MINSTRELSY IN AUSTRALIA : A Brief Overview
Acknowledgment to my long-standing associate and music researcher, GARY LE GALLANT for this information-packed article. If you are interested in blues, ragtime, minstrel and other American music found in Australia visit www.nugrape.net
The beginning of the legitimate theatre is generally regarded as when Mr.Barnett Levey attained permission for the establishment of plays in the saloon of the Hotel Royal,Sydney. The license being given on the 22/12/1832 for a trial period covering from 26th December,1832 until the end of May. Previous to this occurrence there were periodic musical entertainments at the above hotel by local amateur artists with not always the best of reviews. (note: Plays were performed well before this date, ie Sidaway’s Theatre, Sydney in 1796, etc).
Along with the increase in activity generated with the opening of Levey’s theatre, there were also advertisements issued by a Mr.Edwards around July,1828, mentioning the transfer of his various musical instruments and music to the shop of Messrs.Ferris & Chapman. Instruments included violins, guitars, portable organs, aeolian harps, clarinets, flutes,etc.
Contrary to the generally held belief that minstrelsy dates back to when Charles Backus toured Australia in 1855, minstrelsy had its initial appearance in Sydney back on the 28th August,1838 when a Mr.Ferguson sang “the celebrated popular comic song”-‘Jim Crow’ at the Royal Victoria theatre. Subsequently, numerous renditions of various minstrel songs were performed by local artists including the actor/manager Mr.Joseph Simmons,(“Jump Jim Crow”-17/8/1839), as well as numerous other local performers such as John Hyde who approximately thirty years later was loosely affiliated with Corbyn’s Georgia Minstrels, when “The Octoroon” was performed at the Bijou Theatre,Melbourne on the 9th June,1877. All this no doubt was directly attributed to T.D.Rice’s(Daddy Rice) success in England from his tour of 1836,with the play of “Jim Crow” first being performed in Sydney at the Royal Victoria theatre on the 11th April,1839 for Joseph Simmons benefit night, featuring local performers. The popularity of this piece was such that Jim Crow hats were advertised for sale in the following period.
The first minstrel group to appear in Sydney was in 1850 with the arrival of Henry Burton who etched his name into history by being one of the founders of the circus in Australia. Besides his great contribution to the circus, Henry Burton on his arrival in 1849, teamed up with a group of artists including Mr.Charles V.Howard, Mr.George.B.Howard and Mr.James W.Reading. These artists, including Henry Burton as Blythe Waterland, opened their Sydney season at the Royal Hotel on the 1st of April,1850 as Blythe Waterland’s Serenaders, featuring banjo duets, flutina (1) solos, etc. Songs and tunes included items such as :-
- “Lynchburg Town”
- Walk along John”
- Johnny Boker”
- Dandy Jim”
- Old Grey Goose”
- Ole Dan Tucker”
- Boatman’s Dance”
Jenny get your hoe cake done”
With the subsequent break-up of the Waterland troupe, members appeared in various groups sometimes in competition to Henry Burton, giving musical lessons and later, as was the case with Charles V.Howard, managing various theatrical groups that included minstrel acts, freak shows,etc. These groups were the first to tour extensively throughout the goldfields and districts.
The following years gave rise to local amateur Ethiopian serenader concerts as well as tours by other professional groups such as the New York Serenaders, Backus Minstrels, New Orleans Serenaders, Rainer’s Serenaders as well as female Ethiopian serenaders. There was also the creation of the N.S.W.Christy Minstrels who were a feature of the Sydney scene for many years at the various picnics & functions at holiday periods such as at Manly Beach, Cremorne,etc. They also performed with the touring troupe of professional Christy’s Minstrels in the 1860’s.
Minstrel troupes were to continue to tour throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s. e.g. Billy Emerson’s Minstrels, Hiscock’s Federal Minstrels,etc. The popularity of minstrelsy was such that printed songfolios were marketed for the popular troupes from this period and could be purchased from the music saloon of Mr.Grocott’s or Mason’s bookstall,etc.
Minstrelsy was not confined to the established theatres but was also part of the entertainment at taverns such as the Crown & Kettle, Bull & Mouth and Evan’s saloon,etc. Generally these venues had free admission.
The first black minstrel troupe to appear in Australia, “featuring real negroes from the slave states” were Sheridan Corbyn’s troupe of Georgia Minstrels who appeared at the School of Arts in Sydney on Boxing night,1876. They were soon followed by C.B.Hick’s Georgia Minstrels (organised in 1865), who also toured Australia over the same period, opening in Melbourne at St.George’s Hall on Monday the 13th August,1877. A number of these artists were to stay in Australia and be a permanent feature of Australia’s theatrical scene for many years. e.g.Hosea Easton, Sam Keenan,etc.
Following the first tour of the Georgia Minstrels, a number of other black troupes were to follow with an off-shoot of the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers arriving in Australia in 1886 and touring extensively throughout Australiasia with great success. From this first troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers, Mr.O.M.McAdoo was to see the potential of future ventures and toured Australasia and Africa with his own jubilee and minstrel company over the proceeding years until his untimely death in Sydney on the 17th July,1900. His theatrical companies contained some of the best black minstrel acts as well as singers/musicians to ever appear in Australia, with such stars as:
- Ferry(Ferry the frog)
- Billy McClain (Billy McClain originally came to Australia with M.B.Curtis’s Afro- Americans)
- Miss Flora Batson
- Prof.Henderson Smith, etc.
F.J. Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee Singers original tour spawned many derivative organisations besides the McAdoo troupe of jubilee singers, with Huntley Spencer (former member of the Era Comedy Four with Hugo’s American Minstrels) being associated with a troupe of Fisk jubilee singers as late as 1936 in New Zealand. Numerous Australian and New Zealand performers were to be in one of the many “Fisk Jubilee Singers” groups to have flourished following the visit of Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee singers in 1886.
Another important early black minstrel troupe to tour was Charlie Hick’s Minstrels of 1888. It featured artists which were to stay for many years on the Australasian stage, notably
- Irving Sayles
- Charley Pope
- Wallace King
- Billy Speed
- The Connor brothers.
Their first performance was on the 1st of September,1888 at the Opera House in Sydney.
The last overseas touring minstrel show to appear in Australia was the Hugo Brothers American Minstrels which featured the great Billy Kersands, performing around Sydney in July,1913 (Kersands was not part of the troupe by this time), where the Australian bandleader, Jim Davidson, remembered viewing them as indicated from his autobiography.
Though numerous individual overseas minstrel/black-face acts toured throughout the following years on the Tivoli/Fuller circuits, no full minstrel company ever toured again, though black companies such as Joe Sheftell’s Southern Plantation Revue (which featured elements of minstrelsy) and Sonny Clay’s ill-fated colored idea, were to tour in 1926 & 1928 respectively.
The Tivoli management did advertise that Sonny Clay’s company would put forward an “old plantation nigger show” on their second visit to Sydney. However from their repertoire it seems ludicrous by today’s standards. Sonny Clay’s company featured his up-to-date hot jazz band (plantation orchestra!) and modern artists such as the spectacular dancing of the Four Covans and singing of Ivy Anderson(she was to be one of Duke Ellington’s favourite lead vocalists), and the Colored Emperors of Harmony, who were touring Australia previous to joining the Clay troupe at their opening in January,1928. The minstrel show never eventuated due to their deportation under controversial circumstances.
The tradition of minstrelsy was carried on by local companies/artists as well as touring jubilee singers/artists (eg Randolph Forbes Kentucky Jubilee Singers in 1929), who catered to local audiences with renditions of “Old Black Joe”,etc. Thus continuing on the stage, on radio and film for many years, what had started way back in the 1830’s and it does not require too much enquiry to find influences from this form of entertainment.
Minstrelsy and the associated branching, from its very early beginnings, has been a feature of the Australian scene for well over a century and because of this, deserves to be looked at in a more detailed way (as well as the other aspects of theatre/music) than has been in the past.
© 14 May 1986
IN THIS SECTION:
- Minstrelsy Tradition in Australia
- Minstrels and the Banjo
- American influences on Australian traditional music
Thanks go to Doug Seroff for his information on Huntley Spencer & to the staff of the State & Mitchell library of N.S.W.
- Under The Imperial Carpet, Essays in Black History 1780-1950 – Edited by Rainer Lotz and Ian Pegg , Rabbit Press 1986.
- 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business by Tom Fletcher, Da Capo Press 1984.
- From Minstrel Show to Vaudeville – The Australian Popular Stage 1788-1914 by Richard Waterhouse , N.S.W. University Press 1990.
- The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business, 1865-1910 by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press 1988.
- Blacks In Blackface by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press 1980
The Waterland troupe was not the first minstrel group to perform in Australia. In July1849, a group performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Melbourne. Known simply as the Four Ethiopian Serenaders, these performers performed “Dance the Boatmen”,” Dance the Buffalo Gals”,” My skiff is by de Shore”. However, this group performed as a support to other entertainment, compared to the Waterland group’s total minstrel performance.