Title: At the Minstrel Show: Minstrel Routines from the Studio, 1894-1926
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 13, 2020
Those who have read Tim Brooks’ new book, The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television, will no doubt be interested in this new release from Archeophone Records. The two disc set, At the Minstrel Show, features 51 selections recorded in the studio from 1894-1926 and represents the first compilation to deal authoritatively with the minstrel genre as a whole. While Brooks discussed most of these recordings at length in his book, he also penned an extensive essay and track-by-track liner notes in the 56-page illustrated booklet accompanying At the Minstrel Show. Before delving further into the content, it should be noted that some of the performances on this set contain racially derogatory language. From a scholarly perspective, however, these recordings provide the earliest aural documentation for those studying the genre.
Audio recreations of minstrel shows were a very popular genre from the mid-1890s to mid-1910s, particularly the opening portion of the shows known as “first parts,” featuring spoken sections by interlocutors, popular songs, instrumental interludes, and “negro humor,” typically meaning jokes told by whites imitating blacks. The musical examples included in this compilation are among the most authentic extant representations of a late 19th century minstrel performance, as opposed to much later studio recreations. Though there were many black minstrel troupes during this period, very few black performers were recorded. As previously noted, the shows on this set primarily feature “blackface” performances, but African American composers and performers are represented on many of the selections.
On Disc One, listeners have the opportunity to hear three complete minstrel shows—that is, a series of discs or cylinders that were intended to be listened to sequentially to give the listener the experience of a full-length staged minstrel production. The disc begins with Victor’s “An Evening with the Minstrels,” released on eight discs from 1902-1905 and featuring the Victor Minstrels creating a half-hour minstrel show. The mix of popular songs of the era includes two songs composed by Dayton, Ohio native Gussie L. Davis—one of the foremost African American songwriters at the time.
Columbia’s “An Evening with the Minstrels,” released on twelve discs and cylinders in 1903, contains a mixed bag of dialogue and songs, the most interesting of which is the “Black Hussars” commemorating a black regiment that’s “a credit to the nation.” The disc concludes with Edison’s “At the Minstrel Show,” a shorter 13 minute set released on six cylinders in 1906. Featuring the “Edison Minstrels,” the cast is comprised of various popular white recording artists such as Arthur Collins and Billy Murray, but also includes an appearance by George W. Johnson, the first prominent black recording artist of the day. Regrettably, though Johnson is on the cast list, his exact role is not clear and may have been limited to whistles, laughs or other sound effects. Once again a song by Gussie L. Davis is included, a testament to the black songwriter’s great popularity at the beginning of the 20th century.
Disc Two of this compilation includes a number of minstrel “first part” routines, some of which are extremely rare, as well as various songs and skits about minstrelsy. In terms of African American music, there are several that warrant mention. Track 2, labeled as a Minstrel First Part featuring “A High Old Time,” was recorded in New Jersey ca. 1894-1895 on an unnumbered brown wax cylinder. George W. Johnson, who adds his trademark hearty laugh throughout this skit, is featured as part of an integrated group of performers that included white singers Leonard Spencer and Dan W. Quinn. Track 3 is another Minstrel First Part based upon black composer George W. Scott’s call-and-response spiritual style song, “Dese Bones Shall Rise Again,” with a bit of realism added by a musician playing the bones in the accompaniment.
The Ancient City Quartette, an African American troupe that toured with the Georgia minstrels during the 1890s, had moved to the vaudeville stage by 1899 when tracks 7 and 9 were recorded. The Edison brown wax cylinder titled Minstrel First Part, “Echoes of Minstrelsy” (tr. 7), opens with the quartet singing “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” followed by white artist Arthur Collins performing Will Marion Cook’s popular hit “Darktown Is Out Tonight” from his 1898 Broadway show Clorindy. Collins is again featured on track 9, “Three Minutes with the Minstrels,” this time with the Ancient City Quartette on the closing chorus. Another musical theater song, “All I Want Is My Chickens Back,” is featured on track 8 from a brown wax cylinder recorded ca. 1900. Though sung by white performer Dan Quinn on this recording, the song was composed and originally performed (apparently in whiteface) by the brilliant African American composer and musician Bob Cole for his landmark 1898 production, A Trip to Coontown. If only we could hear Cole performing his own song.
Among the remaining cylinder recordings are a few additional songs by African American composers. “The Humming Coon,” which Brooks identifies as a 1902 composition by black songwriters Chris Smith and Elmer Bowman, is featured on track 17 by The Peerless Minstrels. Billy Murray performs “Me an’ de Minstrel Ban’” on track 20 from 1905, a song composed by black songwriters James Rogers and Alex Vaughan that was frequently performed by George Walker (of the black duo Williams and Walker).
At the Minstrel Show reveals the complex history of American popular music at the turn of the 20th century and serves as a valuable audio companion to books on the topic. Though the majority of the songs by African American composers in this set belong to the “coon song” genre, within a few years many would be able to shed this mask of minstrelsy to create a new era of black musicals.
On a final note, this project was a labor of love that was years in the making. Co-produced by the Grammy-winning team of Meagan Hennessey and Richard Martin, of Archeophone Records, assistance was also provided by David Giovannoni who worked with Martin on digital restoration and remastering. In addition to Brooks, Giovannoni, and Archeophone, several other sound historians generously provided records and cylinders from their collections for these transfers, including Kurt Nauck, Ryan Barna, and Todd Becker. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss