‘The Creolization of American Culture’
Musicology professor navigates through history and reflects upon the enduring influence of American roots music in his latest book.
by Rachel Pierce
Fascinated by American roots music, Christopher J. Smith explores its cultural influence via the works of 19th century painter William Sidney Mount in “The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy.”
“The book is a kind of a cultural-historical investigation of some of the very early meetings between immigrant groups, particularly African-Americans and Anglo-Celtic people, between the American Revolution and the American Civil War,” said Smith, an associate professor and chair of musicology in the School of Music at Texas Tech.
He explained that the street music and performance practices that grew out of those fateful meetings blended and evolved to create blackface minstrelsy, and eventually formed the roots of a significant amount of later American popular music.
Exploring the Roots of Minstrelsy
Despite its cultural relevance, however, roots music developed in the antebellum period before the Civil War and was viewed as unworthy of study. Conventional musical thinking considered the African-influenced street music as primitive and disposable, therefore very little documentation has been available on the form’s evolution. Compounding this situation, the bulk of documentation that has been found offers meager insight. While there are tunes that have been written down, like fiddle melodies or folk song lyrics, that information does not convey how music sounded when it was performed. An exception to the evidence, Smith notes, has been sketches and paintings produced by artists of the time who witnessed performances and expressed what they saw through images.
“Even though it’s a sounding and moving idiom–that is, music sounding and dance moving–some of the best evidence we have, even though it’s quite indirect, is the evidence of fixed images and the body mechanics that are captured in those images,” Smith said.
Listen to an Excerpt
Author Christopher Smith reads an excerpt from “The Creolization of American Culture.”
About the Author
In addition to his faculty duties at Texas Tech, Smith is the director of the Vernacular Music Center in the School of Music. He continues to perform and record Irish traditional music, blues and jazz with others.
Smith, an accomplished musician in his own right, notes that scholarship on blackface minstrelsy requires informed reconstruction. Among the creative works he found to be most helpful were sketches and paintings by the genre artist Mount. Smith says two particular 1856 paintings from the artist, “The Bone Player (which serves as the book’s cover art) and “The Banjo Player,” are considered iconic among music scholars.
“As a player myself, I can look at those images and say Mount got all the details right–this is how the body moves, this is how you hold the instrument–there are no inaccuracies,” Smith said. “That suggests maybe he’s an accurate reporter, and if he’s an accurate reporter, then we can trust what he says he saw. Then we could maybe begin to reconstruct how a body would have to move to play that way or dance that way–so we’re actually working backward from the images.”
Along with Mount’s reliability for accurate depictions, Smith is impressed by the artist’s respect for his subjects, in particular the black musicians portrayed in “The Bone Player,” “The Banjo Player” and other similarly set pieces.
“In addition to the musicological information, what I take from those images is a sense of commanding respect,” Smith said. “There is no way that’s a mockery. It is recognition that this person is an artist. For an image from the 1850s of an African-American by a white painter, I find that very powerful and actually kind of moving.”
Portraying the Artist
By examining Mount’s art, Smith felt moved to learn more about the life of the artist, as well. Mount’s music collection, letters and other ephemera–the bulk of which is currently housed in the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages–offered a glimpse into his existence and how his life had shaped his art.
Mount was born on Long Island in 1807, a time of great change, as New York was moving to abolish slavery. So as the years went on, sharing of music and dance between ethnic groups became more commonplace. When he was a boy, Mount learned to play the fiddle from his family’s former slave, Anthony Clapp. His musical appreciation prompted him to collect tunes, as well. Mount eventually became a sign painting apprentice and moved to the Lower East Side, where he also studied portrait painting and began genre painting.
Mount found acclaim in 1830 with his first genre painting, “The Rustic Dance,” and continued a successful career through the rest of his life. Some of his other well-known works of art include “Eel Spearing at Setauket,” “Bargaining for a Horse” and “Bar-room Scene.”
“His life is exemplary of the opportunities that were available to a whole class of people in this period,” Smith said of Mount and his career as a vernacular painter. “Aside from the fact that I think the art is beautiful–beautifully observed, beautifully executed–to me, what makes Mount important is that he’s a lens. If I look at a Mount sketch or at a painting, for a frozen moment, I can see through his eyes to a time when people didn’t preserve those kinds of music and that kind of dance. So it’s like a telescope that can see into the past.”
Preparing his Work
“The Creolization of American Culture” had been a work in progress for quite some time. In 1997 a group of fellow musicians, which included Smith’s current musicology doctoral student Roger Landes, suggested that Mount deserved attention for his work. Why not write a book? So after developing a concept, Smith has spent the past 11 years writing, researching and putting the finishing touches on his publication.
Smith points out that in a subconscious way, however, he has been sharpening his skills to write the book for more than four decades.
“I’ve played Irish traditional music and Mississippi Delta blues since I was 11 years old, long before I ever thought about being an academic or being a scholar,” Smith said. “So in a way, the music that is at the basis of the blackface synthesis, which is Anglo-Celtic immigrant music and African-American and Afro-Caribbean music, I’ve quite unwittingly been studying for 45 years. It’s a place where a number of my experiences, aptitudes and interests meet.”
“The Creolization of American Culture” was published in September 2013 by the University of Illinois Press. The book’s publication was supported by the Barry and Claire Brook Endowment of the American Musicological Society as well as by the H. Earle Johnson Fund of the Society for American Music.
Rachel Pierce is Senior Editor of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.