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The Birth of American Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2019

I’ve been slowly making my way through various aspects of the NY Times’ ambitious 1619 Project spearheaded up by Nikole Hannah-Jones, including the excellent podcast. In the third episode of the podcast (and in a related article), Times critic Wesley Morris shares an impressionistic and informative timeline of how black music became the sound of America, from the minstrel performers of the 1800s to Motown.

Blackness was on the move before my ancestors were legally free to be. It was on the move before my ancestors even knew what they had. It was on the move because white people were moving it. And the white person most frequently identified as its prime mover is Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a New Yorker who performed as T.D. Rice and, in acclaim, was lusted after as “Daddy” Rice, “the negro par excellence.” Rice was a minstrel, which by the 1830s, when his stardom was at its most refulgent, meant he painted his face with burned cork to approximate those of the enslaved black people he was imitating.

In 1830, Rice was a nobody actor in his early 20s, touring with a theater company in Cincinnati (or Louisville; historians don’t know for sure), when, the story goes, he saw a decrepit, possibly disfigured old black man singing while grooming a horse on the property of a white man whose last name was Crow. On went the light bulb. Rice took in the tune and the movements but failed, it seems, to take down the old man’s name. So in his song based on the horse groomer, he renamed him: “Weel about and turn about jus so/Ebery time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow.” And just like that, Rice had invented the fellow who would become the mascot for two centuries of legalized racism.

That night, Rice made himself up to look like the old black man — or something like him, because Rice’s get-up most likely concocted skin blacker than any actual black person’s and a gibberish dialect meant to imply black speech. Rice had turned the old man’s melody and hobbled movements into a song-and-dance routine that no white audience had ever experienced before. What they saw caused a permanent sensation. He reportedly won 20 encores.

Rice repeated the act again, night after night, for audiences so profoundly rocked that he was frequently mobbed during performances. Across the Ohio River, not an arduous distance from all that adulation, was Boone County, Ky., whose population would have been largely enslaved Africans. As they were being worked, sometimes to death, white people, desperate with anticipation, were paying to see them depicted at play.

Morris’s article is excellent and covers more ground than the podcast, but the music clips make the podcast episode a must-listen.