Showing posts with label blackface. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blackface. Show all posts

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Original Lyrics for "I Wish I Was in Dixie" (you might be surprised)

The lower half of page 29 of the Atlanta Constitution
newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1895.
I wish I was in Dixie; Hooray hooray!
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
Away, away. away down south in Dixie


"Dixie" was a Confederate battlecry in the march against the Union. It had not been composed as a battle song, though.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) premiered this song for a minstrel show a couple of years before the American Civil War broke out. As I documented in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, while he was not the first blackface minstrel, Dan Emmett created the minstrel show (with his Virginia Minstrels) around 1841. At that time he wrote what is probably the United States' first homegrown popular hit, "Old Dan Tucker."

 Audiences usually assumed that minstrel songs were either original "negro songs," or written in the "negro style." Really, most were probably modified Irish ballads and jigs. The lyrics were printed in a sort of vernacular, to reflect speech patterns of the slaves. For instance, "I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten ..." was written as, "I wish I was in de lan ob cotton / Ole times dar am not forgotten ..."

Emmett's Virginia Minstrels toured Europe (to great reviews) but were short-lived, and by 1859 Daniel Emmett was working with Bryant's Minstrels as songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For a rousing close to their show the Bryant's asked him for a stirring melody, "a regular whopper that would wake things up." Emmett quickly composed "Dixie" (aka "Dixie's Land," "I Wish I Was In Dixie," etc.).

Two years after its composition, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. The song, already popular, caught on like wildfire. Confederate soldiers, inspired by the thrilling strains of the chorus, rushed into battle "to live and die in Dixie."

Much of the lyric had changed in those two years. Racial references were erased, four-line stanzas became two-line stanzas, and the song's comic patter became racially indiscriminate.  It had migrated from a "comic" minstrel stage performance into a folk song.

Regarding this, the July 14, 1895 edition of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper explained that, "the words of the song have undergone many additions and modifications during the thirty-six years of its existence, but a pencil copy in the author's own hand gives the following as the original version, as sung in New York in 1859."

And so we read, in one of the original verses, "In Dixie lan' de darkies grow / 'Ef  white fo'kes only plants der toe / Dey wet the groun' wid 'backer smoke / An' up de darkie's head will poke / I wish I was in Dixie, etc."

Incredibly (a sad comment on the times they lived in) the article praised the lyrics as having considerable value: "Those who seek for literary excellence in the homely rhymes will be disappointed, but recognition of the author's design gives the key to their merit, and one sees in them unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification."

"Unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification." How could anyone, reading the lyrics, have even thought that, much less published it in a newspaper??

Although Emmett could be an absurdist (as illustrated by these lines from "Old Dan Tucker:" "Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man / Washed his face in a frying pan / Combed his hair with a wagon wheel / Died with a toothache in his heel"), his lyrics were often uncommonly denigrating (again, from "Old Dan Tucker": "Tucker on de wood pile - can't count 'lebben / Put in a fedder bed - him gwine to hebben / His nose so flat, his face so full / De top of his head like a bag ob wool").

Here, as reproduced by the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1895, are those original lyrics to "Dixie."

I wish I was in de lan’ ob cotton;
Ole times dar am not forgotten —
In Dixie lan’ where I was bawn in,
Early orn ne frosty mawin.’

I wish I was in Dixie — Away! away!
In Dixie Lan’ I’ll take my stan’,
To lib an’ die in Dixie.
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!

In Dixie lan’ de darkies grow,
Ef white fo’kes only plants der toe;
Dey wet de groun’ wid’ ’backer smoke,
An’ up de darkey’s head will poke.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

’Dey hoe an’ rake and dig de lan’
An’ plant de cotton seed by han’;
When master’s gone dey down will sit,
De young folks dey git up an’ git.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

You court de gals right on de squar’
An’ smoove de wool in deir curly hair;
Dey am not drunk, dey am not sober —
Dey try to faint, but dey fall cl’ar ober.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

Ole Missis marry Will, de weaber;
William was a gay deceaber;
When he put is arm aroun’ ’er,
He looks as fierce as a forty-poun’er.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

When Missis libbed she libbed in clobber;
When she died she died all ober.
Here’s a health to the nex’ old Missis,
An’ all de gals dat want to kiss us.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

_____________________________________________
Here are two contemporary (and necessarily sanitized) versions of the two songs mentioned here. First, Bob Dylan, from his film Masked and Anonymous:



And Bruce Springsteen, from a 2006 tour:



In each case, double-click to receive the full-frame video.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Looking for a new topic to research. Maybe Charley Case???

Since the publication of the second (and final) edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I have been searching for another topic to write about. Perhaps Charley Case?

Case (1858-1916) was a blackface comedian I encountered while researching the history of SJI; he makes a brief appearance in the book.

Charley Case would stand alone on a stage and recount elaborate tales while twirling a bit of string between his fingers. His comedy was subtle; his audience often "got" the joke after Case had already launched into his next narrative, interrupting it with gales of laughter. Extremely popular in his time but forgotten now, he was, I think, the original American standup comic.

From a writer's perspective, the problem with Case is that very little is known about him. The most complete history is documented in twenty pages of the book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919. This is not much to base an entire book upon.

So ... can anybody out there help? Case died tragically, unaware of his importance in the evolution of popular entertainment. Without Charley Case in the background, Richard Pryor (or Milton Berle) would have been an entirely different comedian. He was that significant.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Minstrel advertisements - Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

Advertising blotter for Minstrel producer Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

I found myself recalling that there is evidence that Blackface Minstrels performed "St. James Infirmary" in the years before the song was first recorded in 1928. And then I remembered that I own a number of the advertising items pictured above. These are blotters, from the days when people wrote with fountain pens and needed to blot up the wet ink from time to time. I used to use blotters like these. Even when ball-point pens had become popular, teachers felt we had to learn how to write with "proper" pens. Because I am left-handed, my hand would smear the ink across the page as it followed my pen. Teachers did not like that. So, I would place a blotter over what I had just written, and rest my hand upon it. Blotters were very handy. It was a clever gimmick, handing them out as advertisements.

Postcard for Hi-Brown Bobby Burns
Those blotters are probably from the 1920s, when minstrelsy was being absorbed into and supplanted by vaudeville. They measure about 3.5" by 6". Here, Burns shows his "real" face, and his clown face (our modern-day clowns are really just minstrels in whiteface). "Hi-Brown" Bobby Burns was a minor producer of minstrel shows, and occasionally his name shows up on minstrel or circus advertising even into the 1940s. Judging from the evidence, it seems that Burns, like Emmett Miller, was very late in leaving the profession.
Business card "The Last of the Red Hot Minstrels"
Inquiries into the early years of SJI