Tag Archives: Mules

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


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.


I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

I'se Gwine Back To Leave Old Dixie

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

Title of Song:  I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

Composer: White, Charles Albert

Lyricist: Cooper, George

Lithographer: F.M. Haskell  & Co.

Publisher: White, Smith & Company

Year & Date:  1879, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-745

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0745

Basic Description
This lithograph consists of a framed illustration with embellished lettering above and below. The illustration shows an old man and woman sitting on top of a horse and buggy. The vehicle is stuffed with their personal belongings— mostly the tools of manual labor— a hoe, a broom, a saw— some chairs, and some wooden barrels.  The man has a white beard and what appears to be a cane behind his shoulder. He is hunched over, tired-looking and frail. The woman holds a clock in her hands. The horse’s eyes are covered by blinders and two children, a boy and a girl, stare at it. A scrawny dog with its ribs showing trots next to them. The outlines of two people working in the field are faintly visible.

Personal Description
The clock stands out from the farm-related belongings and seems to symbolize the pressures facing the couple; the scene could be read in the context of the failure of Reconstruction.  But is this couple sad to leave home or simply worn out, weary, and hungry? In other song sheet covers on this blog, “Dixie,” as an imagined place, is invested with emotional power. A pull toward self-improvement and prosperity in the North is sometimes undermined by disillusionment and a mental Southward slide toward familiarity and so-called comfort. “I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie” is a song about leaving the South out of financial need, but wanting to stay. The lithograph could be seen as representing the transition from an idealized way of life to a world of  urgent financial pressures. Rather than representing the hope of a new generation, the children almost seem to be witnessing their own fate in the troubles of the older couple.

Reality Check

Ellen Craft (1826-1891) and William Craft (1824-1900)
Ellen Craft was a light-skinned African American slave woman who helped her husband escape from slavery by passing as white. Her husband William wrote an autobiographical slave narrative that described their dramatic escape.

They traveled by public transportation from their home in Georgia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, staying in hotels along the way.

Ellen Craft was born in Clinton Georgia to a biracial slave woman and her master. She was so light-skinned that she was often mistaken for a member of her father’s white family. At age 11, she was given as a wedding gift to daughter who lived in Macon. There she met William and married him in 1846. Together they devised their escape plan— to pose as a white slaveholder with his slave.

Because a white woman would not have traveled alone with a male slave, Ellen had to pretend to be not only white but a man. She cut her hair, changed her walk, and wrapped her jaw in bandages to disguise her lack of a beard. To hide her illiteracy, she wrapped her right arm in a sling to have a ready excuse for being unable to sign papers. She explained the bandages by claiming to be an invalid traveling north to receive medical care. They traveled this way from Georgia to Pennsylvania by train, steamer, and ferry without being discovered, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1848.

In Philadelphia they befriended William Lloyd Garrison and then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they traveled as anti-slavery lecturers. They fled to England in 1850, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1868, following the Civil War, they returned to the United States and settled near Savannah, Georgia. They farmed a cotton and rice plantation and attempted to start a school. But financial debts from the plantation and hostility from white neighbors forced them to close it. Ellen Craft died in 1891. William moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1900.

(Source: Africa Online, http://www.africanaonline.com/slavery_ellen_william_craft.htm)


Drat dat Mewel

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

Title of Song:  “Drat dat Mewel!”

Composer:  Carl Walters

Lyricist: George Russell Jackson

Publisher:  White-Smith

Year & Place:  1893, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-321

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0321

Basic Descripton

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.

Personal Description

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.

Reality Check


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.