American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘minstrelsy

Variation on a Historical Theme

with 2 comments

I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music… Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisement

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

leave a comment »

Words: Charles Soran
Music: Charles M. Stephani

A blackface minstrel song, and a good indication of the controversy stirred up by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For a modern recording, go here. Lyrics below, as transcribed from the sheet music, racist language and all. Brief commentary to follow.

Image courtesy the Library of Congress (click for link to collection)

Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe

I went to New York city, a month or two ago,
Hunting for dat lady, Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe;
I see’d de Abolitions, dey said she’d gone away,
Dey told me in de city it was no use to stay.
She take away de dollars, and put ’em in her pocket,
She laid her hand upon it, and dar she safely lock it.
Dey said if Massa come for me, den dey would quickly meet;
Dey’d make a Lion of me, and gib me ’nuff to eat.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe
How could you leave de country, and sarve poor niggers so.

2.

Dey treated dis ere child, as doe I was a Turk,
Den told me for to leve dem and go away to work;
I couldn’t get no work, I couldn’t get no dinner,
And den I wish de Fugitive was back in Ole Virginny.
Oh! when I was a picanin, Ole Uncle Tom would say,
Be true unto your Massa, and neber run away.
He told me dis at home, he told me dis at partin,
Don’t trust you de Ab’litions, for dey seem quite unsartin.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

3.

Ole Massa’s very kind, ole Missu’s kind at home too,
And much I love my Dinah, in ole Virginny true,
Now I’ll go back and stay dar, and neber more will roam,
Lor bress de Southern Ladies, and my ole Virginny home,
But don’t come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your Country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pity in your prayer,
Oh! don’t forget de White slave, dat’s starvin ober dare.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

4.

Now de rules of dis here house, don’t admit of no encore,
So afore we go just listen, I’ll sing you one verse more,
Aunt Harriet Beecha Stowe, she tried to see de Queen,
But Victoria was too smart for her, and could not be seen;
She den went o’er to France, and tried to come it dere,
But de Empress and Emperor, know’d ‘xactly what dey were,
So de best way to fix it, and hab it understood,
Is dat she left de Country, for her own Country’s good.

Chorus.
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, &c.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm