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The Creolization of American Culture

The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy

Christopher J. Smith
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Creolization of American Culture
    Book Description:

    This study examines the artworks, letters, sketchbooks, music collection, and biography of the painter William Sidney Mount (1807–1868) as a lens through which to see the multiethnic antebellum world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy. Christopher J. Smith uses Mount's depictions of black and white vernacular fiddlers, banjo players, and dancers to open up fresh perspectives on cross-ethnic cultural transference in Northern and urban contexts, showing how rivers, waterfronts, and other sites of interracial interaction shaped musical practices by transporting musical culture from the South to the North and back. The "Africanization" of Anglo-Celtic tunes created minstrelsy's musical "creole synthesis," a body of melodic and rhythmic vocabularies, repertoires, tunes, and musical techniques that became the foundation of American popular music.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09504-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. 1 Recovering the Creole Synthesis: The Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy
    (pp. 1-27)

    THIS BOOK USES THE ARTWORKS, letters, sketchbooks, music collection, ephemera, and biography of the vernacular painter William Sidney Mount (1807–1868), and similar materials from some of his predecessors and contemporaries, as a lens through which to see the multiethnic antebellum world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy, and to recover the roots, sound and impact of that popular music idiom in performance. I argue that the resources, demographics, and conditions for a unique black-white cultural exchange, a “creole synthesis,” existed widely across riverine and maritime antebellum United States. Finally, I suggest that, though Mount in his local environments of...

  6. 2 The Creole Synthesis in the New World: Cultures in Contact
    (pp. 28-78)

    THIS CHAPTER ARGUES THAT THE MUSICAL, cultural, and sociological resources for blackface’s creole synthesis were in place long before the founding of the Virginia Minstrels in 1843, the event conventionally identified as the watershed “beginnings” of the minstrel show. Indeed, the roots of the creole synthesis predate the first blackface solo performances of George Washington Dixon and Thomas Dartmouth Rice in the late ’20s, likewise preceding the “Haytian” dance influences on Long Island, which Washington Irving described in the ’teens, and even the blackface “Mungo” and “Juba” theatrical characters of the colonial and revolutionary periods.

    In fact, the conditions for...

  7. 3 Long Island and the Lower East Side: Mount’s Background, Youth, and Apprenticeships
    (pp. 79-121)

    THIS CHAPTER NARROWS OUR FOCUS from the western Atlantic and Caribbean to examine the creolizing maritime cultures of two islands—Long Island and Manhattan—that directly shaped William Sidney Mount’s personal and musical world. It explores the ways in which influences from those islands play out in the life of Mount himself, in that of his uncle and musical mentor Micah Hawkins (1777–1825), and in Hawkins’s 1824 ballad opera The Saw-Mill, or, A Yankee Trick. This chapter sets the scene for Mount, both chronologically and geographically; it also creates a framing biography for his childhood and cultural contexts, introduces...

  8. 4 Minstrelsy’s Material Culture: The Evidence of Mount’s Portraiture
    (pp. 122-147)

    THIS CHAPTER CONCENTRATES ON INSIGHTS provided by examination of the paintings from Mount’s maturity into the material culture of instrumental dance music in the “creole synthesis.” Principal evidence is drawn from four portraits of dance musicians that he painted in 1849 (Just in Tune), 1850 (Right and Left) and 1856 (The Banjo Player and The Bone Player), works of technical and expressive virtuosity but that, more importantly, provide confirmation of his expertise in and admiration for the details of African American vernacular music (see plates 5–8).¹ Mount was fascinated by instrumental music: his collection and design of, experiments with,...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 Melody’s Polyrhythmic Polysemic Possibilities: The Bodily Evidence of Mount’s Music
    (pp. 148-172)

    OF ANY MUSICAL PARAMETER—texture, instrumentation, tempo, timbre, and other—rhythm is the most essential component to understanding dance music, in any cultural tradition, in any sacred or secular context. More than any other parameter, what defines dance, or a dance, or a dance melody, or a dance performance, is rhythm—the interaction of rhythmic sound and rhythmic motion. That interplay is at the heart of human body knowledge: “Music is the keeper of all the rhythms whose complex manifestations distinguish each personality from every other. . . . The instrument of dance is the human body, remarkable in its...

  11. 6 Akimbo Culture: Dance and the Participatory Pleasures of the Body
    (pp. 173-209)

    THIS CHAPTER EXPLORES THE MUSICAL information that can be derived from visual depictions of blackface dance (particularly those by Mount himself), and works backward from that evidence to further reconstruct performance practice and the impact of performance practice on minstrelsy’s sound and experience. Historically, this chapter links theatrical blackface with the street performance idioms that were its predecessors, by locating prototypical blackface dance vocabularies and rhythmic practices in vernacular art works of the earlier nineteenth century. I argue that it was precisely the interplay of music and motion—rhythm and dance—between performers and audience, that accounts for minstrelsy’s remarkably...

  12. Conclusion: The Creole Synthesis in American Culture
    (pp. 210-216)

    THE GOAL OF THIS BOOK HAS BEEN to use primary sources—demographics, tune repertoires, archival materials, and most especially iconography—as tools to construct a portrait of the multiethnic nineteenth-century world that gave birth to blackface minstrelsy; to recover the sounds of that world; and to understand how the sound and movement vocabularies of this synthesis accelerated the creolization of North American culture. Though my examination has culminated with the biographical experience and visual reporting of William Sidney Mount, the book has also sought to “open out” this analysis, in order to encompass deeper roots and a more expansive history...

  13. Appendix: Blackface Scholarship
    (pp. 217-234)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 235-298)
  15. Index
    (pp. 299-314)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 315-324)