February 25, 2020
minstrel shows began in the 19th century. Most of the
performers wore blackface, played banjos and other instruments, and
sang Oh, I wish I was in de land ob cotton / Old times dar am
not forgotten / Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
song was written by Dan Emmett, born 45 miles east of my future
hometown of Richwood, Ohio. Emmett's group was said to be the
first to black up the entire orchestra for a full-length performance.)
musicians typically sat in a semicircle facing the audience.
In the center was a master of ceremonies trading jokes with the
end men, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, who addressed him as
Mr. Interlocutor and comically pretended to misunderstand his pompous language.
featured bit was a stump speech, a parody of a
politician running for office and falling off his stump.
shows, with all their strings jangling
and dangling, were very popular but also very racist. As
the decades went by, the racist elements were downplayed and the
entertainment essentially became vaudeville.
1920 in my future hometown, the newspaper editorialized:
"Everyone who wants Richwood to have a band ought to patronize
the Independent Minstrels. Through this home talent show, an
annual event, are obtained the funds which permit the organization to
exist. This year's show will be given Thursday and Friday, and
everyone who attends will get more than his money's worth."
The venue would have been the local Opera House.
tradition continued into the 1950s. My fuzzy memory is of a
local talent show presented by the Lions Club (my father was a Lion)
in the high school auditorium about 1955. At the time I was
taking piano lessons from Margaret Weller. Her sister Mabel
Gill played the accordion in the show.
interlude, non-minstrel variety:
photo of sisters Mabel (left) and Margaret comes from The
Autobiography of Charles F. Gill
son Chuck Gill. He was also a musician.
much more recently, the lower photo shows Chuck's son Zack Gill with
an accordion, singing a Beatles song with Jack Johnson. Here
is the YouTube version.
the album Life in the Multiverse,
Zack looked back to the summer of 1958 and his father's first band
one guitar, one saxophone, and drums, featuring a song Chuck
made up called Tiger Rag (after Richwood High School's mascot). Some
of Zack's lyrics:
he plugged in his guitar, it was a beacon
Calling kids from miles around,
the neighboring farm towns,
Seeking out the restless sounds
of Chuck and the Nomads.
played Everly Brothers and honky-tonk.
The kids shook their badonkadoncks,
teenagers of Ohio
Movin' to and fro to the sounds
of Chuck and the Nomads.
the band broke up when college came.
Grandma recorded over the only tape.
my dad's stories inspire
Of when rock n roll was still a spark
about to become a fire.
legend still lives on today:
Best band that you never heard!
it on my papa's word:
Rock 'n roll in the Buckeye State
with Chuck and the Nomads.
classmates Tonya Davis Payne and Dennis Roberts remembered that
Chuck Gill brought his university party band Admiral Nelson and
the Impressed Seamen to play for our Senior Prom in 1965.
Denny says they were awesome, although our teacher chaperones didn't
know what to think.
from 1965 Tigrtrax yearbook
to about 1955. Someone, probably my piano teacher, got me
booked to play a piece on the Minstrel Show. As I recall, my
name was not in the printed program; I was billed merely as
Mystery Guest or Surprise Performer.
Why? I never knew. Maybe I was the last-minute
replacement for someone they weren't sure would be able to
appear. Or maybe the surprise was that this little bespectacled third-grader
could actually tickle the ivories tolerably well.
do not recall any blackface performers on stage. I, for one,
definitely did not wear makeup.