Tag Archives: banjo

I’ll send you down a Letter from de Sky

I'll send you down a letter from de sky

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

Title of Song:  “I’ll send you down a Letter from de Sky”

Composer:  M.H. Rosenfeld

Lithographer:  Endicott

Publisher:  Hitchcock’s Music Store

Year & Place:  1884, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-620

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0620

Basic Description

A razor-wielding man is, ostensibly, being thrust upward into the sky by a high-kicking mule in this lithograph.  Residual disarray from the “ass-kicking” is reflected in several chickens, helplessly fluttering in the clouds.  The sheet music’s highly decorative title is further embellished (in the word “I’ll”) by a diminutive, banjo-playing mule, dressed in an Elizabethan blouse and plumed head gear.

Personal Description

The operative sensibility is chaos, exemplified in the unbridled and out-of-control mule, the wild-eyed, razor-toting black man, and the fluttering chickens.  Still, the man’s uplifted razor is treated almost like a military standard or banner, as if signifying what the entire scene is really all about: base weaponry and sleazy trauma.

Reality Check

Hart_Frank

Frank Hart (aka “Black Dan”) (1858-1908)

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, endurance foot-racing gripped the United States and Great Britain.  The participants in these events were called pedestrians, and they were free to run or walk around an indoor track for as long as they could stay on their feet.  The top pedestrians survived on less than four hours of sleep a day and slept on cots inside the track’s oval.  Fans avidly followed these six-day contests and, frequently, placed bets on prospective winners.

In the early 1880s, an African American pedestrian stood atop this international craze.  His given name was Fred Hichborn but he changed it to Frank Hart when he turned professional.  Hart was born in Haiti in 1858, immigrated to the United States in the 1870s, and soon thereafter began working in a grocery store in Boston Massachusetts.  As the pedestrian craze swept the nation, he began competing in local events.  Hart competed in the international Astley Belt competitions, and set an American record when he won the Rose Belt in New York’s Madison Square Garden in December 1879.

Hart won the prestigious O’Leary Belt competition on April 10, 1880, smashing the world record after covering 565 miles in six days of racing.  He earned about $17,000 in prize money for that competition.  As the race ended, he waved an American flag to thousands of cheering fans who packed Madison Square Garden.   Another African American, William Pegram of Boston finished second with 540 miles.

Hart earned the nickname “Black Dan” from his association with Daniel O’Leary, an Irish immigrant and sports promoter who financed Hart during his professional career.  In later years, Hart played professional baseball in a Chicago Negro league. Hart died in Chicago in 1908.

My Home in Alabam’

My Home in Alabam'

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

Title of Song:  My Home in Alabam’

Composer: Putnam, James S.

Publisher: John F. Perry

Year & Date:  1881, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music#  B-666
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0666

Basic Description
A man sits on a wooden chair in a sparse garret bedroom with a banjo on his lap and his head in his hand. He stares at the viewer with a distant, troubled look, in a pose like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The town-like setting in the window contrasts with the plantation scene above— a dream space corralled by a dense frame of cloud-like circles.  The cracks and exposed bricks in the wall, along with the jagged hemlines of the man’s pant legs set depressing tone.  Rather than being integrated with the picture, the title text is set in the white space around the image. Two title options, “My Dear Savannah Home,” and “My Home in Alabam” are listed in sober typeface.

Personal Description
Each title option can lead to a different and contradictory interpretation of the image. Interestingly, this pamphlet includes two song sheet covers for other “plantation melodies” printed by the same publisher. This imagery makes light of the plantation experience, showing caricatured African Americans dancing or filling pails with berries. Like the song illustrated on the main cover, these songs also have two titles each that contrast oddly with each other. “De Huckleberry Picnic”  implies a recreational activity at one’s own free will but “Since I Saw de Cotton Grow” suggests the forced labor of slavery or the exploitation of sharecropping.  “My Dear Savannah Home” implies that the seated man is nostalgic for plantation life. But “My Home in Alabam” is vague, allowing the plantation memory invading the scene to be interpreted not as a cherished dream but rather an oppressive nightmare.

Reality Check

Edward Alexander Bouchet
(1852-1918)
Edward Alexander Bouchet was an educator and scientist who was born in New Haven Connecticut. His family was a member of the Temple Street Congregational Church, a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.

In 1868, Bouchet was accepted into Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution that prepared young men for the classical and scientific departments at Yale College. He graduated first in his class at Hopkins and graduated from Yale in 1874, ranking sixth in his class. In 1876, he completed a dissertation on geometrical optics,  becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from an American University and the sixth American of any race to earn a PhD in Physics.

Bouchet moved to Philadelphia in 1876 to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth, the city’s only high school for African American students.  Bouchet gave public lectures to his community in Philadelphia on scientific topics and was a member of the Franklin Institute, a foundation for the promotion of the mechanic arts, chartered in 1824.

In 1908, he became principal of Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained until 1913, when an attack of arteriosclerosis compelled him to resign and return to New Haven. He died in his boyhood home in 1916.

(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004.

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.

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)

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)

Patrol Comique

Patrol Comique

Patrol Comique

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

Title of Song:     Patrol Comique

Composer:         Hindley, Thomas

Illustrator:        Zimmerman

Publisher:          Standard Music

Year & Place:    1886; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:              Music #719

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasm.n0719

Basic Description

This image depicts four African-American individuals. Three stand in a row in the foreground while one sits in the background playing a banjo and tapping his feet.  The raised legs of the characters closer to the viewer indicate that they are dancing.  Everyone in the group sports formal attire with the men in double breasted suits.  The male in the far left of the pictorial space wears a top hat while his counterpart at the very right stands out with his bayonet and darker boots. In combination with his hat and long pants, his garments mark him as a member of the military.  The woman moving gracefully in the center of these men wears a long, short-sleeved dress as well as a hat adorned with feathers.  With an open fan in her left hand, she daintily grasps and raises her dress in the other.  The woman looks to the man to her right in an adoring manner.  While their racial distinction is clear, little attention, has been given to their distinct facial features.  Similarly, the group stands in an indistinguishable setting.  The vertical floorboards, however, suggest that they are indoors.

Personal Description

The lack of attention to details suggests that the illustrator was not keenly concerned with their individual identities.   There is nothing particularly striking, extravagant, overdone or especially poignant about this image.  Rather, what seems important is conveying the general idea of music and dance and the jovial interactions.  These festivities, however, do not reference a real social situation located in a specific date and time.  It is one that seems both real and imagined.  The male characters recall the prototypical respectable gentleman while the female recalls the chaste, graceful, properly reared, Victorian notion of femininity.  And it seems from the title, “Patrol Comique” that there is an attempt to derisively mock these people.  Rendered beautifully above the characters it suggests that this is a humorous rendition of black characters in this social setting.  One might look to what is only subtly pronounced in the image – dark Skin and formal dress – as pointing to a contradictory social situation.  Nevertheless, there are other elements that make this an odd social situation.  These characters are dressed up as if they will attend a fancy ball and they awkwardly dance with only the aid of a musician and a banjo.  Additionally, the presence of two males dancing with one female is another source of tension.

Reality Check

Reality Check - A Fancy Dress Ball on Seventh Avenue, 1872 - The Black New Yorkers

A Fancy Dress Ball on Seventh Avenue, 1872; New York, NY.

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