David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, talks with Gina Mahalek about the roots of “black music” and American popular culture.
Gina Mahalek: What was the Manhattan Musical Marketplace that you discuss in your book?
David Gilbert: This is a term that I coined to explain the historical formation of New York City as the center of American popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century. I think that many music fans, musicians, and scholars kind of take for granted that NYC has always been America’s capital of popular entertainment, and I wanted to tell the story about how this came to be. Rather than assume Broadway Theater and Tin Pan Alley song publishing just naturally developed into leading culture industries, I want to call attention to the moment in which these spaces—and their connotations—developed. And I want to emphasize African Americans’ roles in creating both New York’s unique culture markets and important facets of American popular culture.
GM: How did black entertainers help create Broadway and Tin Pan Alley?
DG: Through their artistry and their ability to capitalize on white Americans’ increasing interest in black culture. Broadway Avenue was just a street with a bunch of vaudeville houses and some larger theaters in the early 1890s. Yet when African Americans began performing on its stages between 1898 and 1906, blacks’ innovations in dance styles, comedy, and especially the rhythmic sounds of ragtime helped make Broadway shows more popular and laid down many of the artistic approaches that would define American musicals for generations. And blacks’ roles in New York song publishing were even more stark—a “popular song” was not really that popular before African Americans began composing ragtime tunes. In the early 1890s, a well-selling tune sold tens of thousands of copies, but after ragtime rhythms started to get printed—and the so-called coon song craze took off, in 1896—songs sold in the millions.
GM: What were “coon songs”?
DG: Right, OK. When most people think about ragtime, they think about instrumental piano songs, like Scott Joplin tunes. But the most popular ragtime songs between 1896 and the 1910s were ragtime songs with lyrics. And these lyrics were usually full of racist stereotypes straight off the minstrel stage—African Americans fighting and gambling, shirking work, and on the hunt for sex, often across the color-line. White women on Broadway, who were known as “coon shouters” performed coon songs on stage and helped popularize the sounds of ragtime rhythms. Of course, they also disseminated very racist stereotypes, essentially updating the racism of blackface minstrelsy—which was an antebellum entertainment—for a post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow era in which white Americans were trying to re-institutionalize racial inequalities and re-create new forms of white supremacy. And most astonishing: many coon song writers were themselves African Americans. They had to utilize the worst stereotypes they could imagine in order to gain access to the Manhattan musical marketplace.
GM: So these songs carried the legacy of minstrelsy into a new era. Would you say minstrelsy and ragtime (or “coon songs”) ultimately helped or hindered blacks’ contributions to U.S. music and culture?
DG: Well, both really—the racialization of music worked as a blessing and a curse. Minstrelsy was the most popular entertainment in the U.S. from the 1830s through the early 1900s. It created the conditions wherein white audiences—and promoters, theater owners, and critics—might look to African Americans for culture and style. To our minds, it may seem ridiculous to think that white mockery of blacks could set the conditions for African Americans’ creative expressions. But minstrelsy developed out of whites’ interest in black slave culture, as well as free-black and immigrant-black cultures. So, alongside growing interest in slaves’ singing and the “spirituals” throughout the nineteenth century, blackface minstrelsy also increased white Americans’ recognition of black culture. The fact that it was thoroughly racist and mired in stereotypes nonetheless laid some of the groundwork for less racist iterations of black culture.
GM: And how did black entertainers respond to the legacy of minstrelsy?
DG: Well, they embraced parts of it and transformed others. Since the 1990s, scholars have reinterpreted African American minstrels who “blacked up” and performed in burnt cork. First in small numbers after the Civil War, but really getting a foothold in the 1890s, blacks-in-blackface became stars in vaudeville and musical theater. Bert Williams and his partner George Walker are the most well known today, though thousands of black performers entertained as minstrels. But they knew it was a ruse—they used the stereotypes and the platform that stages provided to comment on, joke about, and undermine minstrel conventions. And as they did so, black entertainers challenged white supremacy and American social norms, demonstrating that they were capable of satire and creativity, which itself proved the lie to “black inferiority”—the post-Reconstruction assumption that blacks were inherently unfit for the rights and protections due American citizens.
GM: And they were successful in these endeavors? It seems like we should know more about this era and this transformation.
DG: Exactly. Whereas most of the books over the last couple of decades try to recover blacks’ creativity, and even their political agendas, during this late-minstrel, pre-World War I era, I emphasize the impossible bind black performers like Bert Williams and George Walker tried to escape. It’s not only an uplifting story, and ultimately I argue that blacks could no more transcend minstrel conventions than they could obliterate Jim Crow laws. In fact, American popular culture and the new political, social, and economic norms of the post-Emancipation era went hand in hand. Black difference was not only legislated into law and made habit by local custom. Pop culture and the very idea that African Americans had their own culture—that blacks sang and danced so noticeably different from whites—helped reinforce ideas of natural and inherent differences between the races in ways that codified white supremacy in the post-Civil War U.S. The roots of the notion of “black music” go very deep indeed.
GM: How did you come across this topic?
DG: Well, for years I was interested in the ways music in America is “raced,” and I’ve often wanted to know why so many of us hear music as sounding black or white. Music of course reverberates in ethnic or racial ways beyond the categories black and white, but in the U.S., because of the amazing history of blues, jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop, people often talk about music sounding black—when they usually mean it sounds good, or gritty, or soulful—or white, when it sounds stale, boring, or derivative. Why do we use this racial language to describe music?
I wanted to get to the root of this, and I wanted to find examples of music that might disrupt our assumptions and, hopefully, historicize this process. I remember many years ago reading an interview with the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who talked about the sound of country music and blues music before there was a color line dividing them, back when a black group might yodel in the Hank Williams vein and sound real country, and when some white guys—probably in the South, probably living just a few shacks down from black families, and probably working in the same cotton fields as sharecroppers—could sound as gutbucket blues as anyone. So, yeah, for a long time I wanted to know more about that time period.
GM: So this would be around the time of “race records” and “hillbilly” records, right?
DG: Yes, exactly. It’s in the 1920s that commercial music really reinforces the contours of Jim Crow society. In fact, it’s only in the year 1920 that the phonograph companies began to make money, to make music recording a viable commodity. And it was recording a blues tune by a black woman and selling it to black consumers that first made records profitable. Perry Bradford spent years trying to get everyone in New York to record one of his blues tunes, but it wasn’t until he got Okeh to record his “Crazy Blues” with Mamie Smith that folks realized, “Hey, blacks want to buy this music—we got ourselves a new culture industry here!” And, of course, the phonograph companies wanted to manufacture blues recordings for black audiences and they wanted to keep them separate from their classical music, their fox-trots, and marching tunes, and what have you—y’know, “white people’s music.”
GM: Where does your story about the creation of modern “black music” fit in then?
DG: My story starts in 1896 with the rise of ragtime sheet music on Tin Pan Alley and ragtime rhythms on Broadway, and I focus on the ways that black entertainers made a place for themselves in Manhattan music markets. Black actors, singers, and dancers—most of whom were still performing in blackface and portraying very stereotypical racial caricatures—began to promote themselves as the best, the most authentic entertainers in America. This notion of authenticity is an important theme in my book, and I argue that African American minstrels began to promote themselves as the “real deal” as a way to wrestle black stage and musical representations away from white blackface minstrels—the notion of “keeping it real” has always been a commercial strategy, yet one forged within a logic of racial difference and white supremacy.
GM: So I hear you talking about the African Americans as not only artists but commercial savvy entrepreneurs. Why have you chosen to highlight the commercial nature of this era?
DG: I really want to show African American music as a historical invention, something that arose at a certain time and therefore reveals certain social pressures of the era. And I want to challenge many of our racial stereotypes about blacks being “natural” musicians, a trope that has its roots during the ragtime era when so many scholars, musicians, and fans still imagine Delta blues and New Orleans jazz to have been invented by unlearned folks who just happened to create the basis of all American music styles. It’s an old story and it needs to be re-told. In New York City, a diverse community of African Americans worked together to create the sound of American modernity. Some of these musicians studied in music conservatories, some did not, but hundreds of African Americans worked as professionals and played leading roles in establishing U.S. culture industries. As they did so, they also ended up inventing new notions of “black culture” as being inherently distinct from “white culture.” Much of my work is wrapped around this paradox: that African Americans invented both a racially-distinct “black culture” as they simultaneously created a modern, racially-open polyglot “American” culture. It’s a paradox that still lingers with us today. It crops up most every time somebody complains about their kids’ favorite music or someone sings a song on American Idol that surprises the audience—very often the surprise reveals racial assumptions rooted in stereotypes from the minstrel era, yet reworked, over long and tumultuous decades, for the twenty-first century.