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November 2017
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Wales and Negro Minstrelsy:

a socio-cultural interchange 1830-1910

Presented for Conference /
Writing Race and Ethnicity – Minority Perspectives on Welsh National Identity at Swansea Institute, 12.03.05

Early Minstrel and Serenaders groups first started appearing in Wales from the 1830s. They were white British or European, purveying stylised parlour room ballads and uplifting choruses, folk songs, or were yodelers, all on the music hall circuit, e.g. The Tyrolese Minstrels. Some groups performed English traditional folk songs, such as the family troupe Oxfordshire Minstrels, at the Assembly Rooms in Swansea. Other Serenaders such as The British Minstrels (another family group) performed for the 'Gentry and Public' a selection of overtures, songs, duets and glees, and introduced the Miniature Organ in their act.

The halls provided a supportive workplace for women as pianists and accompanists. Bratton (1986) suggests a possible reason was that they were

'perhaps failures in the marriage market for which they had been groomed'.

That may be one answer, but on the other hand women piano players who were good at sight-reading needed employment as much as the men, and some women chose the bandstand as an attainable option. It was concurrent with the time that men regarded playing the piano as "sissy" and a job fit only for women.

These groups, performing traditional airs, are not to be confused with the African-American or 'Nigger Minstrelsy' who took Wales by storm over the next 50-odd years. The last of these performers still able to make a living on the variety circuit survived in Wales until 1910, killed off by new styles and fashion in entertainment.

The African-American performers of 'Nigger Minstrelsy' and 'Coon Music' that proliferated, produced a 'cultural interchange' which has left a lasting impression on Welsh culture. Wales turned to embrace the new phenomena from across the Atlantic. Not only did they embrace it but Wales, both men and women, actually adapted and performed it to suit their own needs. From the mid-1800s and into the 20th century, Wales experienced a socio-cultural collision on a vast scale.

The visits by Negro Minstrelsy troupes, groups and melanges increased at such a rate between 1860 and 1900 that rival companies would be performing at various Swansea venues during the same week, feeding an insatiable audience. These visits were undertaken against a backdrop of British Imperialism and the Building of the Empire, the British Anti-Slavery Movement The American Civil War, the Russian conflict, the Boer War, the Industrial Revolution and Wales's own struggle to live comfortably with its own particular identity and not that imposed by the English.

Pickering (1990) talks of the situation as being one of

'Blacks on the one hand borrowing, imitating, adapting and accommodating themselves to white musical genres... and Whites in their own use of elements of Black culture'.

It has to be said, however, that Pickering was unaware of that particular cultural clash of the Welsh/English divide!

These complications, no doubt, went unheeded by the queues of Welsh people outside the theatres, music rooms, assembly rooms, drill halls, circus houses and palaces of culture all willing to part with their hard-earned sixpences... and thruppences for those up in the Gods and galleries. Wales' nightlife was multi-cultural, loud, an extravaganza of glitz and glamour, offering such a diversity of entertainment that Temperance Societies decided that they 'threatened the morals and decorum" of the people of South Wales; so much so that Temperance Societies formed their own bands.... thereby adding to the din.

The class system pervaded the arts in Wales at this time, especially music, with an assumption by the middle classes that the working classes should really pull their socks up and behave. As Newton (1959) pointed out

'The Arts has two cultures: that of the arts as practised or enjoyed by the wealthy, leisured or educated minority, and that of the arts as practised or enjoyed by the mass of the common people'.

Popular culture was also the culture of protest against Victorian values and performers and audiences alike were, indeed, engaged in asserting their authority to partake, enjoy, parody and innovate a particular style of music as they so wished, especially the Welsh who had particular axes to grind.

Some Negro Minstrel troupes adapted their act to the Welsh vernacular, including place names, local characters, venues or particular local idiosyncracies in their act, to the delight of the audiences. The Cambrian, forerunner of the South Wales Evening Post, fuelled the flames by urging potential audiences to 'make haste' to a particular venue to catch the latest arrivals. In the heyday of these troupes, some theatres or halls would be offering Black performers and white performers in Blackface, on the same bill... a true clash of cultures.

Academic debate continues over the role played by the white man T. Daddy Rice, who caused a sensation in Britain with his Jump Jim Crow song, a term which remains in political vernacular with Black rights activists to this day. It is impossible to tell the authentic origins of the song, but Rice's interpretation of the 'burden of slavery' and the Negro being presented as a legitimate form of entertainment, caught the audience's imagination. However you view the politics, Rice and his character Jim Crow, nevertheless opened the floodgates for African-Americans to gain acceptance on the stage and for white entertainers to re-interpret and adapt what they saw for their own and their audiences' consumption. Rice appeared in Britain in 1836 and 1842, but not in Wales, although he left a minstrel mania behind him.

It was Dan Emmet's company in 1843 who produced

'the combination of banjo, fiddle, tambourine and bone castanets, and while these instruments were later added to, they remained at the core of minstrelsy performance'.

The 'negro delineator' or impersonator, i.e. whites in blackface, made an early appearance in Swansea, in July 1854, by name of Mr. Pelham. The Cambrian reported this as a repeat visit. The ad. stated that

'Mr Pelham will repeat his Sambo 'it-'Em-ard at The Theatre'

with the review reporting

'crowded audiences for his inimitable delineations of Ethiopian character'.

Another troupe appeared in October 1854 at the Swansea Assembly Rooms, on their first tour of Wales, namely The Celebrated and Original Ethiopian Serenaders of St. James's (St. James's Hall, Piccadilly). The ad. stressed that

'it was their first tour as they are aware that there have been persons who have assumed their original title of 'Ethiopian Serenaders'.

No personal copyright law in these times! Whether this troupe was the same as Pell's Ethiopian Serenaders, who had appeared at Buckingham Palace is not clear. If it is the same troupe, appearing with them was William Henry Lane, an African-American (or Real Negro) also known as Master Juba, who Pickering describes as an

'outstanding contemporary exponent of popular dance'.

Master Juba performed the Virginny Breakdown, the Tennessee Double Shuffle and the Louisiana Toe 'n' Heel as 'authentic Nigger dances'. He was also a tambourine virtuoso. He received top billing at Swansea with four white minstrels. Tickets were priced at 3s., 2s. and 1s., quite expensive. Sadly, no review of this performance.

By 1860 The Assembly Rooms in Swansea boasted of a Fashionable Entertainment of Refined Negro Music for November, complete with a morning concert and another at 2pm. The large ad. states

'The reunion of the Celebrated and Original Ethiopian Serenaders, Messrs. Pell, White, Stanwood and Germon from St. James's, singing selections from their celebrated programme, including Original Songs and Pieces brought by them from the USA, being copyright can be sung by no other artistes'.

From this ad. it was implied that a more genteel audience was expected for the morning show, as tickets were more expensive.

Wales was bombarded by a cultural clash of blackface, Refined Fashionable Negro Entertainment, as well as Real Wild Men of Africa. An example of the Wild Man syndrome comes in July 1861. Touring Pontardawe, Ystalyfera and Swansea was Edmond's Late Wombell's Royal Windsor Exhibition and Castle Menagerie. Based on Swansea's St. Helen's Road the menagerie contained not only 16 large carriages, but

'The Rare and Extraordinary Zulu Kaffirs and Wild Men Of Africa, the Only Men of Their Race ever brought to Alien Country, in native costume, with their manners and customs of Kaffir Life: War Dances, Club Dances, and Songs of War and Peace etc'.

Pandering to Empire and British Conquest, the troupe and menagerie celebrated the colonization of Africa and, as Pickering refers to it,

'the celebration of Queen (which) promoted patriotism and xenophobia'.

However, with a full programme of music, perhaps the Zulus and Wild Men of Africa took advantage of the opportunity offered them to celebrate their own culture and music, and pass a little on to their Welsh audiences. Jingoism may not have been so pronounced in Wales than in England, and it could be argued that the Welsh identified a little more with the Black faces they saw on the stage whom they perceived as being under the yoke, just like themselves.

With increasing visits to Wales by Black entertainers, the Welsh, those with an eye on the attractions of making money on the stage, began to adapt aspects of African-American music for their own needs - by applying the black mask and clowning on the one hand, and combining and adapting the Refined Negro act on the other. The Welsh took the manners and guise of the Black entertainer making a semblance of something new to appeal to local audiences. By the mid-1860s. a profusion of local South Wales troupes were 'blacking-up' in burnt cork, e.g. The Swansea Original Coloured Serenaders who gave a benefit evening in March 1865 at the Music Hall, some troupes being of sufficient competence to appear in the main venues.

What the 'Refined Negro Entertainers' thought of the locals' version of their genre is anyone's guess, although it could be argued that audiences turning out at a local hall to see their neighbours performing, would presumably be encouraged to visit the town theatre to see the real thing. This being to everyonbe's advantage.

The minstrelsy genre was so well integrated into Welsh culture that the combined schools Annual Outing of September 1865 were treated to a spectacular from the local Swansea eastside troupe The Kilvey Coloured Minstrels (whites in blackface), who performed their 'Nigger part-songs' to the combined Kilvey Copper Works Schools of Pentrechwyth, St. Thomas and Danygraig Infants, at Maesteg House, seat of the Grenfell family. Twelve hundred attended.

One month later in October 1865, the harmonium made its first appearance amongst the plantation walk-arounds and skeddadles performed by whites in Blackface, adding a particular Welsh connection to the genre. Anxious to instill a little decorum in minstrelsy performance art, Mr. Joseph Parry hosted a Celebrated Cambro-American Concert at the Merthyr Temperance Music Hall. Mr. Parry had emigrated to America and returned to his roots as local boy made good; he was known for his compositions The Cambrian Minstrels and Comic Glees. The Cambro-American concert with Mr. Parry on harmonium, attracted large audiences.

The following year at Loughor School Room the CCC Christy Minstrels performed to a large audience, in which the troupe performed the Oudie Oudie and the finale of the Plantation Walkaround Skeddadle. The review ends with the comment that the whole was accompanied on harmonium by Mr. C. D. Ace of Swansea.

The Christy name was synonymous with successful blackface; troupes would add it to their own name, thereby causing great confusion as to who were the Original Christy Minstrels and who were local Christy Minstrels.

The white shows in blackface became increasingly more bizarre and now included a Grand Comical, Mimical and Musical Melange comprising Songs, Burlesques, Readings, Sketches of Character, Instrumental Solos, Dances and Breakdowns, concluding with a Burlesque Extravaganza with the Original Plantation Walk-Round Darkies Carnival. The women would have 'blacked-up' for their performance. Another Original Christy troupe was touring a year later in Swansea and Llanelli and even The Cambrian was in doubt as to whether they were the original Originals.

During 1868 Swansea audiences were treated to a combination of Empire and Plantation by The Sketty Minstrels, who performed at the Sketty Schoolroom before the Mayor and 'several leading families' . Sentimental Ballads such as 'Just Before The Battle, Mother' were contrasted with 'Ten Little Niggers', 'Alabama Sam', 'Banjo and Bones' and 'Ham Fat Pan'. The successful evening was brought to a close by the obligatory Plantation Walk Round.

With minstrelsy in full swing on the local scene, many new groups sprang up perfecting their 'Nigger Delineations'. In 1869 The Aberavon Star Troupe of Amateur Coloured Minstrels performed songs, dances, burlesques and a plantation walkaround at the National School, accompanied by piano, harmonium, cornet, castanets and tambourines. The review particularly mentions the fine 'burlesque dresses' but these may have been worn by men in blackface as drag acts were popular. Again the harmonium was the nice Welsh touch to suit local tastes.

By 1869 the blackface minstrelsy was undergoing a change in Wales. Appearing now to even more acclaim were 'Real Negroes', adapting the 'white blackface' to their own particular needs; that is, Black people applying burnt cork in exaggerated style mimicing and subverting the Welsh adaption of Slave Plantation life. They appeared at Wind Street's Grand Circus building Easter 1869 with Hutchinson and Tayleure's Great American Slave Troupe with Japanese Tommy, not Japanese at all, but a Black dwarf known as the Tom Thumb of Africa. The company contained 16 'Real Negroes from the Plantations of America', making 26 Black performers in all. It has to be noted that the Real Negroes arrived only three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Hutchinson and Tayleure's acts included performers of Negro Life and Character Chapman and Cushman, who were described as late members of the Original Christy's Minstrel Troupe. Chapman and Cushman were making their first appearance in Swansea and the Cushman half was the Black female singer Carlene Cushman a member of the famous Black Swan Trio. Their programme contained sketches on 'Life in a Virginny Log House 'interspersed with Mirth, Stirring Songs, Stories, Pump and Big Boot Dances, and Break-Down Hornpipes..'

Local groups flocked to these shows. The Mumbles Amateur Christy Minstrels jumped on the bandwagon earning rave reviews performing Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, and included Mr. Crapper and Mr. Jones in burnt cork, complete with big drum accompaniment. This profusion of national and local minstrel groups swept the boards of the musical halls and rooms up to and beyond the new century

To make many appearances in Swansea were the famous Sam Hague's Minstrels. Hague himself was an English clog dancer who had become a 'minstrel business manager' while in the USA. His troupe comprised 26 ex-slaves
performing a portrait of life on the old plantation with their only stage costume consisting of garments identical to those worn in their slavery days. The Welsh were to find Sam Hague's homespun attempts at entertainment not up to the local standard they were used to. Some of Sam Hague's Minstrels had obviously found what was expected of them too hard to stomach with their new-found freedom, and that the deflated Hague was forced to send home to the States those performers who wanted to return. He then employed white professionals in blackface to perform with those Real Negros who had opted to stay on in Britain.

It is at this juncture that the course of music tilted on its axis by the arrival in Swansea of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, on a fundraising tour for new campus buildings at their Fisk University in Nashville, inaugurated for the Education of Freed Slaves and their Children. With concert hall authority they sang of the loss of their language and culture through spirituals, or what was described in the press as Wierd Slave Songs. The Welsh, having suffered their own loss of language and identity since the publication of the 1847 Report into the State of Education in Wales, identified with the Jubilee Singers and welcomed their return visits over the next 35 years. But that's another lecture.......

The Sam Hague's troupe toured the USA very successfully in the early 1880s, and returned to Swansea in 1883 with a new polished and sophisticated show. Fast, furious, with good PR prior to engagements, Sam Hague's Minstrels were now much more professional, slick, witty and satirical. They also satirised and burlesqued the concert hall authority of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Entertainment was a cut-throat business.

Times were changing. Negro minstrelsy also underwent stiff competition from the famous Bohee Bros. from the States, who had left the Minstrelsy genre behind. James and George Bohee came to Swansea in 1888 appearing at the New Theatre in Wind Street with a company performing popular ballads and comic songs, clog dances, soft shoe shuffle and exhibiting considerable talent on banjos. The Bohee Bros. troupe were significant in that they especially promoted Black women performers Josie Rivers, Amy Height, and again Carlene Cushman. This trio of women delighted Swansea audiences by satirising Tyrolean yodelling, which so amused the house it had to be repeated. Perhaps they yodelled in whiteface.
The press gave special mention for the Bohee Bros. final and eighth performance of the week when James Bohee was presented with a Gold Pencil Case by the theatre manager for his 44th birthday. The Bohee Bros., although reputed Americans, were indeed British subjects, having been born at St. John's New Brunswick, a fact of which they were both naturally very proud. They told their Swansea audience that:

'They felt deeply the honour which had been paid them by the people of Swansea in patronising the entertainments they had placed before them..... Mr. Bohee suitably returned thanks in which he expressed the pleasure it gave him to feel that both he and his company had succeeded in amusing their Swansea friends, a success they thought all the more agreeable when considering the excellent entertainment of a similar nature given in another place in the town by the celebrated Moore and Burgess Minstrels – sentiments which were loudly cheered'.

James Bohee died in Ebbw Vale in 1897 while on tour.

There is no doubt that Swansea audiences kept many white and black minstrel troupes in highly paid employment for a substantial period. In 1890 for example, Swansea formed its own Black Snowdrop Minstrels performing at Crag-y-Nos Castle for Madame Patti on her return from performing in Russia. Confusingly, Craig-y-Nos formed their own Christy Minstrels who's innovative PR included the puff Plantation Scenes accompanied by the Penwyllt Black Hussars.

Towards the end of the century competition was fierce between Real Negro and local troupes in blackface, with Real Negros adapting some of the successful attributes of the local innovators by exaggeration and satire, or put another way, by subverting the local take on minstrelsy... i.e.blacks parodying whites parodying blacks. Troupe names and titles grew ever more complicated, e.g. The American-European Coloured Operatic Kentucky Minstrels (covering all bets), and The Royal Kentucky Minstrels who stressed they were 'the only genuine minstrel group travelling', (patently not true).

By the following March, 1895, an extraordinary performance at the Empire by Mdlle. Texerkansas prompted the South Wales Daily Post to do a back-stage interview with the star. Advertised as a Singer, Jig Buck and Wing Dancer, the Post was intrigued and interviewed her. Mdlle. Texerkansan told the Post:

'I was born in the village of Arkansas in a house through which passes the boundary line of the two states of Texas and Kansas and hence the conglomeration. I like Wales and the Welsh so much I shall have lots of good things to say about them when I get home. I appreciated my reception very much and I think Swansea people will like my dancing. My dance is an exact imitation of those on the plantations in the Southern States, absolutely correct in movement. As I had become the acknowledged best dancer in that line in the States, I determined to come over here and show it to you in the old country'.

This solo star, an African-American woman given star-status by the local paper and the opportunity to talk about her history and culture was indeed an innovation.

By the end of the century the Minstrelsy genre was fading away, driven off by the fast and furious, slick revue-type entertainment delivered by the new generation of Black entertainers in Britain. The first of these new all-Black productions 'In Dahomey' starred Bert Williams and George Walker, portraying skits on Colonial life back in Darkest Africa. The production was a 100 strong, with their own musicians, producers and directors, arriving at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London in 1903; its main feature was Ragtime music and the Cakewalk dance, a parody of Victorian decorum, fore-runners of music of the first Jazz Age of the 1920s. The show ran for 7 months then toured, arriving in Swansea January 1905. The Swansea production incorporated a Cakewalk competition for the locals with a prize given at the end of the week. Our own local talent Mr. Lonzo Brown probably benefited from these productions. He was successfully touring South Wales by 1910.

But even these huge and professional productions like In Dahomey were being eclipsed by a new fashion in entertainment, moving picture shows, such as The Bio-ramas, Bioscopes, Myrioramas, Hyper-Myrioramas, St. Louis Pictures, Kineopticons, and Wales' own pioneers of film-making Arthur Cheetham and William Haggar.

However we view the 50 years of Negro Minstrelsy, whether we approve or applaud the Welsh blacking up or debating whether African Americans were demeaning themselves or portraying a positive racial accord, the Minstrelsy genre was a product of its time, born in bigotry and dying at the cusp of the unstoppable flood which became the new Jazz Age with all its political interpretations and upheavals. Minstrelsy left its indelible legacy in Wales, and debates on the Exploitation of African Americans within Popular Culture can now be hotly contested with those of a Socio-Cultural Interchange, or a Special Racial Collaboration between African Americans and the Welsh.