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Primitive Back Minstrel Dancer!
"Sam 'Bones' Alowishus Ulyssable"
The dilapidated theatre looked lonelier than usual. It was to be torn down in a few days. It didn't matter to me what was going to be built in it's place......nothing could replace the sadness that was felt in losing this old theatre.
The back door creaked heavily as I entered the theatre. The air was warm and musty, but the smell was rather exciting.
How many other hopeful people entered this very door, many years ago, approaching their dream......starting their career.......taking a deep breath as they took their first step through this door of uncertainty?
It was dark inside and my eyes had to make their adjustment to the lack of light. My hands felt along the old brick walls.....the texture of the cold structure was a symbolic reminder of how harsh and cold a life in the threatre can be.
Dreams were made and destroyed in this very place. This hallway held the memories of tears of excitement and joy, and tears of devastation and heartbreak.
As I moved past the stacks of wooden crates and discarded props and broken chairs, I saw the doors of the dressing rooms. I paused to touch the place where a sign once hung.
Was it where a 'star' used to be?.....was it the wardrobe room?
A cold spot in the air caught my attention, but quickly disappeared.
And as though it were very far away, I heard the tapping of what sounded like a cane on a wooden floor. I heard the shuffle of feet.......and the slightest humming of a male voice.......and it echoed. It was humming the tune of Camptown Races.
All of the words were hummed, except for the part that went "Doo-da, doo-da..."
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I was laced with 'chicken skin'. A hush fell over the entire theatre and the sounds disappeared like a vapor.
Could it have been the ghost of Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable?
I had heard the rumors for years. People told tales of hearing and even seeing the ghost of Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable.
I explored more of the theatre in silence, all except for the creaking of the wooden floors beneath my feet.
My ears were ever vigilant for more signs of the ghost of Sam "Bones".
I was finally in the theatre area itself.......rows and rows of broken chairs and debris were everywhere. There had been a flood at one time and that proved to be the death knell for the theatre.
The old heavy red curtains were dusty, worn, and torn, but age didn't betray the feeling one felt while 'making it' behind those curtains. To stand behind those enormous folds of fabric was an honor, whether it was then or now.
I began to hear the tapping sounds and the humming again.
And there he was.... the ghost of Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable! I was startled and hid back behind some crates to watch him. He began on the floor of the theatre, then leapt like a Gazelle onto the stage to do his song and dance routine.
He stood about 30 inches tall and was dressed in his black pants and lined coat with tails. The pants were pulled up high and secured with a black cummerbund beneath a stained white, lined, double-breasted vest with six black buttons.
His starched shirt collar stood up and framed his dignified face. And his black bow tie was still in proper shape, adorning his collar base. He was painted black and sanded down for an aged look. His heavy eyelids told the tale weariness and an eternity of dancing.
His button eyes were white and very large. His lips were large, too......VERY large, as they were painted, sanded, and stitched onto his face.
His black ears jutted from the sides of his head and his hair was made of lamb's wool.
His humming of the song Camptown Races grew louder and more deliberate.
Many people don't realize that some of the South's favorite songs of yore were originated from the old Minstrel Shows.
My mind began to think back to the history of the Minstrel shows......many of which were performed in this very theatre.
In the situation with Sam "Bones", it is told, was that he longed to be an entertainer. He had a wealth of talent and an unstoppable drive. However, back in the beginning days of the Minstrel shows, Negroes were not allowed to perform in the shows. The irony is incredible. But this was law, before the Civil War.
Instead, white people dressed in what was known as 'black face', using burnt cork to paint on their faces.
But there are several instances of black men putting on Minstrel makeup and appearing as white men imitating black men. Such was the case with Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable.
Later, in the twentieth century, several of the most famous Minstrels were actually black men who wore makeup - -the most famous being Bert Williams, who performed in blackface into the 1920s.
The first talking picture, "The JazzSinger," (1927) was a blackface film. Both Judy Garland and Bing Crosby did movies with blackface sequences.
But back between 1830—1850, new itinerant songwriters appeared composing new tunes based on existing folk melodies. Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work, Daniel Emmett and Thomas Daddy Rice, all professional songwriters, traveled throughout the South by steamship and river boat, observing and notating song ideas from plantation slaves.
The slaves, having learned many of their songs and dances from traveling Irish musicians, modified and played jigs and reels on homemade fiddles and banjos.
The banjo itself was a slave invention, but the music became more rhythmic and syncopated as the slaves added African musical techniques.
Plantation lore also made rich use of farm and wild animals that the slaves observed and imitated in their daily lives. The Juba dance, the Cakewalk, the Turkey Trot and the Buzzard Lope all had their origin in plantation life.
At first there was no set pattern to the Minstrel show, but gradually it developed into four sections, consisting of solos as well as ensemble performances.
Solos were sung in Negro dialect and they usually poked fun of the ragged, black plantation slave. Sometimes the slave was portrayed as a trickster who outsmarted authority or else he became the butt of other peoples’ jokes. He was usually poorly dressed, but often he appeared on stage as a highly—spirited city dandy in Long—tailed blue or black dress coat and was variously called Old Zip Coon, Dandy Jim or just Jim Crow.
Although the Minstrel show perpetuated Negro stereotypes, it also helped blacks enter the field of show business after the Civil War. Early black Minstrel troupes such as Mahara’s Minstrels and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels corked their faces as custom demanded and performed in a self—mocking manner that degraded their race.
However, this was the beginning of their entry into professional show business and blacks continued to call themselves Minstrels up to the start of World War I.
James Bland (1854—1911), a black composer, was the only notable minstrel song writer of the late nineteenth century. Of the 200 songs he wrote, his most famous were "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" and "In the Evening by the Moonlight."
The old theatre had stood here through all of this history. No one is quite sure what exactly happened to Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable. But the rumors have circulated for years about his hauntings of the old theatre. It was as though he never wanted to leave the world of entertainment.
What was to become of him once the theatre was destroyed? Where would he go?
He was very well-known as the best entertainer the theatre had ever seen, back in his day. He had a black top hat and black cane that he used in his shows. His white shirt cuffs with the cuff links and white gloves could be seen peeking from beneath his black coat with tails.
As his popularity grew and the theatre filled to capacity, Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable would wear white spats with black buttons so the audience could see his feet as he seemed to walk on air across the stage.
Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable got his start in show business quite honestly....he was surrounded by it through his parents.
Born in McMinnville, Tennessee in 1870, Sam "Bones" was very early influenced by Minstrel entertainers when his parents opened a theatrical boarding house in Nashville. He picked up banjo techniques and comedy routines from the Minstrel men, as well as many songs that he later performed on his recordings and personal appearances.
The early hillbilly string bands of the 1920’s such as the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers often featured fiddle and banjo versions of old Minstrel songs.
So it was only natural that Sam "Bones" Ulyssable would find his heart in entertainment.
All in all, even though the Minstrel show created racial stereotypes, it gave professional composers a vehicle for their new material and fed newly—composed songs into an ever—expanding folk tradition.
While it gave blacks their first crack at professional show business, it also enriched the repertory of Southern country music.
Like the Negro spiritual, the Minstrel show was a uniquely American art form.
It was time for me to leave the theatre. I went around to the back section of the stage and as I heard my own footsteps, I also heard the dancing and tapping of Sam "Bones" Alowishus Ulyssable.....
As I walked further from the stage, the echoes of the song that was heard in the empty theatre faded to a whisper....
"Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmmmmm....Doo-da, doo-daaaaaaaaaaaaaa..."
Copyright © July 17, 2003 and May 9, 2004 Cathy Palmer-Scruggs / Catt Alexander
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