CHAPTER 3: A Fine Boy But He’ll Be of No Use
The Earliest Songs of Billy Barlow. Billy’s Relative ~ Jim Crow and His Occurrence in the Punch and Judy Show. A Short Discourse on The Minstrel Show. Stephen Foster. The Billy Barlow Broadsides.
The First Billy Barlow Songs
According to Australian song-collector Hugh Anderson, the earliest dated copy of Billy Barlow, the song, appeared in a Dublin Songster in 1832. By this date, however, there were big publishing houses in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as well as in the big cities of the East Coast of North America, so the Songster could have acquired Billy Barlow from any of these sources. Also two Billy Barlow broadsides, printed by T. Birt in London between 1828 and 1829, have come to light. One is titled Billy Barlow’s Wedding Miseries and the other Dicky Barlow — First Cousin to Billy Barlow. They seem to indicate that Billy was already a well-known character in London by the late 1820s at least.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, there is an American Billy Barlow broadside song-sheet. It was printed by Leonard Deming “at the sign of the barber’s pole, No. 61 Hanover Street, Boston and at Middlebury, Vt.” (Vermont) Unfortunately, like its London counterparts this sheet is undated. It is stamped 103, but the implications of that are unclear. Leonard Deming began his publishing business in 1828, the same year that Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice created his character, Jim Crow. Deming published songs about Jim Crow that appear to come from the same time as the Billy Barlow song-sheet, but these too are undated. Jim Crow, Billy’s close relative, is mentioned in the Billy Barlow song. Is there a link between these two characters?
1832, the year of the Dublin Songster, is significant as the year that Rice/Jim Crow arrived in New York. From here he set off on a tour of the British Isles, visiting Northern Ireland for the first time, riding on a huge wave of success born in his home country. He became instantly, and enormously, popular with the Irish.
Could Billy Barlow have visited Dublin at around this same time, overshadowed for the moment by his blackface cousin? If he did, nothing has turned up yet that might indicate who first took him there. Did the Deming song-sheet travel from Boston to Ireland, to be reprinted in a Dublin Songster? Or did it come from a London printer, or an English performer?
The Deming song has Billy as a newly-arrived immigrant in Boston. His country of origin is unstated — but presumably he is from somewhere in the British Isles. There is a temptation to assume that he is Boston-Irish but his mention of Mother Goose places him as Anglo-Irish if that is the case. Vagueness about a character’s origins is a common device to allow for localisation of his/her songs and jokes when touring the character’s “homeland”. Many of the music-hall Billys were known to have done that when they toured. It is possible that without any evidence to the contrary, an American origin for the 19th-century Billy Barlow could be proposed. The indications however, if not the hard evidence, are that he was born in London.
A Diversion on the Subject of Jim Crow, The Minstrel Show, and Stephen Foster
Jim Crow, the character was, in all ways but one, just like other characters of the day. He sang and danced. His speech, manner, costume, and make-up were based on a caricature of a racial type. Like Billy Barlow, Jim Crow wore ragged, colourful clothes that had seen better days and like Billy, his songs and jokes poked fun at the establishment and were based on current events. The one difference was that Thomas “Daddy” Rice blacked his face, setting him apart from: Billy Barlow, The Gypsy Boy, The Cockney, The Irish Immigrant in America, The Italian Vegetable Seller, to become Jim Crow – The Plantation Slave. Rice was more surprised than anyone about his sudden success. His friend Emilie Cowell, wife of Sam Cowell — the best remembered of all the Billy Barlows –, said he was a gentle, thoughtful man, rather shy and retiring.
The little song and dance that started it all was said to have been taught to Rice by a Black slave. Several stories claim to be the true account of where and how Rice learned this song and dance. As theatre historian Maurice Willson Disher tells it, the slave was a porter on the quayside of the Ohio River. Rice met him as he was travelling to Louisville to perform. The porter put his burden down from time to time to perform the little song-and-dance that was to become so famous and so notorious. Rice paid the porter for the song-and-dance routine, and for the battered cap and ragged tail-coat he was wearing, and went on his way. Rice immediately began performing as Jim Crow, and the character was eagerly taken up by other performers in America. Rice left them to it and spent most of his life touring the British Isles and Europe.
Paris loved him.
| Je tourne, re-tourne, je caracole,
Je fais des sauts;
Chaque fois je fais le tour,
Je saute “Jim Crow”.
Rice, like so many of his contemporaries in the entertainment world, died in poverty. His wife and children preceded him in death.
Jump Jim Crow is similar to songs and dances of the period, done by both black and white performers, on and off-stage. It is true, however, that no matter how well Rice’s informant danced his dance and sang his song, he would not, in the 1830s, have been able to benefit from his talents. It’s also likely that his talent for singing and dancing exceeded Rice’s.
Thomas Rice was not the first performer to wear blackface in modern times, and the idea is an old one anyway, but he was certainly the most influential. He was not the first to sing “Negro songs” either. Joseph Cowell, father of performer Sam Cowell, was a friend of Rice, and he says that Tom Blakely was the first. Joseph Cowell, himself an actor, singer, and writer, was performing in America at the time of the birth of Jim Crow, and he also saw the birth of the Minstrel Show. English singer and songwriter Charles Dibdin is on record as performing as a “comic Negro” at Drury Lane in 1768. He wrote a “coon song” in 1788.
It is Jim Crow who went on to become a sort of two-faced god, founding on one hand a new and exciting American form of entertainment, the Minstrel Show, and on the other what came to be seen as a cruel stereotype based on slavery and oppression. Many factors need to be considered when looking at the sociological inferences of Jim Crow, but most are beyond the scope of this book. It is my opinion — while not for a moment excusing the practice of slavery and oppression, or belittling the terrible suffering that it caused — that it is pointless and unfair to blame Thomas “Daddy” Rice. I feel the need to treat this gentle singer with kindness.
IN THIS SECTION:
HEY HO RAGGEDY-O:
A Study of the Billy Barlow Phenomenon
(written by Joy Hildebrand)
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