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Stephen Foster | Article

Performers and Artists

Center for American Music, U. of Pittsburgh

Edward P. Christy (1815-1862)
Although 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.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)
Best known as the author of "Dixie," this talented composer and performer helped make minstrel shows an international sensation. Born October 29, 1815 in Mount Vernon, Ohio, Dan Emmett worked as a printer before joining the United States Army in 1834. There, he put his musical aptitude to work, playing the fife and the drum.

After leaving the army, Emmett began to take jobs with circuses, performing as an African American impersonator and musician. Some time around 1838, he wrote "Bill Crowder," a blackface song that was probably among his first compositions. Its stereotypical depictions of African Americans typified the blackface songs of the day.

Blackface had been popular in Europe for centuries. Many of the blackface songs performed in England during the eighteenth century related the plight of slaves, and helped hasten the end of slavery there. Transported to the United States, blackface became an integral part of the theater. But in America, blackface music soon evolved away from its sympathetic attitude, and songs started to depict African Americans as good-natured, ignorant buffoons.

Among the most notable early blackface stars was Thomas "Daddy" Rice. His blackface dance, known as "jumping Jim Crow," was allegedly inspired by the footwork of an elderly black stablehand. The dance helped make Rice immensely popular as a solo performer. But it was Dan Emmett's group performances that made minstrel shows a full-scale craze.

During the fall and winter of 1842, Emmett collaborated with fellow circus performer Frank Brower, a comedian, singer, dancer and bones player, in a number of New York theater shows. During a raucous jam session in the off-hours, Emmett and Brower, along with William Whitlock and Richard Pelham, conceptualized the minstrel group. 

In that first session, Emmett played fiddle, Whitlock the banjo, Pelham the tambourine, and Brower the bones, in a rendition of "Old Dan Tucker." So satisfied were the performers that they decided to take the group format to the stage. The Virginia Minstrels, as the new blackface troupe was called, honed their act in a number of New York performances before premiering their first full-scale "Ethiopian Concert" at the Masonic Temple in Boston on March 7, 1843. 

Like all blackface performers, the Virginia Minstrels relied upon crude, stereotypical depictions of blacks to entertain white audiences. Their early repertoire, for example, featured a "Negro Lecture on Locomotives," designed to showcase the supposed ignorance of blacks. The performers' ragged costumes, cork-blackened faces, protruding lips, and exaggerated dialectical diction added up to a negative image of blacks. And the shows' depictions of the plantation as a benign, happy place ignored the brutality of slavery.

As pioneered by Emmett and his troupe, the minstrel show took on a standard format, consisting of two or sometimes three parts. Part one generally included jokes and songs. Often, it ended with a dance number. Part two, the variety section, often featured a humorous stump speech, given in dialect. The third act, which became common later, usually included a playlet. At first, such acts were set on the plantation. Later, they parodied serious dramas such as the works of Shakespeare. 

Almost from the start, Emmett's Virginia Minstrels were a smash hit -- but their run would be short lived. After performing to capacity crowds on Broadway, they toured England in the spring of 1843. There, the reception was mixed, although London crowds showed some enthusiasm. By then end of July, the Virginia Minstrels had disbanded. Emmett stayed in England another year before returning to the states.

Back in the U. S., Emmett continued to perform in circuses and theaters. His tunes for the banjo were published and widely circulated. In 1858, Emmett joined Bryant's Minstrels, which were then performing at Mechanic's Hall in New York City. He stayed with the troupe until July of 1866. During this time, he wrote his most enduring composition, "Dixie's Land," popularly known as "Dixie." Played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis, it became the anthem of the Confederate cause, and later, the South. 

Emmett moved to Chicago in 1867, but he continued to perform, albeit more sporadically as the years went on. He returned to his birthplace in 1888, and did a farewell tour in 1895-96 with the Al G. Field minstrel troupe. Dan Emmett died in 1904 in Mount Vernon, at the age of 88.

Library of Congress

Jenny Lind (1820-1887)
Stephen Foster might have missed opera singer Jenny Lind's performance in Pittsburgh in the spring of 1851, but he couldn't have missed the impact of the so-called "Swedish Nightingale" on the American music scene. Born October 6, 1820 in Stockholm, Sweden, Jenny Lind had conquered the capitals of Europe before she turned 30. The talented soprano could sing in a range from the B below middle C to high G, but it may have been Lind's vocal purity and humble presentation that caused Queen Victoria to throw flowers at her feet. 

Although most Americans had never heard of Lind, none other than master showman P. T. Barnum sent an emissary to Europe in November 1849 to negotiate with her for a series of American concerts. At the time, Barnum was better known as a promoter of sideshow attractions than a devotee of serious art. Yet he paid $187,500 in advance to bring Lind and her accompanists of choice to America for 150 performances.

If Lind was unknown to all but a few American opera fans when she signed her contract with Barnum, she had become a household name by the time she arrived in New York on September 1, 1850. A consummate media manipulator, Barnum had built Jenny Lind mania to a fever pitch with advertisements, well-placed positive reviews, and even a contest to write a song to be performed by Lind at her American debut. An estimated 30,000 people thronged New York's waterfront as Lind arrived — a tribute to Barnum's promotional genius. 

Almost no Americans had heard Lind sing, and she was neither vivacious nor beautiful according to societal standards and perception of women at the time. What Barnum had successfully sold to the public was the image of Lind as a simple woman with a God-given talent who had dedicated her life — and her substantial earnings — to a number of charity causes. Her first concert, at New York's Castle Garden on September 11, played to a sellout crowd of 5,000, who had bought their tickets at auction for as much as $225 apiece. And on that first night, the crowd roared with gusto as Lind lent her substantial talent to interpretations of "Casta Diva," "Il Turco in Italia," and a home-grown ditty called "Greeting to America." Composed by poet and novelist Bayard Taylor, the song won Barnum's contest — and a $200 prize.

After the first performance, a few naysayers — including poet Walt Whitman — surfaced. But Lind generally received rave reviews. The $10,000 in concert proceeds she donated to charities, including the Fire Department Fund and the Lying-in Asylum for Destitute Females, helped cement her position as America's sweetheart. After more than 30 shows in New York, Lind struck out across America, where she performed to enthusiastic audiences everywhere. Jenny Lind mania swept the nation. Schools, bridges, and other public edifices were named after the Swedish Nighingale, as were numerous consumer products, from pies and cigars to bonnets and whiskies. Only in Havana, Cuba, where patrons considered the high price of the tickets an insult, did the fervor wane -- only to be restored during her first performance there.

Just as P. T. Barnum had hoped, he and Jenny Lind made beautiful music together — to the tune of some $712,161 in gross receipts. In city after city, Barnum and Lind took in more money than Stephen Foster would make in his entire career. Yet even money was not enough to hold the two together. Lind severed her contract with Barnum after some 93 shows. She continued on her own, but never did as well without the impresario as she had with him. 

In 1852, while still on tour of America, Lind married her accompanist, Otto Goldschmidt. Shortly after, she returned with him to Europe, where the two raised a family of two boys and one girl, living first in Dresden, Germany, and then in England's Malvern Hills. Lind used much of the money she made in America to establish charity endowments. She seldom sang publicly after her American tour; when she did it was usually in performances organized by her husband. Jenny Lind gave her last performance in 1883. That same year, she began a three-year teaching appointment at London's Royal College of Music. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 2, 1887, at the age of sixty-seven.

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
His influence on nineteenth century American popular music — and on the work of Stephen Foster — was incalculable, yet Thomas Moore was more than just a lyricist. Born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 28, 1779, Moore graduated from Trinity College before moving on to London to study law. He found fame and fortune, however, not as a lawyer, but as a poet, satirist, lyricist, musician, and composer. He was (and is) the official national poet of Ireland. 

Thomas Moore published his first book, The Poetical Works of Thomas Little, in 1801. But it was his Irish Melodies, a group of ten songbooks published between 1808 and 1834, that made him famous. In the books, Moore wrote new lyrics for traditional Irish songs, occasionally altering the melodies to suit his lyrics. Moore collaborated on the books with two different composers, Sir John Stevenson and Sir Henry Bishop. 

The popularity of the Irish melodies in England and in the United States during the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. The songbooks sold exceedingly well — as did numerous pirated editions. One song, "Tis the Last Rose of Summer," was said to have sold 1.5 million copies of sheet music. As late as 1909, a major anthology of 400 American popular songs included 5 of Moore's Irish melodies. 

Stephen Foster's musical influences included the poetry of Robert Burns, Italian opera, and the songs of blackface minstrel performers. But perhaps no one influenced Foster's work as much as Thomas Moore. Foster's older sister Charlotte was performing some of the Irish Melodies before Stephen was born. Stephen undoubtedly knew Moore's work, and it showed in his songs, which often aspired to the kind of nostalgia and sentimentality popularized by Moore. Nowhere is Moore's influence more evident than in Foster's "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," which features not only sentimental lyrics but a typically "Irish" melody. 

If Thomas Moore was capable of sentimentality, he also wielded a rapier wit. His satires, published in collections with titles such as The Twopenny Postbag (1813) and Cash, Corn, and Catholic (1828) lacerated politicians, economics, and religion. His poetic cycle Lalla Rookh, a narrative subtitled "an Oriental romance," earned him a payment of 3,000 pounds, the most ever paid for poem in Britain at the time. Moore also authored Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, a biography of the poet, who was his close personal friend. Moore was rumored to have burned the memoir Byron wrote himself.

Although Moore lived most of his life in England, where he died on February 25, 1852, his Irish Melodies did a great deal to foster Irish pride and arouse sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause. He is Ireland's national poet, and a statue of him stands today in Dublin.


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