Ragged But Right: A Book Review

15 Aug

 

Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’, and the Dark Pathways to Blues and Jazz (University of Mississippi Press, 2007).

The landmark histories of American minstrelsy which appeared in the 1990s were all concerned with the blackface minstrel show in the first half of the nineteenth century. The histories of Eric Lott, David Roediger, and W T Lhamon Jr focused on densely urban locations in America’s north, most notably New York in the 1820-40s, when minstrelsy first became popular. They placed the minstrel show in the context of the rapid growth and industrialisation of northern American cities, of bourgeois efforts to create a compliant workforce, and the racial tensions caused by the ‘slavery question’ and the influx of free blacks from the south.

For Lott and Roediger, the minstrel show was essentially about white northern workingmen’s desires. It was about their desire on the one hand to wield anti-authoritarian humour against employers and the middle classes, and on the other to assert their superiority over non-white peoples. This argument has set the terms of discussion about American minstrelsy ever since. Later historians such as Dale Cottrell, William Mahar and Lhamon Jr have all argued that minstrelsy wasn’t only about white imperatives – indeed, in some circumstances, they claim, it could actually upset racist assumptions. But even though these historians tried to cavil with Roediger and Lott’s conclusions, they were still largely discussing minstrelsy on their terms.

Lynn Abbott and Douglas Seroff’s new book, Ragged but Right, quite stunningly shifts the terms of this debate. It presents almost a mirror image of the setting in Lott’s Love and Theft, introducing us to African-American minstrel performers in the rural south during the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on accounts in the contemporary black press, they tell us about African-American bands who played ‘coon songs’ and jazz in circus sideshows (having been banned on account of their colour from playing under the big top). They also tell us about the minstrel shows performed in tents by African-American companies throughout the south. Emerging around 1900, these shows maintained the three-part structure of early-nineteenth century minstrelsy. They began with a tambo-and-bones singing-and-comedy routine and usually ended with a musical farce-comedy. But they also incorporated ragtime, blues, jazz music and new dance styles into their repertories.

The all-black blackface minstrel shows of the twentieth century attracted white audiences. Indeed, sometimes they played in towns which banned blacks, no doubt a harrowing and bizarre experience (‘we have been in anti Negro towns …where coloured people have not been seen for seventeen years’, reported one band member in 1901). But they also acquired a loyal following of black Americans. They fostered the growth of the blues and ‘coon shouting’ singing styles among rural southern black communities. And they realised the potential for minstrel comedy to work against white racist stereotypes – a potential which Cottrell and others tried to argue (unsuccessfully, in my view) was partially realised in nineteenth-century white men-in-blackface shows. The black comedians in early twentieth-century tented shows ‘gradually transformed the ancient stereotypes of “Ethiopian minstrelsy” into vehicles for the development of racially self-referential humor’, Abbott and Seroff tell us, as well as for ‘the advancement of modern African American popular music’ (p. 211).

I have to say that I found Ragged But Right a difficult book to read. It is not that the language is difficult – it’s just there is such a mass of information, presented via absurdly long and ramshackle chapters, that it is hard to take in. (Similar criticisms were made about Abbott and Seroff’s previous work, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, and it doesn’t appear that they took these enough on board).  But nonetheless, this work is the result of an extraordinary research endeavour, and its implications for understandings of minstrelsy are surely profound. Not just that: anyone interested in the development of the blues, of African American popular culture, and indeed for a view of American culture not focused on the urbanised north, should get their hands on Ragged But Right.

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