Month: August 2010

The beginnings of American Pop: Minstrelsy

This reproduction of a 1900 minstrel show post...

Image via Wikipedia

Currently, I’m TA’ing a course called Modern Popular Music. The PhD student running the show gave a fantastic lecture the other day on Minstrelsy in the U.S., and I wanted to share a few online resources. Yes, we’re starting at the beginning of American Pop.

What is Minstrelsy?

When I think of minstrel shows, images of staged variety acts come to mind. The shows were comic skits performed by white people in blackface as staged caricatures, or often they were black people in blackface.  They spread racial stereotypes, although toward the beginning of the movement it was treated much like a Saturday Night Live skit would be today. As time went by, they became increasingly racist and eventually got out of hand.

The shows began in the early 1800’s with mostly white performers, however by the time of the Civil War, black people were joining the troupes as well. Often it was a way to make quite a bit of money and served to be quite a popular entertainment venture.

The immediate response to these shows tends to be that they are blatantly racist and therefore taboo, however the fact that black people often performed in them as well (giving themselves blackface also) gives validity to its initial humorous footing (at least early on). Likewise, the racial tables turned (as you can see in the video below). Black people would frequently ‘make fun’ of high-society whites during minstrel shows.

Thank you to the Library of Congress for posting this video for our educational use – it’s only a few seconds long, and it’s a silent film (consider the recording techniques of the time), but it shows blacks making fun of high society whites:

Minstrelsy lost its popularity as civil rights gained prominence – the unique absurdity of the minstrel show lost its grounding once the skits became increasingly racist.

Minstrelsy led to America’s very first popular (and extremely racist) music hit, “Jim Crow”, by Thomas Dartmouth Rice.  As its popularity gained among whites in the U.S., the tune led to name the infamous Jim Crow laws.

1950 Blackface Performance:

Eastman clips from the Midwest Clinic (2009)

I was in the front row of this show, and wanted to share. I’ve only seen Eastman twice, but this performance was the best wind ensemble performance I’ve ever seen. Here are two clips from it:


Zendik Farm

Did you ever wonder where the popular bumper sticker “Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution” phrase comes from? No? Keep reading anyway.

I recently moved to Florida. As you can probably guess, I’ve got half-empty boxes in the corners of each room. Today I spent a good amount of time unpacking those – that’s what weekends are for! I came across an old zine a trumpeter-friend had given me to borrow with the caveat of “man if you’re into ethnomusicology, you’ve got to check this out!”

When he gave it to me, I was in the middle of finishing my master’s comps, so I only had time to skim.  There was a CD strapped to it with a rubber band. It was called Zendik Tribe, and it’s a publication produced by Zendik Farm.

What is Zendik Farm?

You deserve a bit of background information:

Below is taken from the Editors’ letter of this “zeen” (issue #47 in case you’re curious – I couldn’t find a date anywhere on the publication):

For those of you who have never heard of Zendik farm, we are a community of physical, psychic, psychological, and cultural mavericks. Our Zendiculture is founded on dealing openly and honestly with all aspects of life. Now located on 300 acres of fertile farmland along the banks of the Colorado River near Austin, TX, the community was started 24 years ago by Arol and Wulf Zendik. We’re learning to create a viable way of life based on cooperation, not competition – a life where each individual’s contribution is essential to the health of the entire community. This is one of the basic principles of the governmental philosophy of Ecolibrium, upon which the farm operates.

Actually, they are now located in West Virginia. Sounds like a typical communal lifestyle, right? You also may be curious to hear the following from the same page:

For those of you who don’t live in one of the 15 cities where you can watch our ZTV shows on cable television, there is an excerpt from Arol’s weekly series called Zendik news.

An eco-friendly commune with TV shows? Yep. Well okay, they no longer use TV as a media outlet for their cause. They do however, have a radio show.  There’s more!

The zeen includes sections called “Life on Zendik Farm”, “Deathkulture and the Ecolibrium Alternative”, “Metaphysics & Art” (which includes “The ABC’s of Enlightenment”), and of course some classifieds at the end.  The part that I’m interested in sharing here is related to the very last inside page. You see, Zendik Farm also produces their own music, and therefore fabricates their own musicultural experiences.

Of their music, the zeen says:

“The lyrix actually promote thought, rather than escape. Best of all we’ve been producing our own sounds, in our own recording studio, totally independent of the music industry. So you get pure musik, not commercial garbage.”

There have been several albums produced at the farm, and you can purchase four of them on the Zendik Farm website. Several of them incorporate the sounds of world fusion as well as grounded folk styles, and experimental works.  The two founders, Wulf  (d. 1999) & Arol, have very different musical styles.  Arols’ music is very vocal, earthy, and gutteral. Wulfs’ music tends to slant toward tone-poems and/or spoken word, often with instrumental accompaniment. On the album I’ve been given, all of the instruments are homemade on the farm.

Wulf himself created two string guitar-like hybrids: the Itar, and the Bassura. I could not find any further information on these two instruments, but would love to learn more.  Listen to a few minutes of Wulf performing “Ancient in My Eyes”:

By the way, as you may have guessed by now, Zendik Farm is the home of “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” It turns out they changed locations a few times throughout the years, finally landing in West Virginia to be close to Washington D.C…. to sell their t-shirts & bumper stickers.  Here’s a GREAT STORY about a reporter who visited the farm.

Do you have three more minutes to waste? Check out this short video on the history of Zendik:

If you’re super curious about the Farm itself, an ex-Zendik has created quite a FAQ to give you the details of farm life: check out the FAQ. Note that the woman who created the FAQ is slightly bitter and likens it to a cult (after 5 years of living on the farm)…  but at the end of the day, if anything,  it’s certainly sparks my musical interest.