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People & Events: Edward P. Christy, 1815-1862

Sheet music for 'Old Folks at Home' as performed by Christy's MinstrelsAlthough he was not, as he claimed, the leader of the first blackface minstrel troupe, he indisputably led one of the most renowned. During a successful run that included a ten-year stint on Broadway, Christy's Original Virginia Minstrels made E. P. Christy a famous -- and a wealthy -- man. Still, his life ended in tragedy.

Born on May 21, 1815, in Philadelphia, E. P. Christy began performing blackface songs and skits while still a young man. One of the few early blackface performers who had actually witnessed slavery in the deep South, he had supervised slaves at a New Orleans ropewalk. Although he claimed that his later performances authentically recreated the singing of those slaves, his claims were spurious. Like most white men who performed in blackface, Christy's performances were mere caricatures, which presented blacks as happy, dim-witted beings. Yet his livelihood depended on portraying them as musically talented and highly gifted in comedy.

After performing in blackface for a number of years on his own, Christy formed his first minstrel troupe in Buffalo, New York, in 1842, playing in a tavern frequented by boatmen on the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. Undoubtedly, the success -- and the format -- of the first true minstrel troupe, Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, inspired Christy.

In 1843, Emmett began performing the prototypical minstrel show format. It included four men -- one on banjo, one on fiddle, one on tambourine, and one on bones. The show mixed music with comedic skits, humorous speeches, and even playlets that parodied life on the plantation and popular works such as Shakespeare's Hamlet. Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels had enjoyed unparalleled success, even making a hit on Broadway. When the Virginia Minstrels broke up later that same year, E. P. Christy moved swiftly to fill the gap. By 1846 Christy's Minstrels had moved into Mechanic's Hall in New York, a venue they would not abandon for ten years.

Christy adopted Emmett's format, and even went so far as to name his troupe "Christy's Original Band of Virginia Minstrels." Yet Christy also added innovations -- and a level of polish -- that broadened the audience for the minstrel show. In the realm of musicality, Christy's band clearly outclassed the competition. Christy shrewdly toned down the racier aspects of the traditional minstrel show, eliminating songs with references to sex and violence in favor of sentimental plantation ballads and sweet vocal harmonies.

Among the songs that Christy helped make famous were some written by Stephen Foster. In 1851 Foster gave Christy exclusive right to premiere his compositions. Foster even sold Christy the right to be known as the author of "Old Folks at Home" (the song better known as "Swanee River"), a move Foster would forever regret.

The Christy Minstrels' ten-year stint on Broadway and their successful tour of England helped establish them as the world's preeminent minstrel troupe. It also made E. P. Christy rich. He retired in 1854, at age 39, leaving the Minstrels to perform without him. But retirement proved less than ideal for Christy. He struggled with mental instability -- a struggle he lost in 1862, when he jumped from a second-story window to his death.

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