Sometimes I go into something not really sure what to expect. It may be a job interview or a class I’ve signed up for. Such was the case last Tuesday when I attended the Smithsonian Associates’ event, “Vaudeville’s Melting Pot.” I have the liberty of choosing to attend events that strike my interest. Sometimes the choice is obvious like our “Hollywood in DC” event or our “Toast to Women Bartenders” event. However, other times I simply pick what strikes my curiosity. I’m happy to report that I walked away from the event with a wealth of information and a deeper appreciation for both Irish and African American dance culture.
The title “Vaudeville’s Melting Pot” stood out to me because of my interest in theatre/dance and my Irish heritage, so I decided to attend. I entered the Ripley Center lecture hall and found a seat in the balcony. First we were introduced to our speakers for the evening: Lenwood O. Sloan and Mick Moloney. The program description labeled the two as cultural historians, but they’re known for much more. Sloan served as Pennsylvania’s film commissioner and as director of the state’s Cultural and Heritage Tourism program. Moloney is a Global Distinguished Professor of Music and Irish Studies at New York University.
Sloan and Moloney have been colleagues for over 10 years, often meeting to engage in the dialogue such as that the audience witnessed throughout the evening. In order to frame the context of their discussion, Sloan shared a surprising statistic. Roughly 38% of African Americans have Irish DNA. This cross-cultural contact arose in the 1640s when Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland and began his ethnic cleansing of the nation. Many Irish people were shipped to the Caribbean.
The forced migration of an estimated 60,000 to 320,000 Irishmen to Barbados led to the first large mixing of blacks and Irish. In Barbados, the Irish immigrants were viewed as the lowest class. The Irish advanced in Barbadian society by marrying blacks. However, Barbados was not the only area where blacks and Irish began to mix. As Sloan explained, “their Simian natures placed them together outside of society…their condition of suppression was the same and brought these two groups together.”
In the United States, one main port of entry for both cultures was New Orleans. Very few Irish immigrants had skills outside of farming, so they would take any job available. Often, these involved labor jobs in the swamps. Once again, Irish immigrants were in a position lower than blacks. Slave laborers respected blacks over Irish workers because they saw their slaves as an investment. Slave laborers viewed Irish immigrant workers as easily replaceable, so they were placed in swamp conditions where they were subjected to diseases such as malaria.
While the slave laborers viewed their black slaves as an investment, that did not mean blacks were advancing in society. Both blacks and Irishmen were trying to climb up the social lader. This opposition between the two groups resulted in conflict as both groups tried to gain jobs working on the docks. The Irish formed gangs and would fight against black dock workers in an attempt to take their jobs.
It’s worth noting that at this time, the Irish were not considered white. In census polling, Irish were considered “other.” Like blacks, Irish were on the fringe of society, both metaphorically and literally. The expansion of the frontier opened up the opportunity for new jobs, and the Irish began to move west through Appalachia. Once again, the black and Irish cultures began to melt together.
Evidence of this cultural melting pot can be found in bluegrass music. While working on the railroad, Irish and black musical styles began to meld. For example, American mountain music relies heavily on the banjo, a musical instrument that ties its history to Africa, and the fiddle, a musical instrument that ties its history to Europe.
American mountain music attributes its popularity to the vaudeville stage, which is where Irishmen began to find success appropriating black culture. One of the most iconic men to take on this role was Thomas Dartmouth “TD” Rice. Rice hailed himself as an “Ethiopian Delineator,” the precursor to the vaudeville minstrel. Rice is credited with inventing the “Jim Crow” persona, which became the image of blacks for spectators across America.
The popularity of Rice’s Jim Crow act led to many actors creating their own personas. Minstrel groups like the Virginia Minstrels brought together individual acts to form large touring shows, furthering the act’s popularity.
Black actors saw this appropriation as an opportunity to advance their own performing careers. Interestingly, black performers would apply the blackface when performing their acts. In an effort to distinguish themselves from black actors, white actors began to leave a white ring around their eyes and mouths. In response, black actors began to paint a black ring around their eyes and mouths. This back and forth between the two cultures confused audiences, and in an act of their own appropriation, black actors often took on Irish stage names.
The melting pot between cultures occurred not only on the vaudeville stage but also within the lyrics of popular songs. One of the most well-known minstrel song writers of the time was Stephen Foster. His popular songs like “Oh! Susannah” and “Camptown Races” are still sung today. Another one of Foster’s popular hits, “Nelly was a Lady,” was controversial for its time. Though hardly provocative by today’s standards, the song was controversial because it calls a black woman a lady. Other songs by Foster feature themes of freedom, thus engraining the idea in the popular culture of the time.
Other songwriters like Tony Hart, Ned Harrigan, Ernest Hogan and Irving Berlin followed Foster’s popularity and furthered the popularity of ragtime, which was a large part of vaudeville theatre. Vaudeville offered cheap prices and a variety of acts to entertain spectators of every age. Both blacks and Irish performers were able to gain something from each other on the stage. For example, the Nicholas Brothers’ act draws on a very European style of dance.
As the evening drew to a close, Moloney summed up the evening best by explaining, “[the relationship between the two groups] is a complex and troubled history, but moments of redemption happened in the acts on stage that transcend other kinds of differences.” In other words, both blacks and Irish found the stage as a common place to which both cultures made contributions in sharing that common space.
Moloney and Sloane wrapped up the night with the perfect clip from Riverdance. This number demonstrates the beautiful blend that occurs when the two cultures and styles are combined.
Written by Courtney Guth, social media intern at The Smithsonian Associates.