The California Pioneers : A Song

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African Americans in California Sheet Music

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Cover art from Ole' Nicker Demus, De Rule ob de JewsAfrican Americans appear in nineteenth-century sheet music as composers, performers, emancipated slaves or freemen, and are frequently the subject of vaudeville or black-face minstrel show lyrics. By the 1860s African Americans such as Sam Lucas (at left, from "Ole' Nicker Demus, De Ruler ob de Jews"; Nicodemus, Kansas, was founded as an African American settlement in 1877) had begun to form their own minstrel troupes and California played its role in providing access to the stage. The Hyers sisters, soprano Anna Madah and contralto Emma Louise, were born in Sacramento in the 1850s and trained by a German pianist and Italian opera singer. Their debut at the Metropolitan Theater in Sacramento on April 22, 1867, received favorable reviews in the papers (San Francisco Chronicle: "rare natural gifts would insure for them a leading position among the prime donne of the age"). Their African American repertory company in the 1870s brought forth "one of the first musical shows to be produced by a black theatrical organization" (Sampson, Blacks in Blackface, 393) (In and Out of Bondage 1877; The Underground Railroad 1879). Black Patti (Matilda Sissieretta Joyner, 1869-1933) studied at the New England Conservatory and sang at the White House in 1892. Kept from the opera stage, she formed "Black Patti Troubadours" and combined opera arias with the repertoire of vaudeville, touring successfully for nineteen years. The cover of "Ma Gal's de Town Talk" by Kentucky-born African American composer Ernest Hogan (1860-1909) includes a photograph of an African American minstrel performer, a charming drawing of an African American woman, and a reference to the Black Patti Troubadours. Hogan's "I Loves My Honey" includes a portrait of the composer (see below) and a drawing of an African American woman. Bert Williams (Antigua, ca. 1874-1922) entertained in cafes in San Francisco from an early age, formed a vaudeville team with George Nash Walker in 1895, and in 1896 moved to New York for a successful career on the stage.

While African Americans may not have used particular terms to set themselves apart (as in the song about Civil War soldiers, "Abraham's Daughter"), whites used a number of terms to denote them. Although many such terms had negative connotations, their connotation had become so well-known that African Americans adopted them in their own compositions (Darktown, coon music, colored fun). The sheet music project has attempted to bring together music related to African Americans by subject access using vocabulary acceptable today. For example, the Library of Congress term "Afro-American" is the preferred term for the MARC cataloging of records searched by Cheshire II. However, users of the project's alternative search system must search for sheet music using the title words themselves and so must use the vocabulary of the period. Titles and lyrics of sheet music reveal contemporary use of such terms as:

  • Negro--The term preferred by African Americans of the time, as in Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, a "characteristic Negro musical comedy" written by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar which introduced a New York audience to ragtime on the stage of the Casino Theater. Cook was born in Washington, D.C., in 1869 and when he was 13 began studying violin at the Oberlin Conservatory where his mother had graduated in 1865. After two years at Oberlin, he left to attend the University of Berlin, returned to the U.S. to study with Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music, and made his debut on violin in 1889. Clorindy, his first attempt at theater, was written for Bert Williams and his partner but when they were busy Ernest Hogan stepped in. Clorindy is represented here by the sheet music title "Der'll be wahm coons a prancin'," illustrated with portraits of the African American performers of the San Francisco production. The composer George Peck arranged "the most favourite Negro melodies" for the piano in his The San Francisco Quadrilles, published in the 1850s with a cover lithograph of a goldminer and the new seal of California. "Matilda Brown" (1896) is called a "Negro song."

  • Freemen--A term used in "We're Freemen Now," upon emancipation.

  • Coon--A derogatory term for African Americans and by extension for music that used the rhythmic and harmonic style of African Americans but was often set with broad dialect lyrics that caricatured their lives. By the end of the century African Americans themselves were writing, staging, and performing music that was in a transition period called "coon music." Ernest Hogan used the terms coon and darkey in his "I Loves Ma Honey" (1898); the cover includes his portrait (at left). The popularity of the music of "Darktown" is proudly attested to in the lyrics of "Der'll be wahm coons a prancin'" which proclaim that a time is coming "when de bes' lak de res' gwine be singing coon fu' ouh song mighty sweet to hear." Other music that calls itself coon includes "My Darktown Gal," "The New Bully," "Nigger, Nigger," "The Mission Band," "I'se Got the Warmest Baby," "It Won't Be Very Long," "Ma Angeline."

  • Ragtime--By the end of the century such genres as ragtime presented the style of African American music without the negative connotations of crude dialect and caricature illustrations found in "coon" music. Celebrated pianist and choreographer Ned Wayburn composed two piano parts for "Syncopated Sandy" (1897), one in rag time, and gave an explanation of the genre as "originating with the negroes and characteristic of their people. The negroe in playing the piano, strikes the keys with the same time and measure that he taps the floor with his heels and toes in dancing, thereby obtaining a peculiarly accented time effect which he terms "rag-time" (p. 2). James A. Marshall and Walter Wolff wrote and published "Evening Pastimes" in 1897 and called it "the only genuine Negro Ragtime ever written." Another example of ragtime in the California collection is the "ragtime ad lib" section of "Dat Bad Coon from Alabama," with a lively right-hand piano part.

  • Colored--Though clearly a term used by whites to set off difference, the sheet music titles "De Darktown Colored Band," "Happy Colored Man," and "Yer Baby's a Comin' to Town" ("a darkey song") acknowledge respected African American performers.

  • Ethiopian--A term for minstrel songs, as in the classification of "Shabby Genteel" as an "Ethiopian and Comic Song."

  • Hottentot--A word used in the nineteenth century for a group of people in southwest Africa. The illustration of children riding a crocodile on "The Happy Hottentots" places African Americans in a fantastic other land.

  • Black--A term often used in minstrel shows performed by whites (see "I'se Her Black-an'-Tan Adonis" and "I'll Make Dat Black Gal Mine") but also a term for the emancipated slave, as in Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe" with its sentimental illustrations that recall Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

  • Yellow--A term used in songs performed by whites for light-skinned African Americans, as in "Yaller Baby" and in the lyrics of "My Dusky Queen, Good Night" and "Honey You're the Warmest Gal in Town."

  • Nigger--A term for African American men with negative connotations, often used in dialect songs performed by whites ("Dat Nigger Knocker," "I'll Carve Dat Nigger When We Meet"). "Nigger, Nigger" pits two minorities against each other, African Americans and Irish.

  • Pickaninny--A term for African American children ("Mammy's Carolina Twins," a "pickaninny lullaby" done in blackface).

  • Darkey--African Americans billed their compositions as darkey songs in publicity (Anita Baldwin's "Tell de Lawd I'm Comin'"). Sam Lucas, one of the earliest African American minstrels, used the term frequently in his "Ole' Nicker Demus, De Ruler ob de Jews." It also appears in the vaudeville tune "Yer Baby's a-Comin' to Town."

  • Minstrel--The songs sung by whites in blackface often use a musical style derived from African American music. "My Mary Ann" was performed by Charly Backus of the San Francisco Minstrels in the 1850s, and Atwill's published version contains a woodcut of the vocalist in blackface.
Music mentioned on this page, with related audio files

Click on title to see full record, on "MIDI" to hear audio file.

Abraham's DaughterMIDI
Dat Bad Coon from AlabamaMIDI
De Darktown Colored BandMIDI
Der'll be Wahm Coons a Prancin'MIDI
Evening PastimesMIDI
Happy Colored ManMIDI
I'll Carve dat Nigger When We MeetMIDI
I Loves Ma HoneyMIDI
I'se Got the Warmest BabyMIDI
It Won't Be Very LongMIDI
Ma AngelineMIDI
Ma Angeline Two-StepMIDI
Ma Gal's de Town TalkMIDI
Mammy's Carolina TwinsMIDI
Matilda BrownMIDI
The Mission BandMIDI
My Darktown GalMIDI
My Dusky Queen, Good NightMIDI
My Mary AnnMIDI
The New BullyMIDI
New Bully Two-StepMIDI
Nigger, NiggerMIDI
Old Black JoeMIDI
The San Francisco QuadrillesMIDI
Shabby GenteelMIDI
Syncopated SandyMIDI
Tell de Lawd I'm Comin'MIDI
We're Freemen NowMIDI
Yaller BabyMIDI
Yer Baby's a Comin' to TownMIDI