The stories behind
the stories behind /2
Rob Lutes continues his fascinating backstory-telling on the origins of popular songs
By Byron Toben
February 16, 2022
Rob Lutes, The Toronto-born, New Brunswick-raised, Montreal-based musician, continued his four-part series, The Story Behind the Song, sponsored by the Cummings Centre on February 9.
Part One on February 2, dealt with the early roots of famous songs in Canada and the USA, mostly with British roots. It was enlightening to hear details behind such as The Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle and Amazing Grace. Indeed, Lutes led off part two with some pictorial images relating to these landmark songs which were a fine supplement to some images discovered by Westmount Mag’s co-editor, Patricia Dumais, for my review of Part One. Lutes then went forward in time with the largely 19th Century American song roots.
First off, and dear to my heart, was the Irish roots of Danny Boy. In the mid 19th century, a piano teacher lady was having tea in a shop in Northern Ireland when she heard an enticing tune being played outside. Investigating, she discovered it was being rendered by a blind fiddler. With his permission, she transcribed the musical notes onto paper sheets and the melody, published in Dublin, became fairly popular. Fast forward to 1913 Colorado and a woman there forwarded it to a relative lyricist, who wrote the words to that tune. It is now perhaps the all-time most-famous Irish song in history, with its plaint of going off and longing for return.
Lutes then turned to Minstrel show music, which with its syncopation and rhythms, preceded Ragtime, Dixieland, even Blues. Unfortunately, a lot of minstrel tunes were written in mockery of Negroes as being lazy, shiftless and sexually driven.
Black face was used on the white performers and even on the black performers to exaggerate the full lips and rolling eyeballs. Indeed, when some black performers declined to use blackface, some audiences were surprised to see brown, chocolate and tan visages instead of cartoon-like masks.
I was amazed to finally discover the origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” so in the news now as are repressive laws against black voting. The phrase was largely popularized by a white Minstrel performer, Thomas Dartmouth, who, wearing burnt cork and under the stage name of “Daddy Rice”, had an act called Jump, Jim Crow, mocking a partially crippled black man.
Many well-known minstrel songs were penned by two composers, one white, one black. The white one was Stephen Foster, called the father of American music, who wrote some 200 songs in his short life (died age 38) and who was really born on the 4th of July (unlike George M. Cohan, who claimed, in Yankee Doodle Dandy, to have been born on the 4th, but actually was born on the 3rd). About 50 of those were in the minstrel tradition and often accompanied by the banjo. Examples were Oh Susanna, Camptown Races, Suwannee River and My Old Kentucky Home.
The black composer was James Bland who, in his 57 years of life, outdid Foster with 600 songs. He often toured with a minstrel band (including 20 years in London). Among his tunes were Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers. He was one of the first black composers to be published by music publishing companies (albeit often under an assumed name).
In addition to these two prolific individuals, Lutes referred to Daniel Emmett, who wrote I Wish I Was in Dixie which, before the U.S. civil war, when it became the battle hymn of the Confederacy, was an Abraham Lincoln favourite. I had always wondered what the South had to do with Dixie cups, but the answer was amusing. The song was particularly popular in Louisiana, which had been a French enclave with its $10 bill marked with the French word for ten, dix!
Mystery solved and a final segue to Quebec and Canada.
Calixa Lavallée, born in Quebec, became a musician and composer who, for some years, was a member of a minstrel band touring parts of the U.S. He even served in the Northern army during the U.S. civil war. Returning to Quebec, after a few years in France, he was commissioned to write a cantata celebrating an event involving the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec. That tune, set to lyrics by a Quebec poet, was enshrined forever in later years as the national anthem of Canada, Oh, Canada!
So “stand on guard”, dear readers as we conclude Part Two and look forward to Part Three on February 16. Late viewers who wish to join in on watching the final two episodes can do so by contacting the Cummings Centre and the fee for the four-part series will be prorated accordingly. Rod Lutes chimes in, singing verses of a number of the songs he cites, while playing on his guitar and banjo.
Feature image: Rob Lutes, roblutes.com
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.