Blackface

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Here’s an interesting one.  When my grandparents passed away I inherited a couple of their LPs that I associated with them and remember hearing them listen to, some Adge Cutler & The Wurzels spring to mind, but I also took a couple that struck me as interesting objects.  One of which was The George Mitchell Minstrels The Black & White Minstrel Show from 1960, because I, liberal left-wing anti-fascist as I am/was/will be, simply couldn’t believe it existed and I wanted to show my friends.  This is George:

Truly he does have a 'calm bank-official type of exterior'
Truly he does have a ‘calm bank-official type of exterior’

Okay as a 41 year-old I now see a certain sneery smugness in that attitude of mine then, that was entirely beyond me then.  Still it is pretty darn flabbergasting to me, even now.

For any of you who missed The Black & White Minstrels, they were part of a long, long tradition of white folks dressing up in ‘darky’* clothing and make-up and basically caricaturing certain racial stereotypes of black persons, usually African americans.  Performers blackened their faces, exaggerated their lips and put on woolly, wiry wigs.  It began in the US in the 1830’s and persisted right up to the 70’s on TV – I think I can remember seeing minstrels on TV when I was young, although that might just be a false memory from seeing such shows on documentaries.  Hell, I can remember golliwog toys and brands.  the sleeve notes refer to the fact that Black & White Minstrels performed for Queen Victoria in the 1860s and that George’s minstrels ‘have appeared in no less than seven Royal Variety Performances’**.

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Obviously and very rightly this all came to a shuddering halt as times changed and racial consciousness and sensitivity increased, the American Civil Rights movement in particular did for this type of performance.  Blackface was seen as mocking and reinforcing lazy, offensive stereotypes.  There have been some very interesting counter arguments involving the fact that these shows popularised aspects of black culture at the time and some, more authentic ones, were an accurate representation of it.  I’ve even heard it argued that blackface is the racial equivalent of cross-dressing, which I don’t buy; it’s a topic too loaded with history and oppression to make any such comparison valid.  I won’t bore you but I could write a sizable piece on Al Jolson alone and the regard he was held in by, to use the term of the times, negro performers and the crossover he saw between Jewish music and suffering and that of the African-Americans at the time, it fascinates me.

Even so, to see Al Jolson today in full blackface rig is a jarring, anachronistic thing to my sensibilities.  But, as shown by the fact they bought the LP, not my grandparents.  I never spoke to them about it but this would only ever have been an affectionate thing, a way of enjoying the music and i have no doubt at all they would be baffled by my attitude to it all.  In fact a good few of the tunes, such as ‘K-K-K Katy’ and ‘Camp Town Races’ I can well remember my grandparents singing to this day.  Interestingly the sleeve notes do not refer to black culture, or the sources of the songs at all, just how good the performances are and they would have been a big live draw I’d imagine too.  I do particularly like the biog of George, it asks the most important question of all:

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My overall view? different times, very different sensibilities, different musical tastes.  It’s an artifact of its time, just as I am of mine and so my initial sneering was entirely unjustified.  I’m pleased I got it though, otherwise I’d have missed out forever on the ‘delights’ of ‘Coal Black Mammy’, ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ and ‘Oh Dem Golden Slippers’.  I do genuinely love the tune of ‘By The Light of The Silvery Moon’ and that’s as positive as I can be musically about this record.

I only meant to write three paragraphs and a bit of a jokey review tonight too.

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280 Down.

*apparently this is the correct term for it.  i feel uneasy even typing it.

**cultural note for those of you living in better climates than I, Royal Variety Performances are a big annual charity cabaret show in front of senior members of the British royal family; not recommended for those possessed of a depressive nature.  The Beatles tore it up a bit in 1963.

11 thoughts on “Blackface

  1. Pingback: 39 in ’43 | 1537
  2. Really interesting post. As inappropriate and tasteless as it seems, this is indeed a piece of history. One you can choose to ignore and pretend it never existed, or one you can discuss and look at it for what it is. You my friend took it head on.

    Different times, indeed. I can remember owning a ‘Song of the South’ Disney story record as a kid. I loved that record and the songs contained within it. In my mind nothing seemed inappropriate about it. I loved the cartoon as well. Growing up you start to see how a largely white view of African American culture, however ever benign at the beginning, starts to become more of a distorted carnival mirror perspective of the culture, rather than an honest perspective.

    Regardless of intentions, it begins to just become ugly. What we don’t want to do is hide it and pretend it never happened. Thanks for sharing this one.

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    1. Thank you. I agree things need to be seen to be learned from.

      In Liverpool we still have rings on the waterfront where slaves were shackled to whilst in transit. There was a movement a few years back to rename streets named after merchants who took part in the slave trade (which would have included Penny Lane), it didn’t happen and I was glad. I don’t approve of a revisionist approach to history, you see you learn and move on as a society.

      Equally I appreciate that I’m a middle-class Caucasian male and my views may not be as vehement as someone whose ancestors suffered that way.

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  3. Good on you for raising an uncomfortable but worthwhile topic.
    I recall feeling uneasy at my parents regard for Al Jolson; makes me shudder now. And shudder I did when I read the song title ‘K-K-K Katy’. Jeezus wept!
    Perhaps I’ll play a 1958 LP of The Golden Gate Quartet I picked up at a market last weekend. Have to do something to rinse my brain.

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    1. Different times and I know exactly what you mean.

      I’ve been looking into Al Jolson a bit, his act aside, he seems to have been a fundamentally decent man – I never knew anything about him at all.

      Like

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