In a class yesterday, I played two minstrel songs from the 1840s — songs originally performed by white men in blackface. There was Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters' "West Virginia Gals," recorded in 1928, collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Snowden's Jig (Original Negro Jig)," from their Original Negro Jig — released just this year.
"West Virginia Gals" is a comic number about people from so far back in the woods they change their socks once a year (whether they rot off or not) and live in shacks without windows and with floors made out of pumpkin rinds. In 1841, when it first appeared in sheet music, it was called "Free Nigger," and warned Virginia girls about the degradation of boys from the Carolinas. In the Al Hopkins version, with a lumbering beat and a my-voice-is-breaking vocal, you can still see the minstrel clowns — with their falling-down pants and flopping shoes, their smashed hats and pompous ties, with their mush-mouthed plantation accents and constant haw-haw-haw — stumbling all over the stage, bumping into each other, one burnt-cork showman playing the girl and another the boy as a third relates his tale of the woe certain to befall the first if she's dumb enough to fall for the second. Though by the time Al Hopkins took up the tune, passed down from generation to generation, moving from one state to another — West Virginia didn't exist until 1863, when the pro-Union part of Virginia seceded from the Confederate version — turning from a song about stupid black people to a song about stupid white people ("the West Virginia race," stupid by nature, or inbreeding), you can still hear what the song said in 1841: people like this were born to be slaves. It's their natural condition. They're not fit for anything else. And look how happy they are, rooting in the dirt like pigs!
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are Justin Robinson (fiddle, beatbox, autoharp), Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, banjo, kazoo), and Don Flemons (bones, guitar, banjo, jug, drums) — four young African-Americans with a perfect name for an early-20th-century minstrel troupe made up of black people in blackface. No matter how dark one's skin, it could always be made blacker, which is to say, less human. No matter how big your lips, they could always be made bigger, with the fat white face in the middle of the black face symbolizing mindless appetite and the inability to form the distinct vowels and consonants of the English language. The Chocolate Drops use their name as a foil against itself.
"Snowden's Jig," the notes to their album relate, came from the Snowden family of Clinton, Ohio — African-Americans, headed by Thomas Snowden, whose farm stood next to that of the family of Dan Emmett, the most celebrated blackface minstrel of them all. The Snowdens were performers, composers, singers, featuring, especially, fiddle duets by Sophia and Annie Snowden. Dan Emmett took — or bought — the Snowden jig and named it "Original Negro Jig": in minstrelsy, blackface authenticity was so valued Emmett and his rivals had scouts trawling the plantations for the latest dances and chants.
"The Original Negro Jig" came from another side of the minstrel stage — or from behind it. It's a testament to the still-heretical argument of the American cultural historian Constance Rourke, from 1931, in her American Humor, that from behind the blackface mask, the true voice of the slave could be heard: a voice of defeat, tragedy, death, and desire, a dream of perdition, a dream of escape. The Chocolate Drops took the wordless song from sheet music — and in their hands it is a dream so strong you can picture it leaving its stage and flying out of the hall in its own body, a musical acting out of the slave dream of flying back to Africa.
At under four minutes, it seems to last for seven, eight — there's no real time in the performance. Giddens sounds as if she duets with herself on fiddle; Flemmons's bones are an eerie, otherworldly interjection, as if rooting the flight Giddens dramatizes back in the dirt. The ping of a triangle seems to start the story over again from the beginning every time it sounds. Hand-clapping by Robinson gives the dream flesh, makes this not a cultural survival but the testament of a particular individual, someone speaking to you.
As the piece goes on, and Giddens returns to the uncanny bends in the ends of the melody, she jiggles her strings, or makes them shake, vibrate: the feeling is that the instrument is playing itself, that it has received cues from the player that the player herself can't hear, or can't bring herself to consciously play. A sense of jeopardy, of danger and fright, trills off the strings. You don't know where you are. You don't know who's playing or when. You imagine a gang of blackfaced white men performing this song before the Civil War. Never mind what the audience thought it was hearing: Real Nigger Music, the Real Thing! What were the performers hearing as they played? Were they thieves or mediums?
As you listen, you can hear the song move from a black man to a white man to a white man in blackface to three young black people 160 years later. You can follow the song's journey in an instant. You can play it all day long, until time shifts under your feet.
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Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, The Shape of Things to Come, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a 20th anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears regularly in the Believer. He lives in Berkeley.
Books mentioned in this post
Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010