Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: The Black And White Minstrel Show

(#22: 29 July 1961, 4 weeks; 2 September 1961, 1 week; 16 September 1961, 1 week; 21 October 1961, 1 week; 29 December 1962, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Meet The Minstrels (Weep No More/Ring Ring De Banjo/Oh Susanna/Oh Dem Golden Slippers/Li’l Liza Jane/Take Me To That Swanee Shore/Camp Town Races/I Want To Be In Dixie/You Forgot To Remember/If You Were The Only Girl In The World)/Leslie Stuart Melodies (Little Dolly Daydream/I May Be Crazy/Sweetheart May/Lily Of Laguna)/In The Moonlight (Shadow Waltz/Me And My Shadow/By The Light Of The Silvery Moon/Dream Dream Dream/When I Grow Too Old To Dream)/Your Requests (You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby/Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow Wow/She Was One Of The Early Birds/Daisy Bell [A Bicycle Built For Two]/Moonlight Bay/Dew-Dew-Dew-Day/Ma [He’s Making Eyes At Me]/I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover/Yes Sir That’s My Baby)/Meet The Girls (Lulu’s Back In Town/Miss Annabelle Lee/Mary’s A Grand Old Name/K-K-K-Katy/Cecilia/Ramona/Laura/Oh You Beautiful Doll)/A Tribute To Al Jolson (I’m Sitting On Top Of The World/There’s A Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder/Carolina In The Morning/California Here I Come/Swanee/Let Me Sing And I’m Happy/My Mammy/Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody)/Memories Of Stephen Foster (Poor Old Joe/I Dream Of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair/Beautiful Dreamer/Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming)/Grand Finale (Coal Black Mammy/Polly Wolly Doodle/Some Folks Do/When The Saints Go Marching In/Back Home In Tennessee/Dixieland/When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam/Camp Town Races)

I need not underline the attendant irony of having to write about this record – this increasingly unaccountable phenomenon that was The Black And White Minstrel Show – in this week of all weeks. I accept that the “K-K-K” in “K-K-K-Katy” does not intentionally carry a hidden subtext and that well-meaning patronisation does not automatically equate with racism, least of all with the late George Mitchell, a man who, when not engaged in Minstrel business, brought blues musicians of the calibre of Josh White over to Britain to tour and become known.

What I find far more difficult to accept is the uniform brassy blandness of this music, a neutralised bonhomie which leads me to believe that accountants are not the best judges of aesthetics. Mitchell was from Falkirk and trained as an accountant, and, as album annotator Bill Webb-Jones puts it, “His mathematical flair could still stand him in good stead” when it came to assembling the Minstrels’ admittedly rather spectacular theatrical setpieces. The Minstrels arose, as do so many other otherwise inexplicable phenomena of this period, from the war; their nucleus comprised the singing soldiers Mitchell recalled from wartime, and they developed from the Swing Group into the Glee Club before turning to belated minstrelsy after BBC radio producer Charles Chilton commissioned Mitchell to put together some music for a show entitled Cabin In The Cotton.

The rest became folklore of a now rather forlorn kind. As with 101 Strings, the album carries the ghosts of a different world; the sleevenote mentions the likes of Jolson, Eugene Stratton and GH Elliott (popularly known at the time as “The Chocolate Coloured C**n”) in the present, or at least recent, tense and draws its purchasers’ attention to memories of “The Great Vance” and the original Christy Minstrels who performed before Queen Victoria nearly one hundred years previously (while the New Christy Minstrels, including amongst others the young Barry McGuire and David Crosby, were busy making their name in the States at this period). The dynamic, however, ties in with the then recent present; Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and even West Side Story are called in for comparison purposes in the sleevenote, and there are subtle and not so subtle tugs in that particular direction throughout the record, even if only in terms of hearty, full throated unison male singing – as Webb-Jones rather sinisterly refers to it, “the virile method of presentation.”

The album closely follows the format of their shows (minus the various variety turns which broke up the various routines), comprising several quick-change medleys of venerable favourites, many easily a century old. Leni Riefenstahl it is not; but good music or good entertainment it is not either. It is easy to understand, as someone who remembers the Minstrels first hand, exactly how and why they would appeal to a certain alienated demographic of the public; millions watched them on stage or on the screen, and this first album alone stayed on the chart for nearly three years. Many at that time were content with simplified nostalgia, passive memories which didn’t require active thought.

Bereft of the visuals, however, the most remarkable thing about the record is how unremarkable it is. Despite Mitchell’s grandfather’s history of being a noted choral director, his directorial hand here is clearly a mirror of “his calm bank-official type of exterior.” The supine accordion and Nurse Ratchett echo both recall Sing Something Simple rather than a Brit Lawrence Welk, and despite the efforts of stalwart Roy Plummer and his guitar to make the music interesting with repeated upward question mark strokes (for instance, on “Me And My Shadow”) the music resolutely refuses to become alive as even the most basic American minstrel and medicine shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were. The singsongs are brash, heartless and decidedly military in bent (“YES! SIR! THAT’SMYBABY! NO! SIR! DON’TMEANMAYBE!” as though busily bashing squares while singing), owing much more to Ralph Reader’s Gang Show and Billy Cotton bustle than to anything approaching minstrelsy. The “Girls,” meanwhile (a.k.a. The Television Toppers, who remained white and supposedly vulnerable to those naughty men in blackface and blazers, but then, see South Pacific), coo along obediently, pausing only to sneeze (“Polly Wolly Doodle”) or scream (“I’m Sitting On Top Of The World”) or even tweet (“She Was One Of The Early Birds”). The occasional melancholy blast of muted trumpet accurately indicated my declining enthusiasm while listening.

There really is little else to say at this stage, since there are more Minstrels to come in this tale. The school assembly glockenspiel, the notion of efficiency above inspiration, are bad enough even without the blackened faces. There are some moments of respite: John Boulter’s light tenor is bearable and Tony Mercer’s Crosby-ish baritone is reasonably affecting at times. But then one is faced by Dai Francis impersonating Donald Duck impersonating Al Jolson and one’s patience is entirely lost. Happily the bass drum responses on “I’m Sitting” suggest that Francis is receiving a good kicking while quacking.

It hardly needs to be said that Donald Duck’s “California Here I Come” and “Carolina” aren’t a patch on Freddy Cannon’s; that Monk had already efficiently deconstructed “Lulu’s Back In Town” by this time; that their “Laura” I take as a personal insult (see Sinatra’s reading on Where Are You? for immediate relief); that their “Ma (He’s Making Eyes At Me)” shrivels before the explosive Johnny Otis/Marie Adams reading (let alone Lena Zavaroni’s subsequent version). But it is worth saying that I listened to this with my American wife who thought that the record’s main insult was that, not to the American black man, but to the American song; here are songs still cherished and truly venerated in America, and she considered the Minstrels to trample them underfoot. Only the Stephen Foster medley achieves even a basic artistic level of satisfaction, or any evidence of respect for its source material; Mercer’s doleful but admirably solemn delivery works, and when sticking to simple but effective choral harmonies the overall effect is almost moving.

But then Lena mentioned Mitch Miller, and the bouncing ball analogy, and the fact that when the young Aretha was under contract to Miller at Columbia she was required to sing hackery of the calibre of “Rockabye Your Baby.” And then, on looking up this album’s initial run at the top, we realised that it first reached number one just a few days before Obama was born. And then we reached for Elvis’ “American Trilogy” and remembered Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now, the absence of involvement of accountants in either, and yesterday's final triumph of both.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm also old enough to remember the B&W Minstrels on the TV. I was so glad the show ended, not necessarily because of racism, but it was dreadfully poor stuff. In retrospect, getting Lenny Henry on to be the comedian was the writing on the wall presumptive.

Still, what would the old people watch now?

Robin Carmody said...

Pretty much what the young people would have watched in 1961, I should have thought.

What would have happened to the Minstrel show anyway even if it hadn't featured blackface can pretty much be measured in the fate of The Good Old Days, a light-ent staple for thirty years but axed in 1983 because it had, pretty much literally, reached demographic extinction. The same thing happened, around the same time, to the radio series 'Among Your Souvenirs' with Alan Keith, which concentrated on popular song before the First World War. Had it not featured blackface the show *might* have lasted a few more years (although the argument that it was axed for financial reasons - a lot of outlay on diminishing returns with questionable PSB value - is backed up by the fact that the Minstrels were still considered suitable to appear in the 1981 Christmas edition of Are You Being Served; by 1986, though, it was decided not to show an edition in the TV50 season, which fanned the flames of "BBC commies" hysteria in the Daily Mail) but it would have ended as quietly as those two, and would have fallen into 101 Strings-style obscurity (although I like your implication - or so it reads to me - in the 'Scary Monsters' piece that 101 Strings actually did prefigure Keane, James Blunt et al, in terms of giving Middle England precisely what it wanted with no levels or ambiguity beyond that).

If you have The Stage & Television Today digital archive you can see the show disappear from the ratings in its last years; its scheduling towards the end, which anyone can see on Genome (the last two series went out during the summer when the BBC largely showed repeats and imports, and the last Christmas show in 1976 was on 18th December) was clearly a sign that it was on its way out and had become a loss leader. Later on especially it tended to rate better in regions with more old people than average, such as south-west England.