“Dance, ‘Noise,’ and Transgression: Musical Creolization in 19th century British Maritime Culture” Christopher J Smith (christopher.

smith@ttu.edu) Vernacular Music Center, Texas Tech University School of Music In the 19th century, modernizing trade, communications, and geopolitics expanded and diversified the ranks of those who worked the windjammers and steamers which accelerated the resulting global consciousness. Sailors, pilots, masters, and harbor workers tended toward much greater diversity of ethnicity and experience than more land-bound populations, and the Caribbean, the South Seas, and the Far East were especially highly represented amongst these maritime communities. On deck and docks, inshore racial and social strata were contested, conflicted, blurred, and sometimes subverted: black slave or free pilots and captains commanded white or mixed-race crews; deckhands and officers exchanged songs, tunes, stories, handcrafts, and a wide array of expressive culture; and these more egalitarian maritime perspectives came ashore to influence and mutate social conduct in port and river cities. Music—particularly the music of African Caribbean / creole cultures—was an especially portable, influential, and ubiquitous material for such exchange, and these “creolizing” music and dance behaviors spread widely, both more and less visibly or publically. Hence, the frenzied cultural popularity that followed New York’s blackface troupe the Virginia Minstrels on their first 1843 tour of Britain—during which they played Liverpool, Manchester, and London, paved the way for future tours by other American troupes, and left a host of banjo-strumming imitators in their wake, before disbanding unexpectedly—was not an entirely “new thing under the sun.”

This is a very preliminary investigation, which follows on from a book-length research project that focused upon the creole synthesis in riverine and maritime zones of antebellum North America. From that long-term study emerged the realization that theatrical minstrelsy’s seemingly-instantaneous mass popularity in the young United States was a product not of “novelty”, but rather of the response, by the “mechanics”, apprentices, and working-class young men who were its first audiences, to music and

and provided the inspiration for vaudeville. the sparser the available information—particularly as regards musical practices. formed in the winter of 1842-43. The American book focuses upon one such artist: the Long Island New York painter William Sidney Mount. in their wake. This paper seeks to identify parallels and distinctions between the reception of blackface in America and in the UK and Ireland. music. song. and minstrelsy is widely credited with providing the first introduction of the five-string banjo in English and Irish traditional musics as well. most centrally iconography. and. documentation on the lives. This accounts for the tumultuous responses of working-class audiences to Tom Rice’s and George Dixon’s first solo turns on the stages of the Lower East Side’s Bowery and Chatham Theatres in the 1830s and the immediate and immense popularity of Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels. those sources included census data. in 1844 (?) and were nearly as popular as they had been at home. so the evidence for their existence and inspiration must be sought in other places than the theatrical prints. and bones. and comic improvisation are least documented of all. who were the first widely-recognized blackface troupe offering a full evening’s entertainment.dance forms they knew from the street. and careers of blackface minstrels decreases in inverse proportion to historical proximity: the earlier the documented players or performers. drew heavily upon minstrelsy styles for compositions and minstrel troupes (Christy’s principle among them) for promotion. newly legitimized on the theatrical stage. Stephen Foster. dancing. Dance music. traveler’s reports. The idiom was a cornerstone of music publishing and promotions as well as performance. as in the US study. America’s first successful pop songwriter. fiddle. The Minstrels toured the U. homegrown blackface troupes and banjo-strumming soloists sprang up in imitation. . tambourine. However. and much American slapstick comedy. in the sketches and vernacular paintings of amateur and professional artists.K. driven by the iconic instrumentation of banjo. In the American project. tapdance. maps.

Bristol. sugar (18th and 19th). and working-class populations. were originally working-class idioms. were loci of blackface performance. A few preliminary insights. and Belfast. First: minstrelsy. and prose sources. Glasgow. Second. as in the west Atlantic. may serve to frame today’s discussion. when it came to Britain in the form of the touring troupes of the ‘40s. Liverpool. Dublin. This is confirmed by the genre’s swift adoption in Britain—a kind of forerunner of the 1950s skiffle boom. and then back to Britain) were. and the solo idioms that were its earliest manifestations. Third: cities with large transient. and then Liverpool. the “minstrel mask” (Mahar) was a useful tool for crossclass critique: adoption of the caricatured personae of the black minstrel permitted the white apprentice or mechanic a guise from which to mock social classes both below and above him. the crews of their vessels employed in the various triangular trades (Britain to West Africa. key zones for cross-cultural contact and expressive performance. atypically and demonstrably multi-ethnic sites for cultural exchange. Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean musical exchange in Britain and Ireland is even less well documented. familiar in the English theatrical tradition at least since Shakespeare’s day. maps. the colonial trades in indentured servants (17th and 18th centuries). This is consistent with the American situation: theatrical minstrelsy. In both cases.in order to seek in his visual arts confirmation of data regarding cross-cultural musical exchange implicit in census data. Though both cities’ commerce was dominated by British merchant houses. the British Caribbean to New England. the creole forerunners of theatrical minstrelsy? In part. maritime. Unfortunately. I will address this question through a fundamental premise: that there was an . or at least to infer the circumstances of. and slaves (18th and 19th) made first Bristol. But how to recover. gleaned from this sparse data. carried a strong whiff of exotica. West Africa to the British Caribbean. including London.

and cultural profiles: Bristol’s maritime sugar trade. and Dublin—which exemplify three different economic. later cycles of exchange: land-bound rules simply don’t fully explain what went on in these zones. Glasgow. and stages of the city of Bristol. I chose to focus upon cities directly touched by the triangular trade but which were otherwise not particularly cosmopolitan or multinational. Liverpool’s explosive growth at the height of the slave trade. we may think of the black sailors. . Afro-Caribbean expressive culture could be especially influential in these cities even if they contained only a relative minimal “permanent immigrant” population: the Atlantic creole community could exert significant impact upon those cities’ expressive street cultures even only as visitors. and Liverpool were particularly fertile sites for cultural exchange. were especially significant in cities involved in the Caribbean trades of sugar. not at all far from 1 See Paul Gilroy’s theory of the “black Atlantic” in this context. This project thus began as a fishing expedition: I wanted to test the hypothesis that the creole synthesis. carried by water. counting houses. and Dublin’s role (like Cork and Wexford) as a point of departure for persons exiled due to political or economic misfortune. London was preeminently a site for multi-cultural exchange. In the end. sociological. stewards. as a parallel example.1 These cycles of immigration or exchange. tobacco. Liverpool. but the very diversity of its emigré populations’ origins impedes identifying particular patterns of uniquely trans-Atlantic interaction. shared expressive experiences. regardless of their original ethnicity. of course. whose inhabitants. This is confirmed by both the American project and parallel. I chose to focus upon creole culture and creolizing persons in the streets. and servicemen who powerfully influenced Liverpool’s Merseybeat explosion in the late 1950s. So I narrowed my focus to three cities—Bristol. which I have situated in riverine and maritime environments in the west Atlantic and Caribbean. and slaves: Bristol.Atlantic creole culture. might have been at play in other Atlantic locations as well. and the impact of New World creole influence.

and explain what it reveals about the Atlantic maritime community that was the crucible of the creole synthesis. a cluster of performance idioms and their semiotic meanings. retired to landed estates in the Severn valley. mixed-race colonists’ children were educated in Europe. Bristol’s merchant houses and shipping lines—some owned by the same trading families—had been the foundation of the British sugar trade. crews. it is necessary to understand something not only of the street musics and sociology which were the raw materials for blackface performance. Sons of Bristol went out to apprentice in the Islands. To tell the English story of the African American actor Ira F Aldridge. for reasons which I hope will become clear. but also of Bristol’s role in the Atlantic trade. Losing economic power later in the 19th century to Liverpool. and Caribbean-born colonials. dance.where we find ourselves today. music. whose wealth arose from her essential role in the “Middle Passage” which brought slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and the American southeast coast. and harbor workers whose geographic origin and polyglot linguistic experience made Atlantic culture a zone for creolization. daughters of wealthy planters married into Bristol trading families. and expressive topics from the British Caribbean were well known both on Bristol’s docks and in her dance salons. sent thousands of indentured servants from southwest England and Ireland to the Colonies. and of a trans-Atlantic. and—most crucially for our present purposes—provided employment for captains. their fortunes made. in the late 18th century Bristol still retained the central role in Atlantic commerce it had held ever since the days of John Cabot and the North Atlantic salt cod trade. a time period. mobile community which was both the source and also the conduit for the worldwide emigration of the creole synthesis. pilots. . As a result. of a culture-crossing individual. which took millions out of Jamaica and Barbados. This is thus a story of a city.

most often in socially unregarded and/or uncontrollable ways. The African Grove had been founded in 1817 as a pleasure garden. in a famous incident during the War of 1812. These religions. working-class audiences. then. as a whole. observances. creole crews. responded by threatening to tear the theater apart. a few blocks west of the Lower East Side Catherine Wharf where ferries docked and black fishermen selling fried eels danced on the wharves to attract trade.The Sugar Colonies likewise saw the rise of Caribbean syncretic religions. Originally congregating in the “back house” behind 38 Thompson Street. is a theater. an American privateer’s integrated crew trooped into a Lower Manhattan theater. and Bristol: some of the first integrated theatrical events in each of these cities involved the participation of blacks or whites in blackface. Jonkonnu and Obeah in the English-speaking islands. Anglo-American actors or entrepreneurs or musicians. and evolving very swiftly. a black ex-ship’s steward who had been born in Haiti and sailed on liners out of Liverpool. London. Afro-Caribbean sources.” street newspapers aimed at working-class single young white men. with other blacks and prostitutes. This is precisely the period in which the Bowery and Chatham Theaters. they were told that the whites in the crew could sit in the orchestra. whose beliefs and practices represent a very complex melange of cultural sources. The first component of our discussion. by William Brown. and a also favored destination for whites with a taste for exotica (and probably erotica). When. Atlantic maritime culture in this period was mixing. but blacks would have to sit in the third tier. which would become the homes of . by 1820 the “dandies and dandizettes” of the Grove had become an item for the “flash press. and festivals which combined African and European influences: voudou and santeria in the French and Spanish colonies. amalgamating. The crew. shaped the experience of slaves and freemen in the Caribbean but also those of audiences in New York. Within just a few years the Grove’s success led to more ambitious programming (in September 1821 Brown staged Richard III) and new quarters at Mercer & Bleecker. akin to London’s Vauxhall.

As a child. in which.. just east of the City. Aldridge later claimed. a New York production of the English street opera Tom and Jerry opened at the Park Theater.blackface minstrelsy in the second half of the decade. William Brown is reported to have imported transvestism (a “Mr Jackson” danced the characteristic “African Sal”). the same year that the painter William Sidney Mount was born on the North Shore of Long Island. and received his first training in performance there and at the African Grove Theater.” *McAllister 281+ For his own production at the Grove. were a fluid gumbo of singing. In March 1823. and both serious and parodic monologs.. dancing. According to period sources. topical airs. Brown was staging his own fulllength King Shotaway. dancing. and coincidentally the year that Parliament abolished the British slave trade. rather persuasively. Shakespearian and otherwise. physical comedy. that Mathews had got “Possum” from Aldridge’s . The Grove was visited by the British comic actor Charles Mathews in 1822 (when he claimed to have heard and learned the iconic blackface tune “Possum up a Gum Tree/Stump”) and from which he said he had become “rich in black fun”. By January 1822. Aldridge attended the African Free School in its second location on Mulberry Street in what is now Chinatown.proved to be the ‘descent’ into London’s working class East End. and music that related a 1795 rebellion by Black Caribs on the British island of St Vincent.” *Odell 3:70+ Beyond its crucial role as a very early model for the fluid interaction of black and white theatrical personnel and properties which would inspire minstrelsy’s theatrics. and in June Brown replaced the East End scene with one set in a slave market. whose “most popular feature. “a white actor was employed to auction off the cast. opened a few blocks east—which may have led to commercial competition between black and white theater owners. Ira F Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807. the Grove is important for another reason: because it provided some of the first training for the most famous African American actor in the mid-nineteenth century world. a melodrama with songs. Brown’s productions.

and prejudice less impediment. At the age of 17. . "'White people do not know how to behave at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of colour': A History of New York's African Grove/African Theatre. 1997. is shot through with the complex political implications of the Jamaican supernatural system called Obeah." Diss. that opportunities for African American performers might be greater. Gambia in The Slave. Mungo in The Padlock. like a later generation of New Orleans and Chicago jazzmen. 2 McAllister. I am going to focus upon the concatenation of events that brought Ira Aldridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to London.2 Aldridge also appears to have recognized. The third element is another theater. Richard III. as well as subsequent chapbooks. by 1825 had become a noted interpreter of both “African” and whiteface roles: archetypal “noble savage” figures such as Oroonoko in A Slave’s Revenge. newspaper reports. There are many avenues through which we could tell this story: but for reasons of brevity. and an epistolary novel. where in 1830 he starred at the Theater Royale in a newly-authored pantomime version of a theatrical property. in Poland. Jack Mansong or Three-Finger’d Jack. and Shylock. primacy. First mythologized in the Jamaican physician Benjamin Moseley’s 1799 A Treatise on Sugar. and eventually Bristol (2x). it had inspired both a massively popular “serio-pantomime” which took Haymarket by storm in 1800. and eventually—in the 1850s—took both Europe and Russia by storm. Manchester. Marvin Edward. He died on tour in 1867 and is buried in Lodz. Jack’s tale had proven both remarkably durable and remarkably flexible: because it played into archetypes of “savagery” or “nobility” which had been part of English colonial perceptions ever since Elizabethan drama (The Tempest after all was itself inspired by reports of a shipwreck on the coast of Elizabethan Virginia). That melodrama.performances. and our present locale. abroad—particularly after he and several other Grove personnel were assaulted by a white mob. Northwestern University. He played widely in Britain and Ireland. Aldridge is the second character in our story. earning his passage as a ship’s steward. he sailed for England. and the aforementioned Othello. itself based in the 1780s career of a notorious Jamaican bandit and freedom fighter.

regarding the republican furor of revolutionary France and English rural rebellion. that by 1800 there was literature which explicitly linked sugar to the traffic in human chattel.” Studies in Romanticism 32/1 (Spring 1993). Obi’s appeal to middleclass white voyeurism also enacted remarkably precise renditions of Afro-Caribbean folkways on the English theatrical stage: not only the gothic slander with which the Jamaican syncretic religion was portrayed. because its connections to the Caribbean involved investing in and shipping sugar.” and Obi carried similar revolutionary connotations in British colonies as voodoo did in French. . a “mask” for cultural critique much like the slightly later blackface theatrics of Jim Crow and Zip Coon. but. became a cent er for abolitionism—so much so.Obi. like William Brown’s rewriting of Tom and Jerry to replace the exoticism of London’s East End with that of a fish market on the Lower East Side or a slave market in South Carolina. “literary exoticism cannot easily be disentangled from political and economic developments. pseudo-scientific attempt to justify sugar as a source of physical health and wellbeing. in which were brought to a head British sensations of fear and allure regarding Caribbean slavery and the sugar trade which slavery made possible. Moseley’s 1799 Treatise in fact was a convoluted. 4. all these could be sanitized and semiotically controlled by their scripted portrayal on stage. As with the later embourgeoisement of blackface. As Richardson comments. rather than Liverpool’s more direct involvement in shipping slaves. especially including portrayals of creole characters (Edgeworth even employs the iconic name of “Juba” for one) and of Obi rituals. Alan. between the French Revolution (including the Haitian rebellion of 1799-1804) and the outlawing of the slave trade.3 Yet. the syncretic night-visiting festival in which a costumed 3 Richardson. but also the allure of Afro-Anglo festival: Obi contains a scene (I/vi) depicting a Jamaican slave celebration of Junkanoo (“John Canoe”). Coleridge. as various scholars have shown. 1797-1807. or Three-Finger’d Jack theatricalized savagery and nobility. The show marked a brief period. and regarding the twin cults of Liberté and Obi and the lumpenproletariaten they were taken to symbolize. Maria Edgeworth. De Quincey. Ironically. “Romantic Voodoo: Obeah and British Culture. also provided a way to “act out” rebellion in a fashion that vented working-class tension. Bristol. and Wordsworth all wrote poems or essays on Caribbean topics.

and even to Aldridge’s Shylock or Othello. were rapidly distancing themselves—economically. diets. Bristol depended upon the triangular trade.” Yet the same period also saw the growth. as with Three-Finger’d Jack. professionally. were already “creolizing”—that is. in the first half of the 19th century. and vast underclass. and/or geographically—from the street life of cities. Aldridge’s performances in England and eventually Europe 4 The parallels to both English & North European mumming traditions. but not the dayto-day human cost of the sugar trade. when the integrated crews of the triangle trade’s Bristolregistered ships hove anchor in the channel and debarked for shore leave. of a planter class whose language. but in contrast to Liverpool the trade’s victims—the indentured or “Barbadoz’d” poor and Irish workers and West African slaves—lay mostly and conveniently over the western Atlantic horizon: Bristol saw the profits from. In America. even offspring and digestive bacteria. already reflective of the multi-ethnic mixing the Atlantic creole culture made possible and even inevitable. when the young Ira Aldridge left the ship on which he’d been steward to try his luck as an actor in England: all these brought with them the seeds of the creole synthesis. the “minstrel mask” permitted carnivalesque transgression: the opportunity for working-class young men to simultaneously mock the urban free blacks with whom they competed for work. and to European & Caribbean carnivalesque behaviors. entertainments. in part. singing and dancing in return for rewards of money and drink. and the white bourgeois who. sometimes bringing with them the daughters of wealthy planters. in the Sugar Islands. white responses to the African Grove or to blackface theatrics.4 What lay. are obvious.and masked band of dancers travel from house to house. exploited. . beneath the exoticist voyeurism of Zip Coon. This left space for both exotica and “ennoblement. was fear—the subconscious but nevertheless very real fear felt by a white colonial minority toward a marginalized. When those young scions of Bristol houses returned from their Caribbean apprenticeships.

twelve to thirteen years before Dan Emmett’s Virginia 5 Marshall 1844. and Severn wharves. on the decks of Bermuda privateersmen. Between 1825 and his debut at Covent Garden in 1833 (the same year that the Emancipation Act was passed). in the West Indian wind bands recruited for colonial armies. Peter. . but contrasting receptions could not entirely erase its creole origins and expressive content—in the Black Atlantic culture which touched actors and audiences at the African Grove. and for at least the minutes of his performances in regional and provincial theatres. Aldridge toured widely in Ireland and the British Isles.would be received in a very different semiotic environment.” Playing a Jamaican character in a melodrama based upon (relatively recent) Caribbean historical events. and singing a song which was already emblematic of cross-dressing. dance. in the first decades of the century. Romantic Circles. which dramatized the political and economic paradoxes of the sugar trade. In 1830.5 What this means is that regardless of the theatricality of exoticist voyeurism. and play the guitar. developing a wide repertoire which included both period and contemporary and both serious and comic roles (everything from Mungo in Dibdin’s venerable The Padlock to the title character in Othello). in a city—and a theater— built upon the profits of that trade. “Obi in New York: Aldridge and the African Grove. creole environment of Lower Manhattan and the African Grove. which particularly drew upon his ability to sing. what W. Mississippi. See Buckley. blackface and whiteface ethnic exchange.” the iconic minstrel tune which Mathews appears to have stolen at the African Grove. he played and sang “Possum Up a Gum Stump. Praxis Series. as part of a performance of Obi at Bristol’s Theatre Royal. Lahmon has called “The First Atlantic Popular Culture. Aldridge reenacted the polyglot. and in the working class streets and theatres of the Ohio.” Obi. T. when a new expressive culture. one that partook in part of the English tradition for theatricalized exotica.

Certainly the reception to his Mungo. transgressive harlequinade of masked performance. Hence. seven years after. previously significantly under-reported. Charles Mathews’s 1823 blackface characters in A Trip To America. Othello. experience. Ira Aldridge embodied the creole synthesis. and in direct competition to. Regardless of the complexity of the sugar—slaves— profits—abolition dynamics which obtained in England’s great shipping cities in the first third of the nineteenth century. . one step closer to reality—and to the creole synthesis. and the creole Atlantic culture out of which it arose. one element of the blackface synthesis which would come to fuller flower in the full evening entertainments by the seminal blackface quartets like the Virginia or Christy minstrels was in fact a Euro-centric recognition of the venerable. Yet we must also acknowledge a second factor. Richard III. or Three-Finger’d Jack mapped onto earlier British theatrical archetypes of the “noble-“ or otherwise savage. which shaped the blackface synthesis and in the reception of that synthesis in England over a decade later. given Ira Aldridge’s background. took English experience of Afro-Caribbean performance. and skills.Minstrels were founded or made their first European tour. these Theatre Royal performances.

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