A Directory of American Minstrelsy
Edited by William L. Slout and dedicated to the late Charles Crain, actor, director and longtime friend, who insisted I compile it. "Charlie, rest in peace." Copyright © 2005 by William L. Slout. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from "Early History of Negro Minstrelsy," by Col. T. Allson Brown. http://www.circushistory.org/Cork/BurntCork2.htm
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George Nichols, the clown, attached many years to Purdy Brown’s Theatre and Circus of the South and West, was also among the first of burnt cork gentry. Nichols was a man of no education, yet he was the author of many anecdotes, stories, verses, etc. He was original. He would compose the verses for his comic songs within ten minutes of the time of his appearance before the audience. His “flights of fancy” and “flashes of wit” were truly astonishing and highly amusing. Nichols first sang “Jim Crow” as clown in 1834, afterwards as a Negro. He first conceived the idea from a French darkie, a banjo player, known from New Orleans to Cincinnati as Picayune Butler—a copper colored gentleman, who gathered many a picayune by singing “Picayune Butler is Going Away,” accompanying himself on his four- stringed banjo. An old darkie of New Orleans, known as “Old Corn Meal,” furnished Nichols with many airs, which he turned to account. This old Negro sold Indian meal for a living. He might be seen from morning till night with his cart and horse. He frequently stopped before Bishop’s celebrated hotel and sang a number of Negro melodies. He possessed a fine falsetto and baritone voice. Corn Meal picked up many bits and pieces for his singing.
A brother to Arch Madden, the clown, sang Negro songs on a raised platform at the old Vauxhall Garden in New York in 1828, one refrain of his songs reading,
Come, brudder, let us go off to Hayti.
There we be as grand as Gen. Lafayette.
He also sang Negro songs at the Military Garden, kept by Gen. Storms, on the southwest corner of Broadway and Prince Street, New York.
Bob Farrell, an actor, sang “Zip Coon,” composed by Nichols. Lewis Hyel, of Brown’s Company, sang “Roley Boley” by Nichols. Nichols first sang “Clar de Kitchen.” This song he arranged from hearing it sung by the Negro firemen on the Mississippi River. The tune of “Zip Coon” was taken from a rough jig dance, called “Natchez Under the Hill,” where the boatmen, river pirates, gamblers and courtesans congregated for the enjoyment of a regular hoe-down in the old time. Sam Tatnall, the equestrian, sang “Back Side of Albany.” John and Frank Whittaker sang “Coal Black Rose” in 1830. Bill Keller, a low comedian of Philadelphia, was the original “Coal Black Rose.” John Clements, leader of the orchestra for Duffy & Forrest, composed the music. George Washington Dixon created a furor by singing this song; also “Long- Tailed Blue,” “Lubla Rosa,” and other plantation songs at the Chatham Theatre, New York, under the management of Flynn in 1829, when Sloman commenced singing buffo songs. Dixon commenced singing buffo at the Albany Theatre in 1830. In July, 1830, he was at the Park Theatre, New York, announced as “The celebrated American buffo singer,” and continued to get his name at the head of the bills. ...
The Circus Roots of Negro Minstrelsy
Stuart Thayer, American Circus Anthology, Essays of the Early Years, arranged and edited by William L. Slout.Copyright © 2005 by Stuart Thayer and William L. Slout. All rights reserved.
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Now let us turn to the thesis of this paper, as embodied in its title, and that is the circus ring as the source of minstrelsy. To do this we must first examine the place of the comic song in the arenic performance, for it was as singers, rather than dancers or instrumentalists that the early performers of what became minstrelsy presented themselves. The art is almost as old as the American circus itself. As early as 1799 there is record of a song being sung in the ring, though it was not comic, nor was it done by the company’s clown. It was, in fact, an aberration, as we don’t find another singer in the ring until 1817. And we don’t see a comic song called that until 1821, this presented by a man dressed as a woman. James West’s Circus of that year had two singers on its roster, one comic, one not. In 1823 a Mister Roberts sang a comic song in the program of the Price &. Simpson Circus, but it was not until the following year that we find a clown offering comic songs. This was Hugh Lindsay, who made a distinction in his autobiography between acting the clown and singing comic songs.
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[George] Nichols was a most unusual entertainer. T. Allston Brown in his history of Negro minstrelsy, which ran for two years in the New York Clipper, said of him: “George Nichols, the clown, attached for many years to Purdy Brown’s Theatre and Circus of the South and West, was also among the first of burnt cork gentry. Nichols was a man of no education, yet he was the author of many anecdotes, stories, verses, etc. He was original. He would compose the verses for his comic songs within ten minutes of the time of his appearance before the audience.”
To this point we have made a distinction between comic songs and Negro songs, but in his 1833 advertisements J. Purdy Brown erased the distinction, announcing as he did that Bob Farrell would sing the comic song “Zip Coon.” This was another of Nichols compositions, as was “Clare de Kitchen,” which William Creighton sang in the same circus that same month. Both of these songs became staples of minstrel shows, and, interestingly, represented characters from the opposite ends of the Afro-American existence, as seen by white persons.
Zip Coon was a street-wise urban character, whose dress mimicked that of the white dandies of the day, yet was a burlesque of that garb. In the words of Hans Nathan, he was a “Broadway Swell.” The tails of his coat were longer, his top hat was larger, his shoes were exaggerated just enough to preserve the style yet miss it. Some interpreters of the personage went so far as to use a lorgnette. The song “Long-Tailed Blue,” popular for many seasons, referred to his swallow-tailed coat. On the stage Zip Coon walked back and forth in exaggerated style while singing his autobiography. One verse went: “I sometimes wear mustachers but I lost em todder day for de glue was bad, de wind was high and so dey blowed away.”
The other song, “Clare de Kitchen,” was sung by a plantation woman who described sweeping the floor of her Kentucky home in preparation for a songfest. Clare was supposedly dialect for clear. The song was usually sung by a man in woman’s clothing.
These two depictions of Afro-American characters, the city dandy and the plantation worker, were eventually carried over from entr’ actes to the order of minstrel shows, in which the first part presented a cast dressed as we described Jim Crow above. The second part, after intermission, was a plantation scene with the performers in ragged clothing, burst shoes, and untamed hair styles. The instrumentation was different as well, the city scene using violins and banjos, the country folks having jawbones and tambourines.
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