Blackface Minstrel. 19th Century

Hipsters, Flipsters
Finger Poppin’ Daddies!


by C. P. Lee


Dylan, Blackface & Dixie

I’d heard about it on the internet, but it wasn’t until I played the soundtrack of Masked & Anonymous that I was confronted with the reality of Bob Dylan performing the old Confederate anthem Dixie. It was about as expected as Dylan giving us his rendition of the Nazi marching tune, The Horst Wessel Song. Dylan, the one time champion of the Civil Rights movement, singing a song that, whimsical nostalgia notwithstanding, is still associated with Redneck miscegenation, slavery, Jim Crow and the novelty car horns employed by the kind of people with Confederate flag bumper stickers. 

All in all, not quite as worrying as I’d anticipated, but definitely strange. However, when a copy of the actual movie arrived at our house another element got thrown into the mix – the sudden appearance of actor Ed Norton as a character called Oscar Vogel. Vogel is a blackface minstrel. Blackface minstrels have, to put it mildly, been out of favour for a few decades. Now here is one in Bob’s new film – what’s going on? 

The positioning of the song Dixie in the film’s narrative suggests its inclusion is ironic – ‘Jack Fate’ has just been given a list of songs to perform at a soon to be televised benefit concert. The tunes he’s asked to play, in fact – told to play – include Street Fighting Man, Revolution No 9’ (“The slow version”), and Eve Of Destruction. Dylan and the boys respond with Dixie, a tune that carries so much cultural baggage around with it that it would be ten times more likely to spark a riot than any of the Pop/Rock numbers that the Corporate media bosses are demanding Dylan/Fate plays. 

The way it’s performed for the film is instructive and interesting. It’s customary, in fact it always has been since sound was introduced to film, that musical numbers should be pre-recorded and then lip-synched by the artist. Dylan and director Larry Charles are having none of that. This may be due to Dylan’s notorious inability to mime, or simply that they preferred to play it live. And you can see it’s live because Dylan forgets the words to the second verse and Larry Campbell has to lead him in. What’s more, that’s the version they’ve kept on the soundtrack album, no overdubs, no second takes, just Dixie the way it was sung on the soundstage pure and simple. 

Technically it fits perfectly into Dylan’s ‘Old Time’ revival style that he’s developed over the last decade. For a moment you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a Ralph Stanley song that he’s covering, but then reality kicks in and you’re forced to realize that only Dylan could get away with singing ‘Dixie’ and it coming out sounding like an old Kentucky mountain ballad. 

But then, of course, all this leads us back to ‘Love & Theft’, the very title of which was taken from an academic study of Blackface Minstrelsy written by Eric Lott. Andy Muir in Troubadou’ points out the Minstrelsy connections in ‘Love & Theft’, and even provides a quote from Dylan to Edna Gunderson taken from a pre-release interview – 

“… And ‘Desolation Row? That’s a minstrel song through and through. I saw some rag tag minstrel show in blackface at the carnivals when I was growing up and it had an effect on me, just as much as seeing the lady with four legs.” 

‘Dixie was actually written by a Northener, in 1860, just before the American Civil War. The song’s creator was a blackface minstrel by the name of Daniel Decatur Emmett. He was asked to come up with a number for the minstrel show he was performing in. They were in New York, the weather was cold. Whenever it got cold like that showfolk had a saying – “I wish I was in Dixie”, because the weather below the Mason Dixon line would invariably be warmer. Emmett picked up on the phrase and the song was played the next night to an ecstatic reception. The audience went crazy, demanding that it be played over and over again. And it had the same effect on President elect, Abraham Lincoln. When he heard it for the first time at a minstrel show he repeatedly shouted – “Let’s have it again! Let’s have it again!” As the civil war was drawing to a close he actively promoted the playing of Dixie as a song that he felt could re-unite the nation. Maybe that’s why Dylan plays it in ‘Masked & Anonymous’? 

Staying with blackface for a moment longer – There’s a fascinating ‘bloodline’ that runs from Daniel Decatur Emmett all the way through to Dylan, even without Dixie. Emmett founded the first ‘proper’ minstrel troupe in 1843 – the Virginia Minstrels. In 1844 they toured Great Britain and started off an entertainment sensation that was to linger until BBC TV finally pulled the plug on the ‘Black & White Minstrel Show’ in 1978. When they played in Ireland the cultural impact there was the effect they had on Irish traditional music in terms of instrumentation. They left behind with the Irish musicians a taste for banjo and bones, now common staples of Irish music. 

Emmett’s minstrel show laid down a performance template that was copied by every subsequent minstrel show for the next hundred years – The show would open with what was known as ‘the Minstrel Line’, then an intermission which was followed by the ‘Olio’. This was a series of dances and sketches done without blackface. After a final intermission it was back to blackface again and the show would be completed with a ‘One-Act Musical’, often a parody of a classic such as Shakespeare or Dickens. Threading their way through the show were two principal characters – Tambo and Mr Bones – One, a Black country bumpkin, and the other a dandified city Black. These two stereotypes would later be mutated into one of American culture’s most popular comedy duos – Amos and Andy. As a radio show Amos & Andy ran from 1928 until 1948. It then transferred to TV but was pulled in 1953 from the CBS schedules after protests from the NAACP. It is virtually impossible for the young Robert Zimmerman not to have seen or heard the show. 

The next stage in the story concerns another blackface performer, Emmett Miller. He was born near Macon Georgia in 1900 and from infancy wanted to be in minstrel shows. By the mid 1920s Emmett was one of the top minstrel performers in America due to his unique singing voice. Known as ‘the human clarinet’ he began a style of singing that would have a huge impact on American popular music. The clarinet voice was actually yodelling, and, as author Nick Tosches points out in his biography of Miller – ‘Where Dead Voices Gather’ – Miller applied this style to Blues and Jazz and Tin Pan Alley, leading to a musical fusion that when mixed with Mountain Music ushered in a new facet – a facet that would become part of Country. 

A young Jimmie Rodgers worked for a while in blackface and most certainly saw Miller on stage. Blue Yodel’ and T For Texas to name but two of Rodgers’ most famous tunes were heavily influenced by Miller’s style of ‘Blues Yodelling’. This in turn influenced Hank Williams who recorded Miller’s Lovesick Blues. Dylan’s interest in both musicians is well documented, and after Dylan’s lesson in American popular music of the 1920s as given to him in Woodstock in 1967 by Tiny Tim, it’s hard to imagine that he hadn’t heard of Miller as well. 

So Dixie, Oscar Vogel and ‘Love & Theft’ all appear to be interrelated in some way, part of Dylan’s ‘Musical Quilt’, or ‘electronic grid’. A logical, historical continuation of the pursuit of that ‘thin, wild, mercury music’ perhaps, or more a case of ‘bringing it all back home’ after all these years? 

A quick few words on Chris Hockenhull’s comment that we don’t seem to talk to one another as much as earlier Freewheelers used to – I always set off with the intention of saying something – Something like, nice review Paula. Very funny Mr Carter. Interesting thought Patrick. Where would we be without you Mr Cooper? and, aren’t you finished yet JS? for instance. The problem is that by the time I’ve finished writing a piece I realize that another month’s gone by and whatever I was going to say is no longer relevant, or the person I had in mind to comment on has left! 

For what it’s worth and in the interests of communication – I won’t be attending any concerts this November. This is down to a variety of reasons. The Bobster is no longer always at the centre of my radar screen – now, just as in my youth Dylan turned me on to so many different things, history is repeating itself. Take what I’ve written about here – It got me re-listening to Hank Williams, Emmett Miller, Jimmie Rodgers, and early Dylan as well as the M&A soundtrack plus re-watching the movie. It also got me thinking about English Music Hall and from there towards early British film, and it isn’t even tea time yet! 

Farewell – I’m off in search of more musical threads …