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Mr. Ivories
Written February 25, 2020
Updated December 9, 2020


American 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.”

(That 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.)

The 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.

Another featured bit was a “stump speech,” a parody of a politician running for office — and falling off his stump.

Minstrel 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.

In 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 was the local Opera House.  Below is part of the cast from the 1937 show, set at the “Drinkwater Sanitarium.”

Photo credit: Charles Lyn Barry

The tradition continued into the 1950s.  Mike Thompson wrote on Facebook, “Lions Club minstrels were well received in Richwood.  They had them at the High School auditorium.  They were not a putdown of Black Americans but, I think, really were respectful.  We had prominent Richwoodites in blackface singing Al Jolson songs.”

My father was a member of the Lions Club, and my fuzzy memory is of a local talent show at High School about 1955.  At the time I was taking piano lessons from Margaret Weller.  Her sister Mabel Gill played the accordion in the show.

Musical interlude, non-minstrel variety:

This photo of sisters Mabel (left) and Margaret comes from  The Autobiography of Charles F. Gill by Mabel's son Chuck Gill.  He was also a musician.

And 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.

For 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:

When he plugged in his guitar, it was a beacon
   Calling kids from miles around,
All the neighboring farm towns,
   Seeking out the restless sounds
      of Chuck and the Nomads.

They played Everly Brothers and honky-tonk.
   The kids shook their badonkadoncks,
The teenagers of Ohio
   Movin' to and fro to the sounds
      of Chuck and the Nomads.

Well, the band broke up when college came.
   Grandma recorded over the only tape.
Still my dad's stories inspire
   Of when rock n roll was still a spark
      about to become a fire. 

The legend still lives on today:
   Best band that you never heard!
Take it on my papa's word:
   Rock 'n roll in the Buckeye State 
     with Chuck and the Nomads.

My 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.

photos from 1965 Tigrtrax yearbook


Back 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.

I do not recall any blackface performers on stage.  I, for one, definitely did not wear makeup.



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