TOWARD the end of the eighteenth century a genial foreign traveler told of some New York merchants who reached their counting-house by nine in the morning, donned aprons, and rolled hogsheads of rum and molasses around their wharves and were as dirty as their own porters, and could easily be mistaken for them. All day long they heaved, and hallooed, turning at intervals to scribble at their desks. At four they went home, dressed, had dinner, and were at the play at seven; after the play, which they vastly enjoyed, they went to supper, where they sang and roared and smoked and drank until dawn. At nine in the morning their lusty program began again. This sketch remained fresh and pertinent for at least two generations. But it was only a sketch. The outline was not filled in or given variations.
Soon after the Revolution certain other characters were thus briefly drawn-struck off like so many new coins in a visionary moment. The southern planter became a tall strolling figure with a fine presence, in a wide hat. In the Knickerbocker History and in Rip Van Winkle Irving created a comic mythology as though comic myth-making were a native habit, formed early; and these writings show the habitual playing off of one regional type against another. But his Dutch people were of the past, joining only at a distance with the current portrayal of native characters. A few later Dutchmen with long pipes became foils for Yankee wit. They apparently faded before it. Except for Rip the Dutch character was lost to the general view; and other native types were only transiently considered. A little Frenchman in dimity trousers exclaimed over the restlessness of the Yankee in a few early burlesques and reminiscences, and then vanished. The transplanted Irishman was dimly though continuously drawn for thirty or forty years; he was in fact the most frequently attempted of all these figures. He was pictured in Brackenridge's early satire on the backwoods character, Modern Chivalry, and appeared in stories like that of Banagher's Bassoon on the Yankee stage: Banagher had come from Bangor. The Irish print was clear in airs and jigs and reels and in the language. A horn of hard liquor was known in the West as a little of "the creature" or of "the element." But the Irish character fused readily, it seems, with others, and was often impossible to trace. Within this early period the transplanted Irishman failed to emerge as an insistent figure.
Among this shadowy group there was one powerful exception, one type destined to capture the popular fancy: the Negro. "The blacks," said a traveler in 1795, "are the great humorists of the nation . . . . Climate, music, kind treatment act upon them like electricity." Negroes were remembered fiddling before a play at a Maryland tavern or in their cabins strumming banjos made of flat gourds strung with horsehair. Soon they had the tambo, bones, quills, fife, and triangle. A traveler on the Savannah River heard a mellow distant sound along the surface of the water that came nearer and nearer until it seemed to rise from under the very bow of his boat, when a primitive bateau slid from the shadows along the shore, carrying a tall old ebony Negro who stood erect "like some boatman of the Niger," playing on a long, straight wooden tube. Negro rowingsongs rose like barbaric chants on the watery highways of the West. Plantation owners on the Mississippi had crews of black oarsmen who sang as they rowed and improvised good-natured verses to match the occasions of the day. A few African creole melodies drifted down through the century. A western poet declared that "among the earliest original verses of the West were sundry African melodies celebrating the coon hunt and the vicissitudes of river navigation." The Negro was to be seen everywhere in the South and in the new Southwest, on small farms and great plantations, on roads and levees. He was often an all but equal member of many a pioneering expedition. He became, in short, a dominant figure in spite of his condition, and commanded a definite portraiture.
In the early '20's, at almost the precise moment when the backwoodsman appeared in legend with his "Hunters of Kentucky," the southern plantation Negro was drawn on the stage in Cincinnati by young Edwin Forrest. Made up for the part, Forrest strolled through the streets, where an old Negro woman mistook him for a Negro whom she knew; he persuaded her to join him in an impromptu scene that evening. This little sketch seemed unimportant, but Forrest had studied the Negro character; he inaugurated a tradition for faithful drawing. Other impersonations, now lost to view, no doubt followed, like tentative portraits; and punctually in the early '3o's, when both the Yankee and the backwoodsman leapt to full stature on the stage, the Negro was also pictured in firm, enduring outlines.
The artist of course was Jim Crow Rice-who was white -the place any one of a number of cities along the route of western travel from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati or Lexington. Rice had heard an old crippled Negro hostler singing in a stableyard as he rubbed down the horses, and had seen him dancing an odd limping dance as he worked-"rockin' de heel." Rice studied the dance and learned the song, with its refrain--
These he used in a backwoods play, Tote Rifle, and the small interlude met with such instant success that he enlarged it to an afterpiece, weaving other Negro melodies and dances around the single impersonation. Presently he emerged-still in blackface-in the red and white striped trousers and long blue coat of the Yankee. The coat became the subject of one of his most popular songs, "That Longtail'd Blue," a ballad telling of the trials besetting the wearer of that garment. A later version was happy-golucky, as if the Negro were assured of his own nationalistic position.
This black-faced Yankee had in fact a confident breadth of impersonation. The buttons on his coat and vest were made of five- and ten-dollar gold pieces which he liberally tore off and flung to his audiences. For a time he was accompanied by a tiny comic Doppelganger, small Joe Jefferson in red, white, and blue, who was tumbled out of a valise and danced the odd limping dance opposite him, joining in the plaintive melody. Soon Rice was drawing other Negro portraits, of a Negro dandy of the river towns, a Negro flatboatman, and a plantation Negro. Collecting cornfield dances and plantation melodies, he created a massed musical effect with a few others in blackface in his "O Hush" and "Bone Squash," which he called Ethiopian opera.
The vogue of this new entertainment was enormous. Rice enjoyed a popularity in the '30's and '40's which was said to be unmatched by that of any other American comedian of his time. He carried his impersonations to London, where he drew an extraordinary personal following. After these beginnings, in 1842, Negro minstrelsy was born. Four men gathered in a New York hotel, a rendezvous for show people. The leader was Dan Emmett, a backwoodsman of Irish descent who looked like a Yankee deacon. The other three were Yankees, and one of them had been an actor of Yankee parts. They played the fiddle, the banjo, the tambo, and bones. Emmett said afterward that they were all end-men and all interlocutors; and they all wore "that long-tail'd blue." Massed singing quickly became the core of minstrelsy, and in its wake came larger numbers in the choral dancing of the walkaround.
BLACKFACE minstrelsy has long been considered a travesty in which the Negro was only a comic medium. To the primitive comic sense, to be black is to be funny, and many minstrels made the most of the simple circumstance. This exploitation was deeply resented by the anti-slavery leaders of an early day, and in the end they went far toward creating the idea that the Negro lacked humor. After the Civil War it would still have been possible to reveal the manysided Negro of the old plantations, but minstrelsy with its air of irreverence seems to have blocked the way. Because minstrels had sported with the Negro and had even sentimentalized his lot in a few songs, because of his tragic fate and a wish to prove that he possessed moral worth, dignity, and capacity, his friends collected and discussed and displayed only his religious pieces, the spirituals which have seemed his special creation. But Negro humor was always abundant, and from it early minstrelsy drew as from a primal source, keeping the tradition for direct and ample portraiture. Burlesque appeared, but burlesque was natural to the Negro.
Many minstrels had lived in the South and West and knew the Negro at first hand. One of them saw an old peddler of watermelons with a donkey cart in a Georgia town, followed him about until he had mastered his lingo, cries, snatches of song, as well as his odd manner. The portrayals, so freshly caught, were whole and rich. Emotion welled up in the small acts and through the olios in spite of crude stage contrivances. Forrest, who had long since become a tragic actor, declared that he knew no finer piece of tragic acting than the broadly comic impersonation of Dan Bryant as the hungry Negro in Old Times Rocks.
The songs and to a large extent the dances show Negro origins, though they were often claimed by white composers. Dan Emmett declared that he wrote "Ole Dan Tucker" as a boy of fifteen or sixteen, but this song of the older minstrelsy had a curious history for an independent piece of musical composition. The air resembles Negro airs; the chorus with its shouting dance refrain breaks away from the verses in the habitual manner of Negro choruses. And Emmett offered more than one version of the words in which appear those brief and cryptic bird and animal fables that have proved to be a consistent Negro creation--
In, another version of the song, a touch of woe is mingled in an odd colloquy--
Most of these fables contained a simple allegory: the crow was a comic symbol for the Negro himself, though he might at times take the form of a sheep or a hog, while the master or the overseer or the patrol-the "patter-roller"-was the bulldog or sometimes the bullfrog. The jaybird habitually took a sinister part, descending into hell on Fridays; and other birds and animals were freely drawn in symbolical relations. In "Clar de Kitchen," one of Rice's most popular dance-songs, a fragmentary bird and animal fable appears with triumph for the Negro submerged and disguised.
In all these fables touches of satire were present, directed toward the white man, or toward the Negro himself when he figured as the lumbering hog or sheep, or gave himself wit as a fox. Self-parody appeared in such dances with bird calls as "Turkey in de Straw," which Emmett claimed, but which surely went back to a common dance of the Negro.
Rice and Emmett can only have borrowed the fables, probably with their tunes. Apparently neither had a gift for imitation of the Negro mode of story-telling, for they mixed such stanzas with others of their own composition, or at least plainly not of Negro origin. Emmett offered at least two versions of "Ole Dan Tucker." The song and the character in fact underwent those possessive and affectionate changes and additions which mean that many hands have been at work upon them; the melody showed variations; and the character which they celebrated was likewise variable. Dan Tucker was pictured as a vagabond Negro who was laughed at and scorned by his own kind but who constantly bobbed up among them with outrageous small adventures. Since he consorted with the two sagest creatures in the animal world of the Negro, the fox and the jaybird, he was endowed with a comical magic; yet for all this he was an outcast, looming large as he combed his hair with a wagon-wheel, shrinking small and growing ridiculous as he washed his face in a frying-pan, and at last through the transformations of many years changing from black to white. Stories appeared about him as though he were a living figure; joke-books were named for him; one of them was ascribed to that "young Daniel" who is introduced casually in a stanza of one of the many versions of the song. No doubt tales and many other verses of the song appeared in improvisations and have been lost. Dan Tucker was a legendary figure, as long-lived as Crockett.
Emmett belonged to a family that had been among the early pioneers from Virginia; in later years his father's house in Ohio had become a station for the underground railroad. In the middle i82o's he was stationed as a fifer in Kentucky and later at a barracks on the Mississippi below St. Louis. He had traveled through the West with a small circus company; and these companies usually included at least one Negro dancer. For a time he played with Rice, who from the first had turned to the Negro for the direct portrait. Thus through his impressionable years Emmett had been brought into close contact with the Negro; indeed he declared that he had always confined himself to "the habits and crude ideas of the slaves of the South," even though in the next breath he insisted that the songs were of his own composition. Negro melodies and fables had possessed his mind. Plantation cries echoed in his walkarounds and choruses. Some of his songs were close to the spirituals, which are the acknowledged creation of the Negro. The opening stanza of his first version of "Dixie" contains a touch of the characteristic biblical picturing--
Here the verbal phrasing is unlike that of the Negro, whose habitual approach is swift and elliptical. Controversy has in fact gathered around the entire question of the composition of "Dixie," and Emmett has been denied even the smaller glory of transcription or adaptation. Whatever the circumstance, the traces of Negro origin remain in the biblical touch-never to be found in songs of lighter mood elsewhere in this time-in the cries of the chorus, and in the melody, which sounds like a fiddler's tune.
Similar traces appear elsewhere in the minstrel songs ascribed to Emmett, sometimes only in the words, sometimes in musical phrasing. He often used the Jordan theme recurrent in the spirituals. In his "Jordan Is a Hard Road to Trabbel" a fragment of the story of David and Goliath is joined with topical references to make a comic song. In his "Here We Are," or "Cross Ober Jordan," the river symbolizes another river of freedom, the Ohio--
Here too was a vestige of the great western mode of travel belonging to an earlier day, in the mention of that great ark, the flatboat. And at least one spiritual, "Michael, Row That Boat Ashore," was clearly a boat song. The rhythm and the remembrance of travel along the western rivers ran through many of the minstrel songs.
The spirituals were a source for Foster as well. He haunted Negro camp-meetings for rhythms and melodies; and his songs were immediately appropriated by the minstrels. Krehbiel has shown that "The Camptown Races" sounds like "Lord, Remember Me" with a quickened beat; and while he suggested that the Negro borrowed the "Races" for the spiritual, it seems equally probable that Foster was the borrower, since he used Negro airs and phrasing elsewhere. Many spirituals lend themselves to such transformations. Brought to a rapid stress, "Somebody's Knocking at My Door" could easily become a dance tune; and as it happens, a favorite minstrel song of this period was called "Somebody's Knockin' at Yo' Do'." The music bore no relation to that of the spiritual; only the salient phrase was repeated; but the whole body of this many-sided music is full of such phrases, turned ingeniously and restlessly, as by the Negro himself, to different effects.
The climax of the minstrel performance, the walkaround, with its competitive dancing in the mazes of a circle, was clearly patterned on Negro dances in the compounds of the great plantations, which in turn went back to the communal dancing of the African. The ancestry was hardly remote. Many who heard the minstrels in the Gulf States or along the lower Mississippi must have remembered those great holidays in New Orleans early in the century when hundreds of Negroes followed through the streets a king chosen for his youth, strength, and blackness. License ran high, and the celebrations ended in saturnalia of barbaric, contortionistic dancing. Often the walkarounds of minstrelsy were composed only of bold pantomime and matched dancing, accompanied by strident cries and the simplest binding of words, the words gaining their color from slave life--
Plantation cries, wailing cries, stirring shouts with a tonic beat, ran through all early minstrelsy. Many of the choruses took up similar resounding notes with even greater breadth. The choruses with their open vowels and slurred consonants and rushing syncopated measures proved the reliance of minstrelsy upon Negro airs and chants even when the musical or verbal phrasing moved to another idiom.
NEGRO minstrelsy had arisen from the Southwest and from Negro life there; it showed many traces of regional origins. "Sugar in de gourd" and "honey in de horn" were heard in minstrel songs as well as in southwestern talk. The backwoodsman and the Negro danced the same jigs and reels; the breakdown was an invention which each might have claimed. In the 'So's, a generation or more after the boatman had ceased to be a figure on the western rivers, rowing songs and boatman's songs and boatman's dances became a dominant pattern through minstrelsy; and they borrowed the fancy touch with which the flatboatman had often adorned songs about himself. Sometimes the songs were adorned with corals and dolphins and fireflies. Most of them kept the rolling choruses with a touch of nonsense.
De spring ob de year am come at last,
Whether or not the tall tale was characteristic of the Negro or whether he took a touch of the art from the backwoodsman may never be known, since in an uncharted history the early improvisations have been lost; but magnification appeared in the early phases of minstrelsy with unmistakable stress. Dan Tucker combed his hair with a wagon-wheel. An animal song which belongs to the '4o's and probably earlier celebrates a fabulous little black bull--
The encore verses of one of Rice's most popular songs, "Sich a Gittin' Upstairs," told of a "bone squash" captain who was cut in two in a fight, joined himself together with glue, finished his enemy, and lay down to sleep, only to find on awakening-the day was hot-that the glue had melted and that a thief had run away with his thighs--
Dis being de case he saw no fun,
Western myth-making was woven deep in early minstrelsy, so deep that it can hardly be counted an alien strain.
Another coloring was given by Irish reels, jigs, and lilts; the Negro seemed to pick up the Irish musical idiom with facility, and the composers often adopted fragments of the pleasing tunes. One of Emmett's Jordan songs moves to an Irish lilt; yet it contains biblical pictures in the fashion of the spirituals. Themes of English contradances occasionally broke through the Negro breakdowns and reels. No doubt the minstrel often bridged gaps in his knowledge of Negro music and lore by inventions of his own; the interjected pattern is often evident. Occasionally a fluent strain appears that seems drawn from popular songs of the day, in the mode of "The Old Oaken Bucket," with words that follow the inspiration of Tom Moore.
But the persistent stress was primitive; it was often sorrowful; the effect was exotic and strange, with the swaying figures and black faces of the minstrels lighted by guttering gas flames or candlelight on small country stages, or even in the larger theaters. And within this large and diverse pattern lay a fresh context of comedy. This was plain in the intricate and grotesque dancing, as the blackface minstrels "walked jaw-bone" or accomplished the deep complications of the "dubble trubble" or the "grapevine twist." Even in one of the spirituals "four-and-twenty blackbirds" cropped up with an air of satire as "four-andtwenty elders," and the minstrel songs were filled with such sidelong touches. The whole intention of the bird and animal fables was that of a delicate and shrouded satire. And a far bolder comic quality appeared which had hardly developed elsewhere in the American comic display-that of nonsense.
In an early "Yankee Doodle"-in "Corncobs Twist Your Hair"-the flavor of nonsense was unmistakable, but this seemed to spring from a brief extraordinary exhilaration, and almost no trace of the same feeling is to be found in other Yankee talk and stories. Strangely enough, with all his wild excess the backwoodsman never overflowed into pure nonsense. Perhaps the Negro did not invent the nonsensical narratives which appeared in his dialect, but the touch is akin to that in many of the Negro fables in song. Certainly nonsense in minstrelsy shows a sharp distinction from other humor of the day. The minstrel mode went off to a bold and careless tangent.
Kentuck one night a party meet
The fling at the end was characteristic, and the song with its sibilant chorus all but pictured the gathering, hustling, dancing crowd in celebration. The satirical touch about Taglioni was possible for the Negro of the river towns.
Triumph was in his humor, but not triumph over circumstance. Rather this was an unreasonable headlong triumph launching into the realm of the preposterous. The triumphant note ran through the careless phrasing of most of the minstrel songs and was plain in the swift pulsations of the rhythms. Yet defeat was also clear-that abysmal defeat which seemed the destiny of the Negro. Slavery was often imaged in brief phrases or in simple situations. Fragments of humble and cryptic work songs appeared--
Sheep shell oats, ole Tucker shell de corn.
Lines from forbidden devil songs were echoed--
O I'se sorry I sold myself to the debbil.
Defeat could be heard in the occasional minor key and in the smothered satire. Hitherto the note of triumph had been unmistakable and unremitting among American comic characters. The sudden extreme of nonsense was new, and the tragic undertone was new.
PRIMITIVE elements were roughly patterned in minstrelsy. Its songs, its dances, its patter, were soon set within a ritual which grew more and more fixed, like some rude ceremonial. Endmen and interlocutors spun out their talk with an air of improvisation, but this free talk and song occupied an inalienable place in the procedure. In the dancing a strong individualism appeared, and the single dancer might step out of the whole pattern; the jig dancer might perform his feats on a peck measure, and dancers might be matched against each other with high careerings which belonged to each one alone: but these excursions were caught within the broad effect. Beneath them all ran the deep insurgence of Negro choruses that flowed into minstrelsy for many years, even after its ritual grew stereotyped and other elements were added; and the choral dancing of the walkaround made a resonant primitive groundwork.
Within this ritualistic design certain Negro characters were permanently limned, little limping Jim Crow with his plaintive song the first among them, and Zip Coon, that "very learned skoler," rougher, simpler, and more humble, next in the early order. The third figure, old Dan Tucker, was perhaps the most enduring of all in spite of his many transformations; he was always the outcast--
Git outen de way, git outen de way,
All three of these characters were outcasts even beyond the obvious fate of the slave. Following these or surrounding them were others of smaller appeal or lesser stature. They all revealed the Negro character: yet they showed that greater outline and more abstract drawing which reveals the world of legend. Magic was mixed with small events in these portrayals; and even real places took on the large and legendary air, as in the nostalgic lines of "Dixie." The biblical allusions heightened the air of legend.
These legends flowed into familiar patterns, these mythical characters slipped into familiar guises. Though the symbolical "long-tail'd blue" was seldom seen after the first few years of minstrelsy, its nationalistic promise was kept. The Negro in minstrelsy took a turn at playing oracle. Little Jim Crow talked comically on political affairs between dances and songs. Later Rice impersonated a bootblack with a bent toward philosophy: the axioms have been lost, but the drawing was said to be lifelike, and the figure occupied a considerable place in the popular fancy of the day. Zip Coon sang a crazy-quilt song with bits of animal fable edging toward politics.
O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler,
Wandering lazily through the many further stanzas were satirical references to Jackson and the bank and Davy Crockett. Zip Coon was to become President of the United States and Crockett was to be Vice President.
Here was that legendary assumption of wisdom which had appeared persistently among American comic characters. This assumption had striking aspects, for the rise of the Negro minstrel coincided with a marked change in his place within the nation. Little Jim Crow appeared at almost the precise moment when The Liberator was founded; and minstrelsy spread over the land and grew in popularity as the struggle for emancipation gained in power through the '4o's and 'So's. The Negro minstrel joined with the Yankee and the backwoodsman to make a comic trio, appearing in the same era, with the same timely intensity. The era of course was the turbulent era of the Jacksonian democracy, that stormy time when the whole mixed population of the United States seemed to pour into the streets of Washington, and when many basic elements in the national character seemed to come to the surface. The Negro minstrel was deeply grounded in reality, even though the impersonators were white, even though the figure was a myth.
The three figures loomed large, not because they represented any considerable numbers in the population, but because something in the nature of each induced an irresistible response. Each had been a wanderer over the land, the Negro a forced and unwilling wanderer. Each in a fashion of his own had broken bonds, the Yankee in the initial revolt against the parent civilization, the backwoodsman in revolt against all civilization, the Negro in a revolt which was cryptic and submerged but which none the less made a perceptible outline. As figures they embodied a deep-lying mood of disseverance, carrying the popular fancy further and further from any fixed or traditional heritage. Their comedy, their irreverent wisdom, their sudden changes and adroit adaptations, provided emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait. Comic triumph appeared in them all; the sense of triumph seemed a necessary mood in the new country. Laughter produced the illusion of leveling obstacles in a world which was full of unaccustomed obstacles. Laughter created ease, and even more, a sense of unity, among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities. These mythical figures partook of the primitive; and for a people whose life was still unformed, a searching out of primitive concepts was an inevitable and stirring pursuit, uncovering common purposes and directions.
But even in life the Negro was not wholly primitive; his satire was often conscious; and the everyday comedy of the Yankee and the backwoodsman almost invariably wore the air of contrivance. Occasionally in practical jokes their humor seemed only gross and physical; yet at best even these contained a deliberate fantasy. As the three figures were projected in stories or on the stage the effect of consciousness was greatly heightened. With all their rude poetry it was about a mind that these myths centered, a conscious, indeed an acutely self-conscious, mind. Masquerade was salient in them all. Minstrelsy was of course white masquerade; and the double use of the mask seemed to create a profound satisfaction for American audiences, as if the sheer accomplished artifice aroused an instinctive response among them. The mask might be worn as an inheritance or for amusement or as a front against the world in any of these impersonations, concealing a childish and unformed countenance: but it was part of a highly conscious self-projection.
Emotion seldom crept through this assumed disguise; none at all was shown by the Yankee characters or those who belonged to the backwoods, though the backwoodsman could indulge in a characteristic mock melancholy. In minstrelsy emotion was near the surface, surging obscurely through the choruses and walkarounds, but this was always communal, never individual. In all the array of popular comedy, which pressed close to circumstance and approximated many of the outer aspects of a common life, individual emotion was sponged out. Anger, love, hatred, remorse, were absent; fear alone was revealed, but only in a distant and fragmentary fashion, only to be cast away with laughter. If it created unities, the resilience of the comic spirit seemed a destructive agent, so blank were the spaces where emotion might have appeared.
Simple ties existed between this trio and the animal world. The Yankee looked there for swift, familiar comparisons in order to identify a human being, often satirically. The backwoodsman pictured himself as a savage and cunning beast and turned to the wilderness mainly for destruction. At the same time he evoked it. The Negro saw beasts and birds as emblems of himself and of others; his mood was that of companionship; and he kept to the gentle realm of the cotton-field, the meadow, the pasture, or the fringe of forest. In some sense wild creatures were seen in an alliance with man in all these glimpses; yet the unchanging stress was upon the human character, as if an absorption in character were primary.
Many minor evidences are at hand to show that the comic trio tended to merge into a single generic figure. The early "long-tail'd blue" was a lasting symbol. In stories and on the stage each took on qualities and even appearances of the others; they fell into many of the same roles. A hundred years after the emergence of little Jim Crow, tall talk was to appear in Ole King David and the Philistine Boys.
"`What dat, ole King Saul?' say Little David.
The rhapsodic boasting of the backwoods had traveled down the century. But each of the trio remained distinct. None left a deeper print than the Negro in minstrelsy, even though his shadowy figure was the slowest to emerge, and though the minstrel never assumed the many distinct parts taken by the Yankee and the backwoodsman. The appeal of minstrelsy was insistent and enduring; minstrel companies multiplied quickly and spread all over the country; the minstrel songs were quickly appropriated by the nation. "The Ethiopian melodies well deserve to be called, as they are in fact, the national airs of America," wrote Bayard Taylor in 1849. "They follow the American race in all its migrations, colonizations, and conquests." Taylor was writing from California, where minstrelsy was heard almost as soon as the first gold-seeker set foot there, and where it grew as an accompaniment for that wild adventure. A minstrel song, Foster's "Oh, Susannah!" became a rallying-cry for the new empire, a song of meeting and parting turned to nonsense, a fiddler's tune with a Negro beat and a touch of smothered pathos in the melody. Fragments of familiar reels and breakdowns, of boatmen's dances and boatmen's songs, were often caught within the minstrel pattern: much of the pioneer experience was embedded there. No doubt the appeal of minstrelsy came from these draughts upon a common reminiscence, stirring some essential wish or remembrance.
Minstrelsy kept its Negro backgrounds until after the Civil War: then, if the Negro was set free, in a fashion his white impersonators were also liberated. Along with later blackface acting came a strong infusion of Irish melodies and an Irish brogue. German songs were sometimes sung on the minstrel stage; and much later the Jew occasionally emerged in blackface. Again in fantasy the Ameri- can types seemed to be joining in a single semblance. But Negro music and Negro nonsense still prevailed; through years the old pattern was kept. The young American Narcissus had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image.