Politics, Race, & Empire in Antebellum Banjo Music Worldwide
The Hardtacks deliver a vivid overview of antebellum global politics and life through early 19th century banjo music and lyrics. Through period music, visuals, and texts, along with copious audience participation, the Hardtacks dig deep into the hidden corners of the past, and shed new light on the echoes still sounding today – American music will never sound the same to you again!
BACKGROUND: Between 1820 and 1860, the banjo transformed from an African-inspired gourd instrument built and played primarily by slaves on Southern plantations to an international pop phenomenon manufactured and sold in Northern cities and towns, with songs and playing techniques carried far and wide in the emerging global economy: from the streets of New York’s “Five Points” slums to the gold fields of California and the elite drawing rooms of London, from the battlegrounds of Nicaragua to official diplomatic receptions in Japan!
QUESTIONS to EXPLORE: How was banjo music transmitted, received, preserved, and changed during this period? What did this African-derived folk instrument come to symbolize about the young United States of America? What does it tell us about emerging class, racial, and national identities in the United States and the wider world?
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- Jim Crow (Rice, 1830) - If we can hold our immediate revulsion at the (now offensive) language, we'll find some shocking critique and surprisingly liberal views in the lyrics...
- I’m Off for California (1850s?) - Here’s a song you’ll recognize, and yet… it’s a side of American history you’ve likely never heard: The melody is Stephen Foster‘s first big hit, “Oh Susannah” (1847), ubiquitous in its time and still common in the “folk song” tradition over a century and a half later. Foster’s original composition features two world-changing technologies of the day:
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852-1859?) - "Euclid... is no child for effecting social revolutions, but an impassioned song may set a world in conflagration." ~ The London Times (3 September 1852)
- Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel (Emmett, 1853) - Here are a few versions of Dan Emmett's song, displaying the far-reaching sense of international politics and breaking-news commentary to be found on the antebellum popular stage...
- I’m Off for Nicaragua (Rice, 1858) - Phil Rice gives us this striking vision of slavery carried south in the service of the Filibuster president, General William Walker:
- Picayune Butler’s Come to Town (Rice, 1858) - "And when he made his appearance you should have heard the reception he got. I thought the roof would fall off...": Picayune Butler takes New York & Tokyo by storm.
- United States it am de place (Rice, 1858) - This mysterious half-dialect minstrel song from Rice's 1858 Method for the Banjo offers an intriguing glimpse into the economics and racial politics of the antebellum era...
- Uncle Sam’s Farm: “One grand, ocean-bound republic” - Stephen A. Douglas (1858): "This Union will not only live forever, but it will extend and expand until it covers the whole continent, and makes this confederacy one grand, ocean-bound Republic..."
MORE INFO & SOURCES:
- MIT’s Visualizing Cultures: Black Ships & Samurai
“In Japan (as well as elsewhere on the voyage to and from Japan), Perry’s favorite entertainment was an “Ethiopian concert” featuring white men playing the roles of “Colored ‘Gemmen’ of the North” and “Plantation ‘Niggas’ of the South,” and singing such songs as “Darkies Serenade” and “Oh! Mr. Coon.” Although the Narrative dwells on the “delight to the natives” these performances gave, it remained for Japanese artists to preserve them for posterity.” — from John W. Dower’s essay “Facing ‘West'”
- The JUBA Project: Early Blackface Minstrelsy in England
- Hodgson: Jim Crow’s Vagaries = Jim Crow in England
- Lhamon: Raising Cain = TransAtlantic pop culture over the past 2 centuries…
- In the Wake of Jim Crow: Maritime Minstrelsy Along the Transoceanic Frontier (Brian Rouleau)
- William Walker, Filibuster President of Nicaragua