Thursday, July 26, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 03

[Early-morning triple-espresso vitamin-D edition]

First things first. Same neighborhood coffee shop.

I don't usually like working outside. Maybe it's partly because of being an Irish musician (a genus and species congenitally light-averse), or because of the potential distraction, or because, by 10am in W Texas it's already too warm to be easy to concentrate. Tough one today: when you're essentially off alcohol, two pints of microbrew at a going-away party the night before have enough hangover potential to make the early trip to the cross-trainer require more than usual effort.

View from outside table, west toward the park and the rich end of the neighborhood. There's a biorhythm to a neighborhood place like this: if you go every (or nearly every) day, you do start to notice other people's patterns, and how consistent they are: when the cops will come in for their takeaway espressos, when the retired arts types will come in for a leisurely read of USA Today, when (and for how long, and at what table) the poets will sit and transcribe from their notebooks or the artists sketch in theirs, when the off-for-the-summer high-school teachers and skateboarding punk-rockers will show up to sit outside and smoke American Spirits and play chess, when the alternative-waiters and family-subsidized artsy kids and coffee-swilling graduate students will come in, and where they'll sit, and what they'll say to each other.

That all sounds like I'm complaining or dispensing snark, and I'm really not: it's nice to live in a neighborhood in which there is at least a semblence of a street/arts culture and in which you can get to know names, faces, and personalities.

Tonight: weekly coffeehouse gig--this week blues solo, as the Usual Suspects are out of town.

On the docket for the day: going to take a 1- or 2-day pause from "100 Greats" posting: I'm not convinced that anything close one-a-day necessarily maintains quality--to say nothing of the fact that it's rather emotionally exhausting.

Instead, it'll be notes on these, for the long-term minstrelsy project:

Strasbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. New York: Tarcher, 2006.

Not really a scholarly book, and not really offering tremendously new insights. He wants to argue that blackface, throughout all the epochs of American history (and in its earlier European Renaissance and medieval manifestations), cannot be simply understood as pure racist caricature. He ties blackface’s comedy, carnivalesque capacities, and culture-boundary-crossing to the larger issue of the “American experiment,” and to other creolizing impulses throughout our history. And, of course, he’s right: but it’s a point that has been made more meticulously and less derivatively already, by others, including especially Eric Lott and Rip Llamon.[1] In these respects, the book is rather like Wondrich’s Stomp and Swerve, another passionately-argued but analytically problematic text by a journalist which essentially takes others’ effective historical insights and popularizes them. However, it’s a quick read, he has a good range and a very accessible knack of expression. A good book to recommend to non-scholars who presume blackface is merely noxious caricature.


Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metuchen NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Sampson’s dissertation (currently not available in general publication). Haven’t delved deeply yet. But it, despite its relatively dated nature, this text seems to represent a particularly meticulous and comprehensive sourcebook on primary materials; a good corollary to Llamon’s much more recent text on the same topic.[2]


Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Part of UIC’s excellent Music in American Life series, and one of the standard contemporary texts on minstrelsy. Very solid musicological scholarship, very detailed, beautifully (and expensively) produced. However, primarily deals with the pre-Civil War history of blackface troupes, and in particular the parodic European and light-classical sources of minstrel texts and theatrical entertainments. A useful source, but needs to be complemented and counterbalanced by Lott’s and Llamon’s work on street culture and African-American sources, and by Dale Cockrell’s seminal Demons of Disorder, on blackface’s earliest and ongoing thematic associations with carnival and class criticism.[3]

These join a number of other texts already informing the work.

[1] Specifically, Lhamon, Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip HopLove & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Street Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[3] Cockrell. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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