The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT


By Prasanta Chakravarty

Minstrelsy is a realm where poetry is distressed.

We do not know whether or how to accommodate song-making and listening within literature. Even if we were to consider songs and skits and vaudevilles as literature, these forms would cut across established categories of literary genre – including metrical romances, historical novels, and national sagas.

But the hard fact is that literature hesitates to clearly define the realm of lays and songs. It does not tell us how to appreciate or critique the art of song-making or listening. The vocation of itinerant singing lies particularly in a vexed position, generically speaking. The generic problem arises out of our overwhelming reliance on the visual and the legible. Appreciation and effect of itinerant singing and other bardic overtures depend on our sonic training and our capacity to read successfully the codes of performance (which are often improvisations in case of the minstrels) – that is to say, depend on our kinesthetic agilities. But we have gradually eroded our capacities to appreciate the sonic and the gestural. Culture is largely visual. And our literature departments do not indulge in training our ears and skin at all.

The generic misgiving about itinerant singing within the structures of the literary is but the first obstacle in appreciating the vocation and artistic practice of the minstrels. There are two other powerful internal and unuttered prejudices constantly working against the vocation of itinerant singing and song-making. One is the romantic hesitation in considering minstrelsy as true art: the former gives disproportionate importance to interiority, solitude, and calm recollection of restive emotions. The other critique is social, which often conversely traces among the minstrels an inclination to champion antiquarian sensibilities and therefore, finds it insufficiently open to the dialectical movements of history. Both these criticisms are partial and misplaced.

Let me add right at this point that I will be using the word minstrel as an umbrella term for minstrels, bards, improvvisatori, and infrequently troubadours. In the Indian subcontinent, such a class of artists usually appears under the rubrics of chaaran/bhaat kavi /wandering shahajiya fakirs – and many cognates, representatives of a cultural terrain that I shall not take into account in the present essay. But the conceptual issues may well be relevant to such subcontinental forms as well.

Sound First

Minstrelsy rains. One tunes into its patter. It evokes rather than expresses poesie. If I were to cloak these metaphors in a more technical habit in order to describe the mode of this particular art-form, I would take mild liberty and slightly twist Celeste Langan’s evocative phrase and call the experience audiomascular hallucination.

Minstrelsy is a time-worn vocation. The second Chester play, dealing with the creation and fall of man, has five indications of minstrelsy. The author has enjoined the Smiths to “get mynstrilles to that shewe, pipe, tabarte and flute” and it seems that the wind instruments were the frequent choice of the minstrels at the time. The simplest of the wind instruments is the gift of one of the Chester Shepherd boys to the Christ Child. He gives his pipe, the music of which could make the “wood . . . ring/and quiver.” The citharists, who were the angels, would probably have played an intabulation of some liturgical piece. Indeed, harps, soft-sounding strings and horns are played by minstrels because of their association with God and heaven. The portability of minstrels’ instruments would allow them a certain freedom of movement.

Whether the semiotic is constitutive of the auditory or whether these two are antithetical registers is an open question, but one thing is clear: that the mnemonic spell of language’s exterior ‘music’ paradoxically requires a certain impoverishment of other senses, so that one can immerse in the willful hallucinatory realm that the full presence of minstrelsy and/or storytelling demands from us.

Breath. Movement. Sound. Every relay between them is an intricate gesture that joyfully receives the vocal register. A vocal spasm actually, which gets dispersed. Every fragment is carefully woven, as the minstrel takes stage or passes by the street corner. The minstrel’s persona is an agency in space. The minstrel sets the tale in res medias, within the comedy or tragedy of the moment. The narrative moves, first linear and then digresses to another sub-tale and then meanders back. The voice seems a distorted transmission of the phonic. All the time, the body of the minstrel keeps creating a new space as it experiments with the presentness of the voice. The minstrel’s body is supplying the music, as it were. Assemblages of the movement begin and we are sucked in. The minstrel keeps on navigating the multifarious relationship between bodies and their voices. Foremost: he is the choreographer of sonorous voice.

Minstrelsy illuminates how voice and sound are relayed to the spectator-listeners through movement functioning as memory. The chaotic and the ephemeral of the sonic are relayed through the narrative that the minstrel spins. A theatre of memory is summoned and serialized. Minstrelsy therefore is a kind of inscription, one that preserves the memory of the performing body “through the ‘notation’ or a mapping of the body’s journey.” Speech is alive. Body animate. The text itself becomes music. In and through this process, the spectator relearns the relationship between memory and imagination. But the voices that consume the space are present here – in this instant, in front of the audience. Every player must pass through history, including the audience.

The art of minstrelsy demonstrates that the “rubbing, writhing, breathing, speaking body is capable of a sonic intervention” in evoking gestures and feelings that are public and social. The presentness of the tale is an echo of the past – and the mode is refracted only in telling the tale. We, the spectator-listeners, assemble the past and reconstruct our various presents. A glimmer of gesture, a staggered sonic impression is recorded – in a mesmerized flutter. The audience experiences “a spectacular syncope, a rebellion of ecstasy.”

Kinetic memory is the crucial aspect in the act of minstrelsy – the act of remembering movement within our stories through our bodies. Choreographic minstrelsy attempts to reassemble the body to show the many effects it has on the voice. Echoes reverberate until the minstrel turns silent. A narration is over. The minstrel is kneeling, leaning, silent. The audience experiences silence as moment of sonic continuity. May be the rustle of his cloth can be faintly heard! And then a breath stands still. Then another. Then yet another.

Brian Massumi suggests that sensation is “poising for more.” It is an “augmentation”, he says. Massumi proposes that through experiencing of sensation the body’s perceptive non-active state becomes mobilized. Minstrelsy allows us this possibility. Sound is acting on my consciousness, and my body in turn is acting sound. The minstrel mediates this process. The spectator-listener is an active agent: the risk of watching/feeling a minstrel sing is to share the responsibility of re-membering the body and its poetic temporality; to open the body up to being as present as the performers.

Tolkein’s middle earth interventions, for instance, always remind us that we are reading songs, that memory and mortality are steeped in music. We partake in the Elvish craft of enchantment in his works. We are told of “walking-songs and supper-songs, adventure songs and bath-songs” and instead of laments, we have inverted elegies: no longer lamenting the losses of the past, but concerned with preserving the record of present events for future generations by means of heroizing loss. Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft puts in The Philosophy of Tolkien that: “Music is not ornamented poetry, and poetry is not ornamented prose. Poetry is fallen music, and prose is fallen poetry.” This minstrel had been inside music. His works are, consequently, often amalgamations of spittle, blood, and honey. The Rohirrim sing and chant using an alliterative verse structure which is strikingly similar to that found in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon and to much of the surviving Old English enunciatory poetry. And like the Mercians, the Rohirrim were also known to give their music another voice through the winding of their horns before battle.

Literature turns into an ancient commemorative action in minstrelsy. The dead and the gone always live. But such revivals are also deeply mediated through cultural tools. The scop-songster’s function is not only to tell dexterous stories or repeat ancient tales: he also determines whose stories will be told. It is necessary, therefore, for warriors to accomplish something significant enough to be worthy of a song: it was their best hope for immortality! Songs and stories were never bifurcated before the advent of print. Therefore, Hobbits sing of home and comfort; Dwarves sing of treasure and giant cities under mountains; and Elves, temptingly, sing of loss and memory.

Of course there is no question of ignoring the material conditions from which minstrelsy originates. To delve into the hidden history of the street singers is a fascinating endeavour. The adage: ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ does have an element of truth in it. Right from the medieval period, “minstrels were employed to entertain the court, the nobility, or, to a lesser extent, those holding high office in the Church, such as abbots and bishops. While this offered some financial security, there was never any question of their being more than a hired entertainer, and they were classed with the household retainers.” So, the questions of labour and misery were always integral to the life of a minstrel, as also were the questions of gaining patronage and security. Balladeers and songsters are often pitched between their heroic ideals and plain beggary. For a living. And yet, sound and singing are always central to such lives.

In our times no one understood the contemporary loss in receiving information rather than listening to archaic tales better than Walter Benjamin. He goes back to Herodotus and realizes that it is not just a timeworn romanticization of oral tradition that brings minstrels and storytellers together but an insistence on the ‘narrative amplitude’ of the stories. Real stories and tales and issues of the heroic and that of mortality are all rooted in time and place. Sound travels and the raconteur must be an unrivalled listener too, one who imbibes tales “rooted in counsel, boredom, labour and death.” He shares what has been passed along. He allows “the wick of his life to be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.” 

The Pen and the Harp


William Hazlitt, in his Lectures on the Living Poets, delivered in 1818, notes the following about Walter Scott’s writings: “There is a modern air in the midst of the antiquarian research of Mr. Scott’s poetry. It is history or tradition in masquerade. Not only the crust of old words and images is worn off with time, – the substance is grown comparatively light and worthless. The forms are old and uncouth, but the spirit is effeminate and frivolous. This is a deduction from the praise I have given to his pencil for extreme fidelity, though it has been no obstacle to its drawing-room success. He has just hit the town between the romantic and the fashionable; and between the two, secured all classes of readers on his side. In a word, I conceive that he is to the great poet, what an excellent mimic is to a great actor.”

Here is where Hazlitt is coming from: he is baring his anxiety about the central solipsistic idea of romantic subjectivity, that there is an authentic interior core of the creative mind, which antiquarians like Scott are not respecting (the hapless English soldier facing Bonnie Dundee and the Highlanders at Killiecrankie, metaphors that Scott had made a rage). In other words, there is more of mimesis and art rather than expressive qualities in the very vocation of minstrelsy. This charge of masquerading and mimicry, levied against the minstrels, is a trans-historical issue with the trade that the likes of Hazlitt shall keep on entertaining: if minstrels are seen as the first performance poets, minstrelling discourse constantly poses the problem of what cultural work a modern poet might continue to perform if he is supposed to be simultaneously presenting us with an authentic voice of his times and making his art and his mind perfectly coterminous. Minstrel writing uses the idea of the minstrel to take the author’s mantle and even some of the author’s attributes, but that portrayal maintains a distinction between the minstrel and the author. More often than not, the minstrel is only one of the multiple authorial personae in a piece of minstrel writing, In fact, the minstrel develops by contrast to the modern idea of narrators that claims to represent other resonances of the authorial voice. Conversely, these personae are recognizably different voices that collectively seem to speak as the author.

Minstrelsy directly takes on all ideas of romantic lyricism – the harp pitted against the pen, so to say. Minstrelsy is often associated with social activity in romantic imagination, away from the main argument and thread of a literary-artistic piece. So, Eric Simpson rightly points out that Coleridge’s ancient mariner “…prevents the wedding-guest he encounters from entering a wedding celebration featuring ‘merry Minstralsy’ and  Wordsworth in The White Doe of Rylstone sends characters into the ‘din of arms and minstrelsy,’ but the poem does not follow them.” The minstrel’s existence depends on public interaction/performance, which further depends on his acquaintance with the economic and political issues of the day. For the high romantics, on the other hand, best poetry is composed from a contemplative position. The projected poet’s creations are not dependent on stories or tradition or some old song, but on his capacity to furnish reality from his own mind. This is precisely the point that John Stuart Mill had emphasized when he made a distinction between narration and so called poetry proper. Poetry proper is something to be overheard – a glimpse of the auratic interiority of the poetic persona and the suggestibility of the poesie itself is what one must seek, Mill had pronounced. It is not supposed to be the heard mode (Mill’s eloquence) – something that the interactive minstrels must indulge in, for with a live audience minstrelsy is always a simultaneous act in inspiration, performance, and reception.

The minstrel must be responsive or rhetorically persuasive. One of the ways by which minstrelsy is relegated to a secondary status is by highlighting the fact that the minstrel collects songs from the cultural pool instead of composing those songs (from Plato’s Ion through Dylan to Gour Khyapa, many have suffered owing to this modern preoccupation). This notion has been paradoxically strengthened by some revivalists of the minstrel tradition. Macpherson’s Ossian, for instance, virtually reworked the very idea of para-texts: the author annotating his own creative work. Ossianic poetry itself was a deliberately ambiguous prototype in this regard, since it never claimed to be the original. It was rather the newest venture in a recognized line of annotated literary inheritances. Macpherson’s work and the accusations of his critics raised the possibility that he had created a powerful self-annotated imaginative work. Bishop Percy’s The Hermit of Warkworth then did explicitly what the Ossianic poems had done by flouting modern literary expectations. Percy surrounds an original work, though one in the style of older work, with scholarly annotations by the avowed author. The charge against such kinds of collected minstrelsy is that of a derivative art. But how does one decide originality in the first place, especially when the sonic-scape is not all related to any visual claim of semiotic authenticity as against the collective or the communal fund of performative wherewithal? In fact, it is probably clear by now that such charges are directly related to the romantic-modern assumption of valourizing the ‘originality’ and ‘uniqueness’ of the creative author. The motivations of erecting a legal entity called author is of course economic as well as aesthetic. That most cultures have often worked with no fixed idea of authorship or that creative collaboration has always been an effective way of composing is deliberately elided.

Minstrel performances and writings necessarily rely on an idea of artistry by placing the minstrel within the kinesthetic impulses of the social ambience. Commitment for the minstrel hovers fundamentally around three coordinates: (a) interactions with the fellow performers, which includes the purported audience; (b) an ideological adherence to live performances; and (c) the preservation of a repertoire of ‘standard’ songs/prophecies/riddles/skits/burlesques that may or may not be authenticated by any original composition.

The suspended space of minstrelsy actually lies between historical narration and antiquarian display. Chronology gets hitched to typology in the best of minstrel acts. Contemporary imitations of ballads are a good case in point, which lay bare to us this desire to mediate on the part of the minstrel. Ballads essentially rely on the fact of ‘truth content’ of ancient tales – that is to say, that on one hand we get a sense that ballads are relating us narrate-worthy events. Actual events. Or if there are some poetic exaggerations, still ballads indeed have some historical foundation – that is an implicit compact with the listener of the ballad that the minstrel undertakes. On the other hand, there is no ballad without an element of the ‘marvelous’ and the fictive imbued within it, taking the whole tradition prior to history; into a hazy, pre-discursive zone. Therefore, ballads are always eclectic, owing to this antiquarian coordinate. Some form of chronotropical code connects narrative history to the romance of minstrelsy. Always. Every perceptive receptor of minstrelsy appreciates the oxymoron that the chronicle is actually obsolete and ruined. The success of minstrelsy depends on achieving this mean, this density (this job is what the editor-self in the minstrel does), something that eludes the phenomenologist or the more dualist romantic critic of the mode. The minstrel is the last of the bards, and as such, he allegorizes history itself. The mode is an ironic key – wit and metrics, therefore, are always encoded tropes in a lay. One sees this key working in Scott and Beattie. But also in Byron: who developed a poetic form capable of processing news and wars and treaties and journeys understood as erotic history-in-the-making. If minstrelsy is beholden to history it must be a kind of ‘naïve history,’ to invoke Schiller. 

From the Harp to the Banjo

blackface mintrelsy

Nowhere is this oscillation between impersonation and curation, ventriloquization and conservation more evident than in the songs and jokes, sheet music and burlesque, encountered in nineteenth century form of white popular entertainment called blackface minstrelsy, and its re-appropriation through acts of spiritual activism – especially encountered in the writings and speeches of W.E.B. Du Bois. It is in such a form of entertainment that we see the contestations and appropriations of story-telling and singing, nuggets of antiquarian exchanges deployed for political purposes, refracting certain social anxieties. It is here that we see, in the words of Rachel Sussman, an initial carnivalization of race and then reversal of it through social and spiritual re-appropriation by the blacks. Put simply: blackface minstrelsy often featured a group of white men wearing a mask of black paint, or blackface, who used the music and other cultural traditions of black Americans to amuse a white or sometimes interracial audience. On stage, white performers sometimes played the idealized southern American black slave, drawing on common societal stereotypes of amiable stupidity among southern blacks, or sometimes played the northern black city-dweller, considered, according to the stereotypes of the times, to be a foolish dandy. Often this would spill over to the portrayal of the blacks as buffoons, “with their ludicrous dialects, grotesque make-up, bizarre behavior and simplistic caricatures.” These stock characters set up a lively environment, giving the minstrels opportunity to humorously weave political and social criticisms (mostly conservative) into the performances.” Ralph Ellison has correctly diagnosed that such a form of minstrelsy was an attempt by white America “…to resolve the dilemma arising between his democratic beliefs and certain antidemocratic practices, between his acceptance of the sacred democratic belief that all men are created equal and his treatment of every tenth man as though he were not.” Minstrelsy became a way for the white American to displace race, by an act of bypassing and placing slavery itself on the minstrel stage.

The Negro as an evolutionary being and negritude itself as a creaturely act of curiosity within the heart of whiteness had to be caricatured through mimicry. It was clearly born out of an anxiety to mirror blackness in white imagination. Northern audiences were particularly fascinated by the authenticity claims of such mimicry. The spectators looked for the authentic plantation life in the performances. Slavery itself was made to be natural and amusing. Besides, minstrelsy became a massive travelling spectacle. For instance, in 1895, a large scale minstrel show with black performers, called ‘Black America,’ was organized in Brooklyn, New York. It was staged in a constructed ‘Negro Village,’ with hen yards, hay wagons, mules, chickens and over 500 black performers. The audience was enticed to believe in the authenticity of their surroundings and the spontaneity of the show. White viewers perceived this extravaganza as an anthropological exhibition of black culture rather than the scripted performance that it was. Much depended on the scripted accuracy of the exhibition. That was the minstrels’ task to achieve. Clearly, we witness a remarkable usage of minstrel performative tradition for social engineering purposes. It is a distinct use of minstrelsy to mollify the conservative working class psyche: the content of the minstrel shows were obviously targeted to the white working class man. The blackface mask was both a liberating agent, which would help evade responsibility for the content of the performance and a means of establishing the black man as a lesser form of creation than the white working class man. Identity was invoked in order to displace the questions of labour. Women’s rights issues were severely lampooned.

The social ideas of race and gender were not the only questions. Deep down, strong messages against intellect itself were put forth so that minstrelsy turned into a timeless performative form that could be sharply deployed in order to extract reactionary political dividends. It was a competition within immigrants that such a form of entertainment exploited. Nathaniel Mackey powerfully argues that the content of minstrelsy reflected an immigrant insecurity towards language: “Minstrelsy reveals the ambivalent, duplicitous relationship of nineteenth century white Americans not only to black people but to music and language as well…This took the form of the stump speech and its malapropisms, the heavy reliance upon word play and puns in minstrel humor.”

The legacies live on. In morphed fashion. In fact, this form of the minstrel show was the predecessor to a certain kind of Broadway musical, and minstrel songs, such as Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh! Suzanna’, still remain firm in the American collective memory. After all, one should not forget that “before it became the anthem of the white Confederacy, that characteristic example of Southern home-sickness expressed in music: ‘Dixie,’ had been a minstrel song.” Spike Lee, in Bamboozled, takes on the present state of black entertainment with an exaggerated comparison to the original acts of blackface minstrels. The movie unearths America’s fascination with a contemporary television show, ‘Mantan the New Millennium Minstrel Show,’ a satirical attempt by a television writer to condemn white America’s taste for unrealistic black sitcoms. The spectacle of the blackface minstrel show seems to be invoking an eternal fascination and provocation at the same time.

So this act of theft, this vile tradition and its legacies, is what W.E.B. Du Bois seeks to overturn. He does that by removing the minstrel mask, taking back from the blackface theatre the typical art form of his race. The mask is a veil for Du Bois. He constantly communicates to the young black artist of his heritage that has been usurped by his tormentors.

black m 2

How did Du Bois conduct his process of re-appropriation? First he understood a deceptively simple fact: that although the blackface minstrel acts were a caricature and uncredited appropriation of the worst forms of black or Chinese or Jewish stereotypes, the minstrels did borrow heavily from black culture. They “used Afro-American dances and dance-steps, reproduced individual Negro’s songs and ‘routines’ intact, absorbed Afro-American syncopated rhythms into their music, and employed characteristically Afro-American folk elements and forms.” This could happen because black informants abdicated and supplied bits and pieces of their culture to the white minstrels. Besides, grotesques would allow the black person, as they did the white, the assurance that the foolishness on stage was not him. Between the blackface minstrel and his white audience, there hung a veil of misunderstanding and make-believe. The black partially and selectively silenced and the whites paying to witness a cherished fantasy made fleetingly existent. As the members of the white audience walked out of the shows, they expected and even demanded that the minstrel play continues among the blacks they met in the backstreets and alleyways.

Du Bois understood this communicative impasse (the reason for the color line to exist in the first place) and conversely, the power of communicative gesture. Hence, in Criteria of Negro Art he writes: “I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped.” He sought deeper recesses and the struggle of the greater souls. So, he began to focus on each chapter of his pioneering book on a distinct aspect of black life. In this manner, he tried to show that “the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts.” Although they do not yet know it, whites have much to gain from black culture, black lives, he argued. Both sides must get into the depths of the inner workings and political power of performativity rather than caricature it. Non-communication will be a tremendously wasted opportunity.

So, in the section called ‘Of the Passing of the First Born’, the narrative voice who is consoled by the thought that his dead son will not grow up “choked and deformed within the Veil” “a man robbed of his vitality and jealous of his son for dying.” What he has been made to feel as a result of his skin color has left him only with a death-wish. The veil is a compressed metaphor for the color line. Du Bois “links his image of the veil to the symbol of an ongoing slavery and at the same time he jots down the groan and lament of the prisoned souls within the veil, and the mounting fury of shackles.”

De Bois knew very well that the songs were based often on slave music, but he also appreciated their power. So he says: “Away back in the thirties the melody of these slave songs stirred the nation, but the songs were soon half forgotten. Some, like ‘Near the lake where drooped the willow,’ passed into current airs and their source was forgotten; others were caricatured on the ‘minstrel’ stage and their memory died away.” He underscores the popularity and staying power of the many striking songs that minstrelsy produced and caricatured. He tried to overturn the process by reworking and stressing the original power of those songs and performances. In this manner, he gives back to minstrelsy its very spiritual roots, and deploys those toward historical corrective measures. This astute maneuver voids the blackface minstrel fantasy.

But it is not just about re-appropriation as an argument that interests Du Bois. He sings that process himself as a minstrel. The recovery of the ‘Sorrow Songs’ is that act in The Souls of Black Folk. Those bars of music at the head of each chapter are like mute epigraphs. We are like illiterate and dispossessed slaves who do not realize the tone and meaning of those bars and notations until the final chapter when we learn the names of the songs to which these bars of music belong, and their lyrics too. It is a deliberate move by Du Bois. He knew the full existential nature and power of sorrow, which is not a private emotion at all, but a common fate: “When the spirituals were removed from the original setting of the plantation or the Negro Church and sung by persons who had not directly experienced slavery, these songs no longer served their primary function. Concert singers could present to the public only an approximation of how the spirituals had been sung by the slaves.”

By the end of the book, the white reader has been introduced to the life behind the veil. Ideally. If Du Bois’s aim has been attained, the reader/listener will know that black folk possess souls as intricate and deep as his own. If not prepared in this manner, the white reader/listener might disregard these slave songs as minstrel inanity. As we now see, The Souls of Black Folk is actually structured to enable such a purported reader to welcome these songs as the acts and antics of a performer and minstrel.

Minstrelsy: this distressed mode of existence is forever obsolete, forever wandering. But all the time, it must confront its historical predicament. Otherwise, it turns into an interior or timeless mode of fiction which by definition it is not. And the mediation can only be made through a collective sense of structural kinesthesia in a milieu in which the minstrel operates.

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Benjamin, Walter. The Storyteller, Tales of Loneliness. London: Verso, 2016

–‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov’ in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Prasanta Chakravarty edits and teaches English in the University of Delhi.


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