Letters to the Museum

What Tunes Are Derived From Minstrel Tradition?

I am sure that you are receiving an onslaught of email due to your recent feature in the NY Times. Thank you for reading mine, and I hope you find the contents worth replying to.

I am a native of Michigan, but live in New York. I teach violin at the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy, a charter school in central Harlem, very near the shop of racist artifacts (134th & Lenox).

I have spent considerable energy in the past few years learning about our society's racist past and present, and I agree with you that these artifacts belong in a museum. I intend to contribute to yours, and to a movement towards creating a national one - there is a holocaust museum - there should be a national museum of racism. I am glad that your museum is in Michigan - I will work towards bringing more attention to it. I know that I grew up in Birmingham with considerable subconscious racist and classist views that have taken many years to unlearn. With your work, hopefully more people can be educated about this topic which is so often gratefully swept under the rug.

My question:

In the past few years, I have become interested in Appalacian Oldtime and other American fiddle music. This interest has caused me to look into the minstrel history of many popular tunes. Titles such as Cotton-Eyed Joe, Colored Aristocracy, Red Wing, and Hangman's Reel triggered my radar, but I have had difficulty digging up a real study of the history of individual tunes. What tunes are derived from minstrel tradition? How much of the tradition was appropriated? I know the banjo is an African instrument, and that there was a revival of oldtime among urban academic types, with Alan Lomax being a central figure in that revival. Listening to the tunes is one thing, but I'd love to find someone who's studied this tradition with a focus on racist images, appropriation, etc. Would you be able to recommend a starting point, or direct me towards someone who could?

Thank you so much, congratulations on your feature, and all the best to you.

Julianne Carney
Brooklyn, NY
www.JulianneCarney.com

-- July 6, 2006


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