- My NYPL
Tools and Services
- Using the Library
I am a...
- Classes & Events
- Support the Library
African Americans in Early American sheet music
What was the view of African Americans as reflected in early American music? Most histories of American music begin in the mid-19th century with minstrelsy or folk music (the Wikipedia entry is typical, beginning around 1850). It’s rare for studies on African American music to go back earlier, in part because there is so little.
But there is some.
In making more of our collections accessible online, I recently I scanned the card file for our AM1 collection (called "A M one"). This collection contains about 5,500 items of early American sheet music from about 1769 through about 1830, including many unique and rare items. Once I had completed the scanning, I began to do keyword searches in ways that had not been previously possible. Lo and behold, I found some examples of music that dealt with African Americans—appropriate for Black History Month.
When we use the term “African American” today we generally mean Americans of African descent, or recent immigrants from Africa. But when dealing with this music from two centuries ago, we need to take a broader understanding of the idiom “African American.” Many of these songs were first written, performed, and published in England, and then brought over to the colonies that became the United States where the dissemination process was repeated. With no change of text, what were conceived of as “African Englishmen” become “African Americans” by virtue of how the audience would have understood it. Further, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the individuals portrayed in these songs (usually referred to as Negros) are born in Africa, or are descendants of those born in Africa. One can see this as an early example of willful ignorance between those forcibly taken from Africa and their descendants. (For context, it is helpful to know that the British Abolition movement was already taking root in the 1760s; slave trade in England ceased in 1807, followed by the ending of slavery there in 1833.) So in this blog entry readers needs to keep their definitions fluid: "African Americans" could mean Africans, Africans in England or America, or their descendents.
It is interesting to see that a majority of these songs are theatrical—they first appeared in plays with music (the historic equivalent of today's musicals). So the image of Africans in these songs is tied up with actual stage portrayals. (At the time, virtually all African or African American characters were portrayed by white persons in blackface, long before the idea of “blackface” became generally acknowledged).
According to Harry Dichter and Elliott Shapiro’s Early American Sheet Music: Its Lure and Its Lore, 1768-1889:
Songs and music associated with the Negro and published in America before 1820 are extremely rare. The earliest mention of a Negro song being done in character is “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life am I Led” sung by Lewis Hallam the younger in Bickerstaff’s The Padlock on May 29, 1769 at the theatre in John Street, New York.
We don’t have American sheet music for “Dear Heart.” But since this play was originally written in England, a quick search of our catalog revealed that we have a score and libretto for the work as originally produced and published in London in 1768 with music by Charles Dibdin (1745-1814).
The play involves a man who seeks to date a woman, but her father is against the union. To characterize this obstinate father, playwright Isaac Bickerstaff introduces Mungo, an African slave to the woman’s father. (Mungo was first portrayed by composer Dibdin in blackface.) Mungo wearies of life under this master. His initial song expresses the difficulty of his situation:
what a terrible life I am led.
A dog has a better
that’s shelter’d and fed.
Night and day ‘tis the same
My pain is their game.
I wish to my heart I was dead.
(The song continues; several online versions of the libretto can be found in our online resource Eighteenth Century Collections Online, available through our Catalog at any branch of The New York Public Library.)
Unlike the derogatory stereotyped characterizations found later in the 19th century, Bickerstaff’s portrayal of an African man is sympathetic, showing how he struggles in servitude to an unpleasant master. Later in the play, once the master has been tricked and his daughter and suitor are united, Mungo has a joyous song. I can’t find evidence this song was issued in sheet music, but nevertheless it is one of the earliest representations of an African man in a happy mood on stage in Britain and America:
Let me when my heart a sinking
hear the sweet guitar a clinking
When de string peak
such musick he make
I soon am cur’d of thinking.
For a finale, the young man and woman, together with Mungo and another character sing a quartet that provides a happy conclusion to the play.
The “comic opera” Inkle and Yarico (libretto by George Colman and music by Samuel Arnold) was first seen in London in 1787, later travelling to New York in 1789 and Philadelphia in 1790. The plot of this work was challenging: Stranded on an island, Inkle, a white man, has an affair with the native woman Yarico. When he tries to abandon her, she presents their child to all assembled, forcing him to recognize and acknowledge their relationship. In the libretti that I checked I could not find a role for, or a reference to Negros or African Americans. But the song "The Negro Boy," apparently sung by Inkle, was clearly part of the work before and after it arrived in America, and was issued in sheet music format. Our copy was issued in Philadelphia:
When thirst of Gold enslaves the mind
and selfish views alone bear sway
Man turns a savage to his kink
and blood and rapine mark his way
alas for this poor simple toy
I sold a guiltless Negro boy.
The song continues with 3 additional verses, the last of which is here:
May he who walks upon the wind
Whose voice in thunder heard on high
Who doth the raging tempest bind
And wings the lightning thro the sky
Forgive the wretch that for a toy
Could sell a helpless Negro boy.
How fascinating to see this sophisticated understanding of slavery written before 1800. In this song, Inkle uses the sale of an African boy to admit and acknowledge his guilt and remorse for having done such an inhuman act.
The song “Poor Black Boy,” also came from a theatrical work, “a musical farce” called The Prize written by Prince Hoare with music by Stephen Storace (who had been an acquaintance of Mozart while living in Vienna in the 1780s). First produced in London in 1793, the following year the song was published as sheet music in Philadelphia:
In this play, Juba is a young slave to Heartwell. The online libretti for The Prize (again, available in any branch of The New York Public Library through Eighteenth Century Collections Online) contain only two verses for "Poor Black Boy," while the American sheet music from our AM1 collection contains three verses (with a few differences in text for the first and second verse):
Your care of money ah care no more
no tink if you be rich or poor
my mind employ
Me stay wid you, no sorry no
and where away my Massa go
go “poor Black Boy.”
You good to me dat keepy here
No Massa dat you never fear
Long time destroy
Me know death kill but leave one part
He never kill de loving heart
Of “Poor Black Boy.”
Me sigh with you when you be sad
And when you merry much and glad
Me share your joy
For do my face be darky hue
Theres still a faithful soul and true
In “Poor Black Boy.”
This is the opening song sung in The Prize and immediately establishes Juba and his master Heartwell as sympathetic characters. Using dialect (which a number of scholars have told me is a significant aspect to the portrayal of African Americans), this song paints a more nuanced character of a servant or slave—a far cry from the one-dimensional characters one sees after the rise of minstrelsy in mid-century. Here, the slave has a life and has feelings; even though he is dependent on the master, he is also concerned for both of their well-being.
These are just three examples from our AM1 and regular collections, all dating from before 1800. It is interesting to see that a majority of these songs are theatrical—they first appeared in the historic equivalent of musicals or comic operas. So the portrayal of Africans in these songs is tied up with actual stage portrayals.
The pattern that emerges from these songs portrays African Americans as people to be pitied. Perhaps because these are songs, a number of the texts illustrate African Americans taking particular joy in music—a notion that was to become a strong and eventually a crude stereotype throughout American history.
In the future I hope to illustrate several more songs from the early part of the 19th century, all taken from our rich AM1 collection.