River Roots Re-Post: The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Way Up North in Dixie

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River Roots–my very favorite Madison festival–is this Friday and Saturday. You can still get your wristband and come on down. This year, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are back for a repeat performance, and if you haven’t seen them before, they’re well worth the trip. As I say below, they’re one of the few groups who came with their own book recommendations. It was a good one, though, as you’ll see below. 

way up north in dixieThis is a book that was recommended by the Carolina Chocolate Drops at last year’s Ohio River Valley Folk Festival. It’s not every day that a band comes with a recommended reading list, but always a plus when they do. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are an African-American folk group steeped in the tradition of black string bands, especially those that existed in the Carolina tidewater region. They learned their music at the feet of Joe Thompson, an African-American fiddler believed to be the very last black string band fiddler alive.

The Chocolate Drops clearly think of themselves as stewards and preservers of a certain musical tradition, and so it’s not surprising that they would recommend Way Up North in Dixie. This book by Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks is an account of the Snowden family, an African-American group of fiddlers, entertainers and composers who lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, during the late 19th and early 20th century. The Snowden’s traveled around locally performing a repertoire of minstrel and other popular songs of the time. Their mother and father, Ellen Cooper Snowden and Thomas Snowden, were former slaves. Ellen Snowden had been brought to Ohio from Maryland with the family that owned her before being freed.

The burning question at the center of this book, or at least what probably motivated its writing, is who wrote the song, ‘Dixie.’ I’ve written about ‘Dixie’ before on this blog, an absolutely beautiful song which has an ugly history that makes it hard to play. As the Sacks’ detail in this book, ‘Dixie’ was never the exclusive terrain of the South or the Confederacy. It was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs; he asked that it be played at Appomattox, saying that now that the war was over, the song belonged to the Union again. After the Civil War, ‘Dixie’ was a popular American song, played all over the country and not just in the South. It was really ‘Dixie’s’ use during the Civil Rights movement that gives rise to its more recent stigma.

Would all that change if we found out that ‘Dixie’ was, in fact, composed by a former slave or her family rather than the white minstrel performer whom the song is commonly credited to? Dan Emmett was a fiddler and white minstrel performer who is credited with the composition of ‘Dixie,’ but the black residents of Mt. Vernon, Ohio have claimed for years that the Snowden family, and specifically Lew and Ben Snowden, “taught” ‘Dixie’ to Emmett.

Snowden_Family_Band_handbillThe Sacks take this question as a starting point for a larger exploration of what life might have been like for African-Americans in Ohio during the period i

n which the Snowden’s lived. They do some historical detective work to trace the lives of Ellen Cooper Snowden and her eventual husband Thomas out of the South and into Ohio. They use the material in the scrapbook of Ellen and Thomas’ daughter, Sophia, to examine how black women fit into contemporary ideas of womanhood and sentimentality. They document the courage of the Snowden sons, Lew and Ben, in being some of the first black people in Ohio to attempt to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment enfranchising African-Americans.

Though local Mt. Vernon lore has it that the two sons, Ben and Lew Snowden, taught the song to Emmett, in fact, the song was first performed when the two brothers were much too young to have been playing much music or teaching Emmett songs. The Sacks’ point out that oral histories have demonstrated that communal memories often get pushed forward a generation. The story of your great-great-grandfather gets told as about a great-grandfather because he’s a little closer generationally speaking. Perhaps, then, it was really Ben and Lew’s parents who are the source of ‘Dixie.” The Sacks do a fascinating line-by-line analysis of ‘Dixie,’ arguing for how the song would make sense if it were composed by Ellen Cooper Snowden. Ellen grew up in a part of Maryland with one of the largest slave populations in the South. She left that world and her family for Mt. Vernon, Ohio, where she would have gone weeks without seeing another black face. It’s a complicated thing to suggest that a former slave might miss life on the plantation, but you can imagine Ellen Cooper Snowden missing her family, her childhood, and the community that living in a large community of black people gave her.It’s only in the last two chapters of the book that they return to the question of the authorship of ‘Dixie.’ There’s no real way to prove definitively whether the Snowden’s or Emmett are responsible for Dixie. The Sacks demonstrate that Emmett, who was from the same geographical area as the Snowden’s, did often return home during the period when he claims to have written ‘Dixie.’ White minstrels like Emmett were supposedly constantly in search of new material from the “Ethiopians” they were attempting to “delineate.” It’s plausible that Emmett heard one of the Snowden’s singing Dixie during one of his trips home. It’s possible that the Snowden’s were friends with Emmett (they had close friendships with many white families in their community, as documented by countless letters), and they did, in fact, teach him ‘Dixie.’

This line-by-line analysis of ‘Dixie’ is certainly interesting. In the end, the question of who wrote ‘Dixie’ is less interesting than the historical slice of life the Sacks’ give us. I can’t claim this book is an easy or particularly well-written read. It’s a scholarly work, and not really an example of an astounding one at that. My biggest complaint is that you have to work pretty hard throughout the book to figure out exactly where the Sacks’ are going with all this information. When you get there, the answer is pretty interesting, but I found myself wishing for a better editor. Here are some interesting questions and topics that get raised along the way in this book:

– The minstrel tradition. One of the central questions about the minstrel tradition in the United States is whether we should understand it as actually representing, albeit in a distorted form, African-American slave life, or whether it is in fact a complete fabrication produced by white people who had no real knowledge or interest in the lives of slaves. Does the minstrel tradition actually reflect some truth about the lives of slaves, or is it nothing but gross caricature and stereotyping?

Ben Snowden

Ben Snowden

On the side of the gross caricature, scholars have argued that most of the minstrel performers were white Northerners, like Dan Emmett. These performers hadn’t traveled much in the South, and so had no real way to know what life was like for slaves. The Sacks’ point out that this perspective assumes there were no black people in the North. But obviously, there were. And some of them, like the Snowden’s, were locally well-known entertainers. Just as they had on plantations in the South, black people in the North played fiddles, banjos, triangles, bones and sang. They didn’t leave their music behind. Isn’t it possible that these white Northerners were imitating, not Southern plantation life, but their black neighbors in the North?

– Musical authorship. Dan Emmett’s gravestone reads that he wrote ‘Dixie.’ The gravestone of Ben and Lew Snowden claims only that they “taught” ‘Dixie” to Emmett. There’s no claim to authorship, and the tradition in Mt. Vernon isn’t really about the Snowden’s having written ‘Dixie.’ It’s clear from the historical record of letters that the Snowden’s were a repository of songs for the surrounding community. Folks were always writing them to ask for a certain song they’d heard them play. The Sacks’ have records of only one song the Snowden’s actually wrote, a song about Knox County in Ohio where they lived. But what does it mean to “write” a song?

If you much scratch the surface of what we call “folk” songs in the United States you’ll pretty quickly find that there’s not much that’s completely original. If you’ve seen Songcatcher, you know that a lot of songs were brought over from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Africa. Wherever folks came from, they brought their songs. When people started writing “new”’ songs in the United States, they were mostly based on tunes everyone already knew, usually hymns. When you start playing these songs, you can begin to see how they relate to each other. It’s pretty easy to go from ‘Amazing Grace’ to ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’

During the Snowden’s and Emmett’s time, you established authorship of a song by getting your name on the sheet music. Though minstrel groups claimed to have gotten their material from observing slaves, they never actually named a specific individual. Who actually owns a song?

The Sacks’ also point out that in the African musical tradition which the Snowden’s partly inherited, improvisation is key. The version of ‘Bile ‘Em Cabbage Down’ that I play may be very different from the version that you play. And the version that I play tonight may be very different from the version I play next week. Why, then, would it make sense to write down one version in the form of sheet music and say it’s my song?

Other interesting tidbits:Of course, the larger answer is that being the official author of a song brings money and some prestige. The minstrel tradition is the first in a long line of American musical forms which owe something to African-American culture without having actually benefitted real African-American people. When you can’t name the actual person who wrote the song, you can’t send them a check. But the important role of that person and their culture in the shaping of a musical style and tradition also gets lost. This is why until recently, I assumed that old-time music–fiddling, banjo playing, bluegrass, all your ‘O, Brother Where Art Thou,’ kind of stuff–was the whitest music there was. The whitest of the white. But even in places like Ohio, the community fiddlers and performer were often African-American, former slaves and children of slaves.

– The book includes what the Sacks’ could reconstruct of the Snowden family’s song repertoire. This is only a segment of what they probably actually would have played, based on songs folks mentioned in letters to them and actual sheet music found in their effects. But it’s very cool to be able to see what the Snowden’s might have played for folks in Ohio in the 19th century.

– We don’t have any recordings of actual minstrel performances from the time period, so we can’t say for sure what they sounded like. The Sacks’ speculate that the fiddling style of African-Americans during the period was more percussive and rhythmic. The sound would have been scratchy, as if the bow hadn’t been generously rosined, probably because in fact, rosin was a commodity that might have been hard to come by and therefore used sparingly. Certainly, when you think of ‘Bile Em Cabbage Down,’ which is a song with African roots, it’s a fiddle song that’s much more rhythmic than melodic.

– Learning the fiddle in the 19th century was pretty much the same as it is today. If you wanted to learn to play the fiddle, you’d ask the master fiddle player in your community to teach you. There are letters from folks writing to the Snowden’s to ask if they could learn fiddling from them. When Emmett eventually retired back to Ohio, John Baltzell went to learn fiddling from him. Baltzell did actually make some records, including a version of ‘Turkey in the Straw’ which he probably learned from Emmett. This is as close as we can come to hearing how Emmett and other minstrel performers might have played this song (Here’s Baltzell’s recording of ‘The Girl I Left Behind’.

If you’re very interested in the history of various musical traditions in the United States or in learning something about a fairly neglected historical niche–the lives of former slaves and their children living in the North before and after the Civil War–this is a good book for you. If you don’t find these topics particularly fascinating, you might skip it and just assume I’ve told you all the most interesting bits.

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