Friday, June 06, 2008

Keepin' on

Nice pub session tonight.

Working today on the minstrelsy project, a book-chapter spun-off from that manuscript, and specifically the antebellum environments in which Irish and African immigrants might have interacted musically. Various scholars (Lott, Lhamon, and Cockrell) have identified the "liminal" public spaces of streets, markets, wharves, and docks as likely sites. One or two have commented on the possibility that blackface (burnt-cork faces, banjo-and-fiddle music, quasi-African dialect, novelty dance, etc) might have come down the Hudson into Manhattan from Albany--where German-tradition "Pinkster" (Pfingston) celebrations, and maybe some of the Anglo-Celtic Wrenboy/Whiteboy disguise and costume, had brought masking and inversion into the Anglo-American cultural mix--where they interacted with free-black musical inspirations, especially dancing. What hasn't been commented upon, to my knowledge, is the extent to which a large number of the early blackface practitioners (certainly TD Rice, GW Dixon, and Dan Emmett), whether born in the rural or urban North or the rural South, had direct and extensive experience in the maritime and riverine communities of the Ohio, Mississippi, Hudson, (and Long Island, which everybody seems to forget), and, especially, the new canals.

There was an explosion of canal-building throughout the continent's north-eastern quadrant from the 'Teens onward, after Robert Fulton's successful 1807 voyage in the steamship Clermont had shown a cheap and fast way to navigate new and artificial waterways without either sail or tow-horses. Being able to carry tons of raw material or manufactured goods, livestock or timber or furs, up as well as downstream, anyplace you could drive an 8-foot channel, transformed American commerce (the Erie, for example, cut transport costs ninety-five per cent). And it made canal-building, throughout the first half of the 19th century until the advent of the railroads, a huge growth industry.

And the people who designed and built those canals, respectively and overwhelmingly, were English and Irish: Englishmen who had learned the trade right around 1800, in the Industrial boom which had fuelled England's (eventual) victory over Napoleon, and the Irish who had actually developed the specialized skills necessary to dig, shore, and seal the canal's beds. There are advertisements in newspapers throughout the period seeking specifically "Irish" or "colored" workers and assuring both groups that they need not fear conflict with their competitors. And they were everywhere:

1777 Delaware & Raritan Canal
1792 Lowell Canals, built in Chelmsford by Irish laborers from Charlestown
1818 Manayunk Canal (Philly)
1819 Wabash Canal
1826 Erie Canal
1828 advertising for “colored” laborers to work the Penn canal
[Mar 11, 1828] LABORERS 500 Colored Men dry work, on the PENNSYLVANIA CANAL. THE subscriber wishes to hire five hundred colored-men, to work on the ... place. frequent quarrels which h between Irish and Colored will be avoided at this place, as no men are employed on this section of the Canal; ...From Delaware Patriot And American Watchman (Newspaper)
1827-1848 Illinois and Michigan canal
1852-55 Sault Canal (MS)

Irish laborers even built the Pontchartrain Canal (in the 1830s) and settled the "Irish Channel" of New Orleans.

Rice and Dixon were traveling actors both of whom claimed they had got their early repertoire in the "frontier" towns in which they toured, including Louisville (on the Ohio) and New Orleans (on the Mississippi). Rice was born in Manhattan and grew up on the East River docks. Joe Sweeney, who grew up in Virginia, had heard black roustabouts on the Cincinnati wharves. Dan Emmett was born on the Ohio frontier. There is simply no way that these men did not hear both Africans and Irish singing, dancing, and playing on the liminal boundaries of the rivers and canals they knew so well.

This is where minstrelsy was born: not in the cities, but also not in the Deep South. Not on the plantations, but also not in incompetent imitations of imagined folkways. It was born in direct observation of the "in-between" places in which men like this were creating America's popular music:

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