Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Looking Forward: Live Music

The Band: The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

The one thing that I’m most looking forward to when it becomes possible again, not surprisingly, is going to see live music. At the end of the year, when I do my family holiday letter, I’m always struck by the number of live shows that I’ve been too, but this year will be different. My last live show was Richard Thompson at Symphony Space in NY in early February, and since then I’ve seen a bunch of live streams, which have their benefits, but there’s nothing like live music.

When I thought about this theme, my first thought was “Let There Be Rock,” by the Drive-By Truckers. But I’ve written about them so much, I thought, enough already. (Although “What It Means,” from American Band really hits home right now, I’m just sayin’). So, I turned to the blogger’s best friend, Google, to find songs about live music, and one that popped up was The Band’s “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” from their Stage Fright album.

Now, to be clear, that song is about a minstrel or medicine show, and although these shows often included live music, I am emphatically not interested in seeing a minstrel show, but stay with me—it will make sense eventually. Minstrelsy was, remarkably, the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s, until they were supplanted by vaudeville. Minstrel shows were, initially, white performers, in black face, portraying an exaggerated negative stereotype of blacks, and were undoubtedly racist. Later, black performers themselves pretended to be whites in blackface, but still pandered to the same racist stereotypes. To quote Rhiannon Giddens, “minstrelsy was terrible.” That quote is from one of the live streams I watched recently, sponsored by Carnegie Hall, featuring Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, discussing minstrelsy, its roots, and more, including way too much information about the tambourine, and they performed a few great songs. Watch it here, for the historical background.

“The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” is based on Levon Helm’s memories of attending minstrel and medicine shows in his youth in Arkansas, and the name is derived from one of the shows, F. S. Wolcott's Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. As Giddens mentions in the video, the awful, racist minstrel shows co-opted black string band music (which is what Giddens’ band Carolina Chocolate Drops championed). In fact, the Wolcott troupe was originally Pat Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company, formed around the turn of the century. It was owned by a black man, and featured black performers. Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Company was remarkably successful, played all over the country, and even had its own baseball team. The show included, among others, Ma Rainey, often known as the Mother of the Blues. But, although I’m not 100% certain, I’m pretty sure that this black owned and operated show used blackface—because that was how to make money in those days. And when Chappelle died in 1911 (and I don’t see any connection between him and Dave Chappelle), he was considered one of the wealthiest black residents of Jacksonville, Florida.

Chappelle’s wife remarried and sold the business to a white man, F.S. Wolcott, who eventually renamed the troupe. It appears that the performers remained black, and included Bessie Smith, Louis Jordan and a young Rufus Thomas. Based on this “window card,” it seems pretty clear that the Wolcott show also performed in blackface:

The show was sold again in 1950 and continued to perform until 1959 when changing times and tastes led to the show’s equipment being seized for nonpayment of taxes.

So, why would The Band write a song about a minstrel show that advanced negative stereotypes of blacks? And which refers to a musical ensemble named the “Klondike Klu Klux Steamboat Band?” My guess is simply that they (and the song, as usual, is credited to Robbie Robertson, but who knows who really should have gotten credit?) wanted to write a slice of life story about a particular place and time without making a value judgment—much like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a sympathetic song written from the traitor side. You can read some analysis of both songs, and others by The Band, here.

We’re in a time where people are (again) focusing on symbols of racism in the United States, and I admit that I’m delving deeper into issue of race and racism. People are marching. Statues are coming down, and there's actual bipartisan discussion about taking traitors' names off of military bases. White voice actors are stepping away from portraying characters of color. Amusement park rides are being re-themed.  People are realizing that the confederate (no capital letter used on purpose) battle flag is a symbol of racism and treason, and even NASCAR and Mississippi have had to banish it. Numerous TV shows have removed episodes containing blackface, and allegations of wearing blackface have caused politicians and others to lose their jobs.

In times like this, mistakes are bound to be made (passive voice use intended), and unfortunately the opponents of change are seizing on the apparent mistakes (toppling a statue of Lincoln, for example) to discredit the movement. But the fact is that we are more openly debating these issues—and things are happening—which is a good thing. I’m sure that there are people who would argue that Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Company was a positive—a black owned, black run business that made its owner rich and exposed many people of all races to black music and culture. But despite the fact that some of the music was groundbreaking, and ultimately led to the type of music that I want to see live, that version of black culture was a distorted, negative one that helped to oppress black Americans.  It was a shame that someone like Chappelle needed to reinforce those stereotypes to succeed. Let’s hope that this moment of reconsideration has a lasting positive effect, and doesn’t fade away, like the last wave of statue toppling and flag lowering in 2015. Or like Reconstruction.

And you thought this would be about me wanting to go to a concert.

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