely submerged with only their heads peeking above the water’s surface, others are upside down with legs and feet visible to the viewer.  In the bushes on the shoreline are two personified animals who seem to stare at this curious scene.  With their rapt gaze and comportment exhibiting a verticality with two legs and feet firmly on the ground, their behavior recalls that of a human.  Above this aquatic adventure is an angel blowing a trumpet, to which two of children seem to both acknowledge and respond, while resting on a set of clouds.

Personal Description

This out-of-control, ambiguous, scene combines the fantastic, with revival-esque religious undertones.  Rather than render an apparition, the angel looks just like the other figures and interacts with them.  Additionally, it is unclear from the lyrics whether the angel is there to warn the children of an impending danger or to issue more malicious taunts about their ‘wooly’ hair as the lyrics suggest.  The two animals present look and behave like humans and stand up vertically, while children are upside down and several limbs appear without attached bodies.  The eerily static animals have a sinister manner as they silently watch the kids, who seem in a curious reversal, to act like animals.  All of these elements push this scene beyond the denigrating humor of caricature to a visual realm that is disordered, sub-human and out of this world.

Reality Check


Wallace Shelton Polk, 1874 – 1877

Wallace Shelton Polk was born around 1870 to Elias J. and Sarah Polk. At the time this photo was taken the family was living on West Canal St. Elias was a laborer and a foreman at the city stables. Wallace became a porter and tacker and later an advertising agent. He had an older brother, James.  Wallace Shelton Polk was about four years old when this photograph was taken.  The photographer was James Presley Ball, an African-American photographer based in Cincinnati, Ohio.   He is standing on an arm-less upholstered chair. The chair is velvet with heavy fringe around the seat and buttons in the back. There is a tassel hanging from the curved back. He is leaning on a round table covered with a solid cloth. There is a painted background with a column and a drape on the left. His dark hair is parted on the side. He is wearing a bolero style jacket with buttons on each side. The top button is buttoned. The card is on thicker stock and has been trimmed all around. The imprint is lengthwise on the back in purple with “P. B Thomas, Retoucher” printed in the corner. Wallace’s name is written in pencil on the back.  Wallace died Sept. 27, 1915 and is buried in the Union Baptist Cemetery.

(Source: http://library.cincymuseum.org/starweb/photos/servlet.starweb)

We’ll Raise de Roof To-Night

We'll Raise de Roof Tonight

We'll Raise de Roof Tonight

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

Title of Song:     We’ll Raise De Roof To-Night

Composer:          Wheeler, J. W.

Illustrator:         Cinthy Johnson

Publisher:           Blair & Lydon

Year & Place:    1884; Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                 Music B-167

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:    hasm.b0167

Basic Description

The image here shows four men rowing a small boat close by an isolated wooden house.  While the viewer is unable to see what lies behind the dwelling, its seems that the land on which the house sits constitutes its own island.  Another boat leans against the shore in front of several trees on the left side of the building while a full-moon lights the night sky.  Bright windows indicate that there are other light on or candles burning.  There are no other signs, however, of human presence.  Each of the four men in the boat has a distinct posture.  Rowing the boat on the far left, one male sharply reclines with his face aimed directly at the sky.  Another male in the center languidly plays a banjo while a character to his right pushes his oar through with the water with his feet up.  Finally, piercing the calm water is a large frog.

Personal Description

The figures in this image look as though they are inebriated or altered state of being.  And they’re solemn movement though the water stands in stark contrast to the title of the music which, indicates a raucous celebration.  What both suggest however is a break moment of quotidian activities.  Still, it seems as though the illustration is meant to stand apart from its accompanying music.  And its visual strategy and subject matter stand in an ambiguous space with the potential for transgression or capitulation.

Reality Check

Lewis Hayden, 1811 - 1889

Lewis Hayden was one of Boston’s most visible and militant African American abolitionists. He was born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. His first wife, Esther Harvey, and a son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who in turn sold them into the deep south. Hayden was never able to discover their ultimate whereabouts. Eventually, Hayden was remarried to a woman named Harriet Bell and they escaped with their son Joseph to Canada in 1844, and then to Detroit in 1845.

The Hayden family made their way to Boston by January 1846. Lewis ran a clothing store and quickly became a leader in the black community. In 1850, the Haydens moved into the house at 66 Phillips Street. The Hayden’s routinely cared for self-emancipated African Americans at their home, which served as a boarding house. Records from the Boston Vigilance Committee indicate that scores of people received aid and shelter at the Hayden home between 1850 and 1860. Lewis Hayden was one of the men who helped rescue Shadrach Minkins from federal custody in 1851 and he played a significant role in the attempted rescue of Anthony Burns. Hayden also contributed money to John Brown, in preparation for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.

William and Ellen Craft were among Lewis and Harriet Hayden’s most famous boarders. The Crafts escaped from slavery by riding a passenger train to the north. Lewis Hayden was determined to fight for their protection. Hayden threatened that two kegs of gun powder were kept near the entryway of his home. Should slave catchers come and attempt to reclaim their “property,” Hayden would sooner have blown up the house than surrender the Crafts.

During the Civil War, Lewis Hayden worked as a recruiter for the 54th Regiment. Later he served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and worked for the Massachusetts Secretary of State. Lewis Hayden died on April 7, 1889.

(Source: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; http://www.nps.gov/boaf/historyculture/lewis-and-harriet-hayden-house.htm)