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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p133  Interlude:
Doo‑Dah Day

On April 27, '46, the Virginia Minstrels of Edwin P. Christy played in New York for the first time, at Palmo's Opera House. The date will do as well as any to fix a fact: that American drama had matured its first native form. For at least four years now such companies as Christy's, or the Kentucky Minstrels, the Congo Melodists, White's Serenaders, the Sable Harmonizers, Campbell's Minstrels, with such artists as Daddy Rice, Dan Emmett, Cool White, Master Juba, Dan Bryant, had been appearing in the full-length, standardized variety performance in blackface known as the minstrel show. It was already universally popular and its popularity was to increase for nearly a half century and to decline only slightly before the twentieth century was well along.

The minstrel show was a specie of vaudeville, a succession of gags, dances, and songs, interspersed with acrobatics, dramatic sketches, and what are now known as blackouts. It rested solidly on the awesome convention of the stage Negro and developed out of a full quarter century's elaboration of that caricature. Already such songs as "Jump Jim Crow," "Ol' Dan Tucker," and "Such a Gittin' Upstairs," from that convention, had impressed themselves permanently on the national memory. They in turn had come — a rather long way — out of the genuine singing of uncaricatured Negroes, who also contributed to democracy's new art form a rich variety of dances and songs — levee songs, work songs, jubilee​1 — all of them turned to caricature by the minstrels. But many other kinds of music went into this flowering. "The Sacred Harp," just now being printed for the first time, contributed its characteristic melodies and harmonies. The kind of fiddling called folk music, such as fox‑hunting keens, "The Arkansas Traveler," and "Frog Went a-Courting," was incorporated, and any tune detective can untangle innumerable airs from the balladry which we still know in "Springfield Mountain," "Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane," "She'll Be Coming' Round the Mountain," "Weevily Wheat," "Rosin the Bow," and a thousand others. Moreover the lush pathos from England, where the Queen's taste was refining sentiment, was breaking over us in a great wave at this very hour, and, joined to  p134 the music of acrobatic trills and cadenzas typified by Ole Bull, found welcome and transposition on the minstrel stage. The world's most musical people had a sudden focus for their music.2

A Tin Pan Alley had arisen to give the minstrels songs, and the best of the songsmiths was only two years away from the beginning of his service to Christy and the others. In March of '46 a twenty-year‑old Pittsburgh youth failed of appointment to West Point, and so at the end of the year he went to keep books in his brother's commission house at Cincinnati. He took with him the manuscripts of three songs, all apparently written in this year, all compact of the minstrel-nigger tradition. One celebrates a lubly cullud gal, Lou'siana Belle. In another an old nigger has no wool on the top of his head in the place whar de wool ought to grow, and you heard your grandfather, as your children's grandchildren will hear theirs, telling the chorus to lay down de shubble and de hoe for poor old Ned has gone whar de good niggers go. And in the third American pioneering was to find its leitmotif for all time: it was "Oh Susanna!"

Stephen Collins Foster himself need not occupy us very long. He was different from fifty contemporaries, and his songs were different from theirs, only in that the obscure chemistry of genius concentrated an era and a society in him. He was as Bohemian as Edgar Poe, Fitz-James O'Brien, Mayne Reid, or the first period of Walt Whitman. He took no thought of the morrow, could not make a marriage work, lived precariously, accepted the tinsel of the cheapest theater, came to the proper end of pathetic artists — and said perfectly what his people felt. wrote well over two hundred songs, most of them quite dead now. He took what pleased him, from his friends if research was too troublesome. He repeated himself and his rivals monotonously. And the difference between him and everyone else was that he made a final music. A hundred years after him you need only play the opening bars of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "The Old Folks at Home" to stir in any American the full nostalgia of things past or to bind any audience, be it naturalized Czechs or the Daughters of the American Revolution, South Carolina Consistory, in the unity of a nation that knows itself. Art is the unpredictable, the miraculous and undefined, but if that be art which a people take most closely to their bosoms and hold there most tenderly and longest, then Stephen Foster is incomparably the greatest American artist.

He dreamed of Jeanie with her light brown hair, floating like a vapor on the soft summer air. The joys of other days oppressed him, he could not sing tonight, and why should the beautiful ever weep, why should the  p135 beautiful die? He supped sorrow with the poor, dreaming of a once happy day, and with the gentle voices gone he had no friend left but in Old Dog Tray. He roamed with gentle Annie mid the bowers but would never hear her winning voice again, the happy dream had passed like a fleeting beam with sweet Laura Lee, and the bell must toll for lubly Nell, his dark Virginny bride. The emotion twists to the period's refined lust and gone are the cares of life's busy throng, beautiful dreamer awaken to me; light is the young heart, so come where my love lies dreaming the happy hours away. It changes to a jig and here is Susanna — de buckwheat cake was in her mouth, de tear was in her eye, and he was off to Alabama with a banjo on his knee. It becomes a cakewalk, the buck and wing, and turnabout and jump Jim Crow — de Camptown race-track five miles long, gwine to run all night, gwine to run all day, he bet his money on the bobtail nag, somebody bet on the bay. But it is surest in that limpid pathos, I cannot work before tomorrow cayse de tear drop flow. Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay, where are the hearts so happy and so free? — I heard those gentle voices calling "Old Black Joe." All de world am sad and dreary, ebrywhere I roam, hard times come again no more, the head must bow and the back will have to bend wherever the darky may go — a few more days till we totter on the road, then for Foster and millions of Americans who have answered with an unmistakable assent to a feeling only started, not expressed, by the music, my old Kentucky home, good-night. He made the Americans members one of another.

* * *

Between the America of the 1840's and the America we belong to a century has built a barrier which can be penetrated only with the greatest difficulty. What is called the modern temper has complexities, ambiguities, and tentatives that the forties did not know. We persuade ourselves that our consciousness is tragic. That may be; certainly the American consciousness of the forties lacked the sense of tragedy. It had achieved only pathetics. But no one will understand the decade in whose mind that assertion is tinctured with reproof or superiority. Where would you find tragedy in, say, American literature of the time? Not in Walt Whitman, not in Hawthorne's exquisitely engraved melancholy, not in the cheap gloom of Edgar Poe. Melville was making toward it through a misunderstood underbrush that was half false, but the event was still to come and would be disfigured when it arrived. Yet the white-robed maiden  p136 who died in gift books, annuals, and the mortuary poems of Mark Twain's aristocrats (whose date is '45) is not to be understood as a grotesque but as a limpidity. What makes her distasteful or even emetic to us is not insincerity or sentimentality in the emotion that lamented her, but a neutral-colored thing that has been added upon us and is called, without value, sophistication. The emotions of the forties were simpler than our own, more limpid, more absolute, and more forthright.

That, at least, is where one man comes out after years of trying to understand these people by way of what they did, what they believed, and what they felt — by way of their literature, their journalism, their religion, their causes, their institutions, their dreads, hopes, pleasures, and ambitions. They were an inchoate people between two stages of the endless American process of becoming a nation, with their heads down and their eyes resolutely closed to the desperate realities which a few years would force them to confront in the deadliest of awakenings. They were a people without unity and with only a spasmodic mutual awareness, at this moment being pulled farther asunder by the centrifugal expansion of the frontier and the equal explosion of the developing industry — both of which would turn back again in the nation-making curve, but not for a long while yet. A people going blithely into a war of conquest whose certain ending few tried to foresee. A people divided by racial differences, sectional cleavages, cultural antipathies, an enormous disparity of assumption, expectation, hope, and philosophy. A people united only by a political system and tradition which were nearing the deadly test, by habits of democratic association — and by a common readiness and reality of feeling which few took conscious thought of. That commonalty of feeling, in its simplicity, sincerity, and high potential, is the one feasible way Io them. Stephen Foster caught it at dead center — the maiden's grave under the willows, the old times that come again no more, the Camptown races, Susanna's immortal quickstep — the ready regret, the instantaneous and immortal confidence that was bred in the bone and acknowledged if only half realized in a joke. A forthright people, with a readiness of sincere tears and an energy that could be neither measured nor stayed. The way to understand the persons who were about to fight an unpremeditated war and by building new homes in the West push the nation's boundary to the Pacific — is to steep yourself in Stephen Foster's songs.

The Author's Notes:

 (p488)  1 No recognizable jubilee ("spiritual"), I believe, has been dated earlier than 1840. But the jubilee as we know it was a long time developing  (p489) and came out of two centuries of Negro Christianity. It is a complex thing but its principal begetter was the "white spiritual," which in turn developed from camp-meeting songs, and if it shaped much of the singing in minstrel shows, the minstrel song helped to shape the jubilee. Note that the banjo was a Negro invention and became a musical instrument by way of the minstrel show.

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2 Many of the chanties which we cherish developed on the clippers and so date from the 40's. One of the best of them, "Rio Grande," dates from this very year. Note also the Zeitgeist of a still finer one, "Shennydore," which was a chanty before it was an army song: it deals with an Indian chief, his daughter, and a trader who crosses the wide Missouri.

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