Q&A with Creolization of American Culture author Christopher J. Smith

Christopher J. Smith is an associate professor and chair of musicology/ethnomusicology and the director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music. A working musician, he also performs, records, and tours internationally with the medieval music ensemble Altramar and other bands specializing in Irish traditional music and pre-World War II blues and jazz. We asked him some questions about his new book The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy.

Q: How do most people know the work of William Sidney Mount? 

Christopher J. Smith: Mount’s art work is probably best known by the various contexts in which it has been employed, both during his lifetime and since his death. Certain images—I am thinking here of Just in Tune and Right and Left (both in the Creolization book’s “gallery” of heroic portraits) for example—have become quite iconic of American folk music as represented in vernacular art. Even in his own time period, for example, those images were widely lithographed and printed, often times “bootlegged” without his permission! Probably his most widely-reproduced image is The Banjo Player, which has been used widely for books and exhibit catalogues on the instrument, and it has even served as a source of inspiration and practical construction data for builders reproducing these early Boucher banjos. The Bone Player, which is the cover image for Creolization, is reasonably well-known also—for me, that latter image, because of the creole features of the player, and the precision and beauty with which Mount depicts the whole-body integration of music and movement the instrument requires, is the absolute central visual to the text as a whole. 

On the other hand, as the book makes clear, while the images have been widely reproduced in certain venues, there has been comparatively little analysis of the musicological insights they can contain. And there’s been almost no study—not even much visibility—for the sketches and watercolors in the Mount papers which, as the book makes clear, are crucial for understanding the “creole synthesis” that he witnessed and visually documented. Similarly with his tune collections and ephemera—there is extensive musical material in his papers at the Long Island Museum, but there has been almost no examination, since the early 1970s, of the riches contained therein. 

Q: Was Mount uniquely suited to document the impact of musical and dance traditions on culture of mid 19th Century America? 

Smith: I would say that he was indeed uniquely suited to do this, as a result of a felicitous and very, very unique combination of circumstances. He was born into a time and place (Long Island in 1807) when memories of the American Revolution and the Anglo-Celtic music traditions of the Colonies were still very much part of community life. But this was also a historical moment when the recent manumission (freeing of slaves) in New York State meant that freed blacks had significantly greater mobility—there had always been musical exchange between black and white traditions on the Island, especially from the Caribbean influences of the sugar traders whose ships entered through Long Island Sound—and that free black populations in New York City were expanding and creolizing, at the same time that European immigration (particularly from Ireland) was also accelerating. 

This, plus the opening of the Eric Canal in the early ‘20s, when Mount was an apprentice sign-painter on the Lower East Side, meant that immigrant communities’ street entertainment and working-class theaters were experiencing an explosive growth of genres, new artists, and diversifying genres. Blackface as a solo performance idiom comes from the frontier musics of canallers, sailors, and dock-workers, into urban performance, and Mount was uniquely positioned to observe this at the specific historical moment. On top of this, he was an avid tune-collector (of all sorts) and played dance music himself on the flute and fiddle, so he, like his dance-teacher brother Robert Nelson, had a practical player’s grasp of how to make musical styles work. Even beyond that, his inveterate habit of sketching, only from life, as a source for his commercial paintings, means that the less-known pencil works and studies for the finished oils are an invaluable “visual record” of the musics and dance he saw, heard, and played. 

On the other hand, the book also makes the point that Mount is so valuable because of a particular individual’s combination of circumstances and aptitudes: it argues that, in fact, this kind of exchange was going on all over the young United States, everywhere that black and white (especially working-class) populations came in contact. What makes Mount’s evidence so valuable is not that what he saw was so rare, or only occurred in Long Island or the Lower East Side—rather, the creole exchange was happening everywhere, but it was on Long Island and the Lower East Side that this particular, uniquely talented and suitable observer could see it and report upon it visually.

Q: Were there any common misconceptions of “creolization” that you examined in your research for the book? 

Smith: I wouldn’t necessarily say there were “misconceptions,” so much as gaps in the record. The book certainly argues that creolization—the process by which two languages, or rhythmic vocabularies, or music & dance idioms, collide and create a shared dialect—was much more widespread in a much wider array of locations, and much earlier, than previous scholarship has perhaps understood. The argument would be that contact between disparate groups—black/white, African/European, slave/free, working-class/middle-class—would have yielded this exchange, whether participants intended or even recognized that it was happening. People heard other people’s music and they learned to move and experience sound differently, and in this new, shared dialect. I think, in fact, that this phenomenon—maybe we could call it “a creolization of bodily experience”—happens everywhere disparate populations come into close proximity with one another. I think it’s at the core of where urban culture arises. 

I might suggest that one useful contribution the book provides to that sort of study is to develop a set of analytical tools (particularly rhythmic and iconographic) which let us “see” creole or Afro-Caribbean characteristics—rhythms, body postures, body movements—in tunes or scenes which, on the surface, seem to be “simply depicting” idealized Anglo-Celtic culture. The book suggests that we can identify creole motion—of the pelvis, hips, shoulders; of melodic shapes and rhythms—in the bodies of the dancers, even if they “seem” to be idyllic, pastoral shepherd boys and girls. I don’t necessarily think that Mount intended or consciously imported creole aesthetics into those body vocabularies—quite the contrary: I think that he was simply, accurately, precisely, and sympathetically providing visual reportage on the way that his neighbors and artistic models moved—and that those body vocabularies were already creole, even if the individuals he depicted didn’t consciously realize this. 

Q: How was Mount’s home area of Manhattan particularly suitable for “creolization?” 

Smith: Well, Mount came from the North Shore of Long Island, which would conventionally have been understood to be an essentially Anglo-American cultural environment, and then spent his early manhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on the highly multi-cultural wharves and urban streets within a block of two of Five Points. But the argument of the book is that contact between black and white music-and-dance communities was much more widespread, even if it was under the surface. People on Long Island in the early 19th century spoke in a patois that combined English, Dutch, French African languages, and borrowed words from the Caribbean. The same was true of their music and dance, on both the shores of Long Island, in upstate New York, all along the canals and rivers of the new nation, and on the wharves of the Lower East Side where Long Island joined Manhattan. 

Q: Was blackface minstrelsy, in a way, an American “pop” music phenomenon? 

Smith: It certainly provides a very early example of a dynamic that recurs in later American pop musics, in which a musical genre begins on the margins—often the working-class, urban, ethnic, or immigrant margins—and is only gradually “discovered” by middle class dominant culture. This is what happened with creole music, and then with ragtime, early jazz, swing, rhythm & blues, hip-hop, and so forth. So I might say that the process by which blackface evolved, out of the collision of ethnically- and culturally-diverse working-class populations living in (willing or unwilling) close proximity in urban environments, is certainly a particularly early and a particularly complicated (and thus revealing) example of the pop music process. It’s analogous to the way that Jamaican ska and reggae began, in the urban slums of Kingston, before those musics entered the middle-class pop-music industry mainstream; same thing with Algerian rai music, or Bohemian polka, and so on. It’s a process by which new “creolized” musical idioms arise out of multi-ethnic—usually working-class and urban—environments, evolve very swiftly, and then “pop up” over the horizon of middle-class entertainment culture. 

By the way, that’s the book’s argument for why blackface, which in its canonic mythography was “invented” in the winter of 1842-43 by the founding quartet, Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels, became so popular with such remarkable speed: supposedly an “improvisation” by Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Browder (a kind of 1840s “supergroup” of solo stars) which took hold very swiftly. By 1844 the Minstrels were touring Britain, leaving a string of home-grown banjo-strumming imitators in their wake. This creation myth doesn’t really account for why the style became a trans-continental pop craze so swiftly—but the book suggests that it was not, as conventionally claimed, minstrelsy’s “novelty” that made it so popular, but rather the working-class audience’s shock and delight at seeing their own street music suddenly “legitimized” on the theatrical stage. This is reminiscent of the arc of early hip-hop’s transition from being an underground, dance-hall and audio-cassette culture to “popping up” over the horizon of middle-class entertainment culture. The parallels are quite striking, and I think they do reflect certain cultural and sociological patterns in pop music of which minstrelsy is a particularly early, particularly rich example. 

Q: How did your experience as a musician inform the project? 

Smith: It’s funny: I look back over the very long gestation and creation of this manuscript—whose earliest inspiration I trace, in the Forward, to a conversation with my roots-music friends Chipper Thompson and Roger Landes, on the porch of a slave-built tavern in Weston Missouri in 1998—and only with hindsight do I begin to realize just how many elements of my own musical life and values have coalesced in its creation. I’ve been an avid listener and dedicated student (later teacher) in the worlds of African American musics ever since the early 1970s, the year I heard Mississippi Delta Blues in New England coffeehouses, live in small rooms. I’ve studied a very wide range of other musics, as both player and scholar, within and beyond the academy, but blues and jazz and their earliest root-ancestors have been a touchstone I’ve returned to over four decades. At the same time, the other constant in my core musical identity has been Anglo-Celtic music—particularly Irish tradition dance music, another genre I’ve studied and played ever since those same early ‘70s coffeehouse experiences. So to stumble upon the cluster of antebellum idioms—both Anglo-Celtic and Afro-Caribbean—whose encounter was the seed from which minstrelsy grew, became a way to link two sides of my own musical consciousness with my professional identity as a historian. 

I also have very extensive experience at the scholarly disciplines of both musicology—the study of musical behaviors in historically distant contexts—and ethnomusicology—the study of musical behaviors in culturally or geographically distant contexts. Both those academic music disciplines provided research and analysis tools which were crucial to the Creolization project: manuscript studies, iconography, demographics, kinesthetics, art history, semiotics, reception history, sociology, ethnography, and so forth. In that sense, one element of Creolization is absolutely a kind of “historical ethnomusicology”—a challenging but ultimately very satisfying and enlightening synthesis of scholarly perspectives and methods. 

At the same time—and, I think, rather atypically for someone who specializes in 19th & 20th century American roots musics—I have over 25 years experience as a practitioner of historical performance—specifically, the reconstruction and performance of medieval monophonic song. Though that world of medieval performance practice is stylistically and chronologically very distant, indeed, from the wharves, canals, and ships’ decks of the creole synthesis, historical performance did teach me to look at musical behaviors within historical contexts, and to try to reconstruct both the physical performance practices—the motions of hands and body—and the expressive environments that shaped that musical experience. Staying conscious of, and seeking the reasons behind, the musical choices that individuals made in response to specific expressive contexts—using musical content (tunes, songs, body iconography, and so forth) to reflect contextual priorities, and analyzing performance contexts to try to illuminate musical choices, was thus truly essential to this study. 

So in that sense I guess I could say that—not entirely intentionally, and certainly not with any prescience or “grand plan”—I’ve been working for over forty years to develop the skill-sets and analytical tools to understand just why in the world blackface minstrelsy was the way it was, and what it has to tell us—about that time, and our time.


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