Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925

Brian Roberts, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Review by David Gilbert

In 1842 three brothers and their sister began their first singing tour of the Northeast United States. Traveling by carriage, Abby, Judson, John, and Asa Hutchinson carted two violins and a cello between gigs, where they performed Christian numbers, sentimental ballads, and parlor songs for small, but enthusiastic, audiences. Raised in Milford, New Hampshire, a town of 1,500, forty miles from Boston, the siblings were just beginning to make their name as The Hutchinson Family Singers. They found touring quite difficult and unremunerative until they started performing “temperance songs” and other tunes devoted to social reform. “By the time they reached Albany, New York, in August 1842,” Brian Roberts writes, “the singers’ alignment with reform had started to change their fortunes” (p. 155). As they flirted with Quakerism and communalism and became supporters of women’s rights and abolition, the Hutchinsons became darlings of American social reformers and leading promoters of popular culture in northeastern America. The singing family offered a moral, cultural, and class-informed counter to the most popular entertainment of the century—blackface minstrelsy.

The Hutchinsons undergird a fascinating story that, in Roberts’s hands, sheds light on topics as diverse as the circulation of early-American national identity, antebellum popular songs, the Market Revolution, the rise of an American “middle-class,” blackface minstrelsy, abolition and other nineteenth-century reform movements, and the cultural features of white supremacy before and after the Civil War. Figures such as minstrel legends T.D. Rice and Dan Emmett appear alongside Stephen C. Foster, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and lesser-known culture producers such as singer Jenny Lind and the early song-publisher, Nathaniel Coverly. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth show up, as do politicians from every stripe of antebellum life from James C. Calhoun to Abraham Lincoln. Through it all, Roberts demonstrates that popular music, culture, and commercial markets reveal important insights and contradictions into nineteenth-century American race relations and capitalism. He has found lots of evidence.

Roberts demonstrates that commercial music grew in popularity during times of war. His early chapter on the War of 1812 and its correlations with both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Americans soldiers’ reclamation of the notoriously anti-American, British-soldier diss track, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” are especially noteworthy. He also argues that abolition may have been more mainstream than some suggest, and he clearly outlines how abolitionists expanded their influence by embracing popular song. The Hutchinsons are good examples of both points—the singing family’s brand of abolition, Roberts write, “had widespread appeal, broad support, and was impossible to ignore” (p. 216). Roberts draws excellent connections between antebellum reform, abolition, and popular culture, reinterpreting established historical narratives and expanding on stories that have been overlooked. Unfortunately, some of the central themes and arguments of the book—those dealing with minstrelsy, racism, and African-American history—remain underdeveloped and could have been strengthened by more dialogue with current historiography.

In some ways, Roberts offers important analysis of black life during the antebellum era. He emphasizes the sizable free black population and pushes back on scholars who only focus on the experience of slaves and ignore the free black experience. He divulges excellent primary sources on the early years of minstrelsy and writes nice sections on T.D. Rice, Stephen Foster, and Joel Chandler Harris. But far too often, Roberts seems to be reinventing a number of analytical wheels, ones that have seen watershed studies in the last twenty-five to thirty years. Relying on older literature, Roberts suggests that Lawrence Levine, David Roediger, and Eric Lott’s important work (from the 1970s to the early 1990s) offer the last word on minstrelsy.

This is difficult to square, given the important theoretical and empirical insights about the complex, mutually-informing, and always-shifting notions of “black” culture that scholars have been exploring in fresh ways for decades. This is especially true when it comes to one of Roberts’s key insights: when white minstrels promoted their blackface shtick with a language of “authenticity,” they set the terms for American entertainment, both influencing black performers’ own representations of blackness and yoking them to ideas about authenticity, for generations to come. Roberts has important contributions to make to this discussion, but they would resonate louder in call-and-response with Stuart Hall, Grace Hale, David Krasner, Ronald Radano, Karl Miller, and W.T. Lhamon (the last of whom does appear in a footnote, but who did not receive the treatment his important study merits).

Roberts offers fresh ideas about the rise of American commercial culture markets and music’s central place in their expansion over the course of the nineteenth century. But here, again, these insights would only be sharpened by building on the work of scholars who ask questions about why music is so powerful a cultural commodity and what makes its circulation throughout, and out of, the nation so influential. Roberts’s observations about music’s popularity during the War of 1812 and the Civil War are exciting, and they echo others’ work on music as a transnational symbol of the United States in ways that bring up questions of national identity, international consumption, and the racial, ethnic, gender, labor, and market-driven ideologies that accompany American music’s travels abroad, often in subtle and hard to notice ways.

Although Roberts has important insights into the rise of an American “middle-class” and its connections to reform movements, he makes vast generalizations about African Americans such as David Walker and Frederick Douglass, often calling them “middle-class” with little explanation about how race and white supremacy complicate any such category for blacks in the United States This work too has witnessed an intellectual revolution in the wake of Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham’s and Kevin Gaines’s influential work on racial uplift and the politics of black respectability. Blackface Nation could have gained immeasurably by engaging with these scholars, as well as the field of black middle-class culture and politics that has developed in their wake.

Roberts presents important research and analysis of some of the most vital themes in American history and offers a well-written and fascinating book on American culture, race, and reform. And his decision to center the study of popular culture is admirable. But as good as parts of the book are, it is unfortunate that the vanguard work of scholars of African-American history do not show up more conspicuously, especially when so many have been down this road before and made sure to light the way brightly for others to follow.

David Gilbert is the author of The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, which won the Choice Book Award for Outstanding Academic Title in 2015. His CD companion and liner notes to the book were nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Liner Notes category in 2018.