by Christopher J. Smith. University of Illinois Press, September 2013. 352 p. ill. ISBN 9780252037764 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed May 2014
Christopher Smith’s The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy is heavily dependent on extensive archival research, and it is a pleasure to read a work grounded in primary sources. The author, likewise, is very intentional and transparent about his methodologies, grouping all the secondary literature into appendix sections that detail past scholarship on musicology, reception studies, semiotics, and performance. These overview summaries will be invaluable to researchers.
Part of the University of Illinois Press’s longstanding Music in American Life series, this title aims to broaden the historical views of black-white musical exchange. The author explains how Anglo-Celtic and African American music and dance expression “has added to the gumbo of our expressive arts” (p. 216). The study of minstrel music and blackface entertainers has had, according to Smith, two previous stages: one a foundation of work trying to rehabilitate minstrelsy, and the second, a collection of scholarship that identifies the experimental transformative space created on the stages of blackface theaters. This book claims to provide a third stage, which attempts to recover the sound of the minstrels’ music, using a variety of observations, and to understand the impact of movement vocabulary and the participatory experience of blackface dance. From the multiracial, working-class wharves, decks, and streets, the idiom rose to the stage and became visible to a middle-class audience. A large portion of the book is devoted to demonstrating the process of cultural exchange, called creole synthesis, and to providing a wider contextualization, both geographical and historical, than previously examined.
Smith uses the paintings and drawings of the artist, William Sidney Mount, to promote their musicological significance and unpack what these works reveal about the Afro-Celtic creole synthesis in United States popular music and culture. Those expecting traditional art history may be disappointed, but scholars who welcome this multidisciplinary approach through the prism of creole synthesis will be richly rewarded. Mount’s four portraits of dance musicians, Just in Tune (1849), Right and Left (1807-1868), The Banjo Player (1856), and The Bone Player (1807-1868) are expertly analyzed. They feature three of the minstrelsy’s four canonic instruments, fiddle, banjo, and bones (omitting tambourine). Smith also spends time examining Mount’s dance schemes and his extensive series of life sketches, with their meticulous attention to the visual details of instruments and performance practice.
Scholarly apparatus includes extensive notes, an index, and the appendix sections on blackface scholarship mentioned above. Additional illustrations would have been welcome, but the quality of those provided were quite good. Recommended for any research level library.