American Humor – Constance Rourke


‘Humour is “a lawless element, full of surprises.” ’

Henry James’ character, Rowland Mallet, in Roderick Hudson referred to the American’s quarrel with his own country.


Traces of that quarrel are apparent prior to the Civil War but it deepened soon after the Civil War.


The New England Yankee


The figure of the Yankee peddler appearing to the inhabitants of Carolina toward the end of the 18thC: He ‘made his way into their houses, and silver leapt into his pockets.’


‘Staying a night at the tavern, he traded the landlord out of bed and breakfast and left with most of the money in the settlement … When the barter was over he lapsed into an image as wooden as his ware.’

[Radio national breakfast programme, Wednesday September 3rd,2003. Note that uncle Sam appeared sometime around 1814; when asked what “U S” stamped on the side of a barrel he was minding stood for he said it was his name: Uncle Sam. He subsequently made his way progressively into lore.*]

The Yankee peddler appeared wherever men pushed into new regions—adding a splash of colour to farms deep in the forests, along the Mississippi frontier, on the heels of the settlers tramping to Oregon and through the California gold fields. He it was who provided the zest of the new tales and the sharp talk. [This is Mercurius]


As the actual peddler was lost to view the greater his mythological presence became. Moreover, the Yankee as mythical character was many-faceted, more than a peddler. He emerged in the American Revolution to the tune of Yankee Doodle and was known of in 18thC London as one who was able to outwit the local confidence tricksters.

The Yankee had a knack for making changes and swapping was one mode for generating the excitement of change; he whittled unexpected and fanciful shapes from white hickory. [So is this]


The practical joker, his humour was really anything but practical. Masquerade was his forte, appearing in a bell-shaped white hat with his long thin legs in tow-linen trousers* telling ridiculous stories without any apparent point and answering a question with a question. The point of this apparent reluctance to commit himself was to prolong conversation; i.e., it was a masquerade.


Like the Yeoman of Yorkshire, the Yankee is a ‘wanderer, given to swapping’.


The American Revolution, ‘with its cutting of ties, its movement, its impulses toward freedom, seemed to set one portion of the scant population free from its narrow [Puritan] matrix.’ Obscure farm and village dwellers sprang up with an irreverent tune and broke free from the traditional faith, ready to roam far and wide. [yet again, it’s Mercurius]

This Yankee even regarded the Revolution itself as something of a joke; his songs about it were mainly nonsense pieces. The sombre and deep emotional well of the Puritan was left behind but the Yankee retained the [Puritan] mask.

The Puritan safeguarded his emotional world against surprise, anger, dismay, etc. with the unchanging, unaverted countenance (encouraged by Governor Bradford [Governor of Plymouth on and off for thirty years from the age of thirty-two, in April 1621 with the unexpected death of Governor Carver, Willison pp195-6]) of the mask. Those possessed of a joyous, dance-filled convivial spirit were able to express that side of their nature behind the mask. In the uncertain world of pioneering folk, the Yankee retained this mask.


The USA which emerged from the American Revolution is Brother Jonathon ‘an out-at-elbows New England country boy with short coat-sleeves, shrunken trousers, and a blank  countenance. In the following years of inflated triumph the quiet, uncouth Yankee lad was often innocently put forward as a national symbol. The image was adopted in another of those half-lighted transitions which belong to Yankee history.’

‘Yankee’ may derive from Jonathon Trumbull of Connecticut (Washington’s friend) but CR says this doesn’t fit the picture. The Yankee is the image that the Americans, after the dark past and the birth of the character through the Revolution, agreed upon as representative of the nation: a homely comic.

Following Bergson, CR notes that the comic arises when a society, like an individual, feels freed from the apprehension of self-preservation, and begin to regard itself as a work of art. Thereafter, i.e., post-1815, Americans began to see themselves as works of art that needed the embellishment of a self-portrait. Assisted by French portraits [de Toqueville?] the picture was drawn of a child of nature. [Mercurius, take a bow, and don’t forget your Davy Crocket hat] The British pictured the American somewhat less superficially, says CR.



And the Americans didn’t like what Mrs Trollope, Dickens, et al had to say. Irving regarded the British portrait as credulous but admitted that America was “morbidly sensitive” to English aspersions and prone to overreact with sarcasm (see Paulding’s 1825 John Bull in America ) that’d be ruinous to the national temper. [Note Rumsfeld’s reactions to the French and German criticisms.]



In the Vermont writer Royal Tyler’s fable, The Contrast, staged during the American Revolution, the character of Jonathon Yankee’ gave savor (sic) to the notion that only a rough sincerity was of consequence in America.’



He might have simply faded from view but Tyler gave life to this character by making him ‘Astute and simple, gross and rambling, rural to the core, he talked nat’r’l—talked his way through the scenes, and became a presiding genius.’ [Mercurius again]. Worked over in succeeding generations this character spawned Yankee plays all over the country on American stages, especially in the wake of the British commentaries from 1825.

This Yankee ‘might be a peddler, a sailor, a Vermont wool-dealer, or merely a Green Mountain boy who traded and drawled and upset calculations; he was Lot Sapsago or Jedediah Homebred or Jerusalem Dutiful; sometimes he was a sailor. But he was always the symbolic American.’ He was Brother Jonathon turned into Uncle Sam. ‘Half bravado, half cockalorum, this Yankee revealed the traits considered deplorable by the British travellers; he was indefatigably rural, sharp, uncouth, witty. Here were the manners of the Americans! Peddling, swapping, practical joking, might have been national preoccupations. He burst periodically into song, with variations of “Yankee Doodle”, with local ballads celebrating Yankee exploits or chanteys.’



‘The American stepped full-length into the public glare, and steadily heightened the early yellow light. He gazed at himself in the Yankee plays as in a bright mirror, and developed the habit of self-scrutiny, which may have its dangers for the infant or youth, whether the creature be national or human.’     


George Handel Hill, Yankee Hill, who lived until the late 1840’s was a merry, ‘improvident, unworldly’ actor who discovered that his use of native lingo on the New York stage of the 1820’s brought forth an unmistakably positive response from the audience, ‘made Yankee portraiture his own’.



Yankee Hill discovered the traits that brought the audience to its feet: ‘stumbling security, the evasions that were social in intention, the habit of masquerade.’ Hill’s ‘Yankees, quiet and low-voiced, wearing his own mild countenance, whittled a great deal and talked quite as much, but never very loud.’ [CR refers to Hill’s sketches of the New Englander as the source of this reflection.]

Storytelling is the Yankee habit and Hill developed this in the form of the monologue. He



regarded the original Pilgrims with ‘bored irreverence.’

The Yankee voice had slow running rhythms and a high pitch, seeming to be an inner voice speaking below the audible one. Yankee speech, according to Lowell, was not so much a dialect as a lingo.

i.e., another form of masquerade. Homely comparisons were the Yankee stock in trade: ‘so thin you could pitch him clean through a flute.’

George Hill’s Yankee was the generic American who wore ‘the flaxen wig, the red-white-and-blue costume, the high bootstraps and tall white hat of the nationalistic Yankee … he appeared in the fables of The Contrast with their stress upon the nationalistic character.’

And so, too, did Silsbee and Marble.



Seba Smith created the character of Jack Downing, [trickster] and purported advisor to President Jackson; the Downing monologues appeared in a Portland newspaper. Here was the Yankee as oracle. [Mercurius]



 ‘In a Government like ours’, said Downing, ‘the people is used for voting.’



Jack Downing’s low-key satire and understatement was a ‘faint masquerade [which] might have been rooted national habit, so snugly did these fit into the popular fancy … These monologues were spoken by a humble character who might have been expected to exalt rather than to puncture the workings of democracy. This mythical oracle from a down east village had risen to his dominating position at the very moment when the power of New England appeared to be in decline, signalized by the reluctant departure of John Quincy Adams from the White House. Out of apparent defeat the legendary Yankee had risen like a jack-in-the-box, thriving on contention.’ [Mercurius] At first glance Jack Downing appears to be a genuine character; indeed, Seba Smith rated the drawing of the character above the political satire. Yet for all of that, says CR, in Jack Downing the ‘tiny idiosyncracies, the positive reactions, the many involvements which set off one character from another are never the focus of attention. He is lucid and large, he belongs with the Yankee of the [Contrast] fables.’


The Downing papers were popular for twenty years and spawned many copies, some of them as good. Sam Slick, the Yankee clock peddler, took over and in 30 years of popularity, almost blotted out the memory of his progenitor. Hezekiah Biglow followed, substituting Yankee rhythms for rhyme. ‘For forty years or more after Jack Downing’s first appearance, the country was never without a Yankee oracle or even half a dozen.’


According to Seba Smith’s testimony, the Yankee, ‘far from being a talking boor … is on the contrary singularly wise, penetrating, and observant, reproducing in our day, from traditional use, the language of Shakespeare and Milton.’

CR/ 34

‘The Yankee was never passive, not the crackerbox philosopher seated in some dim interior, uttering wisdom before a ring of quiet figures; he was noticeably out in the world; it was a prime part of his character to be “a-doin”. But though he often pulled strings, always made shrewd or caustic comments, though he often belonged to a family—like the Downing family—he was seldom deeply involved in situations; even his native background was meagrely drawn. A fence, a bit of stone wall, or the remembrance of wild life showing in his talk—not too wild, recalling only the smaller creatures of the wood: these made his spare setting. Though he talked increasingly his monologues still never brimmed over into personal revelation. He was drawn with ample colour and circumstance, yet he was not wholly a person. His mask, so simply and blankly worn, had closed down without a crack or a seam to show a glimpse of the human creature underneath.

A barrier seemed to lie between this legendary Yankee and any effort to reach his inner character.


The effect was so consistent, so widespread, so variously repeated that the failure to see him closely must be reckoned not a failure at all but a concerted interest in another direction. He was consistently a mythical figure; he appeared in the forms of expression taken by myth, in cycles of short tales, fables, and plays. Plain and pawky, he was an ideal image, a self-image, one of those symbols which people spontaneously adopt and by which in some measure they live. Over-assertive yet quiet, self-conscious, full of odd new biases, he talked—this mythical creature: that was one secret of his power. A deep relish for talk had grown up throughout the country, on solitary farms, in the starved emptiness of the backwoods, on the wide wastes of the rivers. The response seemed an outcome of isolation; yet the same thirst existed in the denser populations of the East. His slanting dialect, homely metaphor, the penetrating rhythms of his speech, gave a fillup toward the upset of old and rigid balances; creating laughter, he also created a fresh sense of unity. he ridiculed old values; the persistent contrast with the British showed part of his intention; to some extent he created new ones. He was a symbol of triumph, of adaptability, of irrepressible life—of many qualities needed to induce confidence and self-possession among a new and un-amalgamated people. No character precisely like him had appeared before in the realm of the imagination … It was to survive in many fanciful manifestations as an outline of the American character; it has never been lost.’ [Mercurius]


 The Backwoodsman

Rising in the West, the backwoodsman was the altered form of the legendary Yankee, the latter CR/36

having appropriated the tall tales of the former by the 1830’s.





The Gamecock of the Wilderness


Rev Samuel Peters’ “highly irreverent view of the Puritans” as pumkin-heads. His description of magical creatures (such as the humility bird and the whapper-nocker) anticipated by a generation or more the tall tales of the West.



The backwoodsman as a magical figure “had leapt up out of war as a noticeable figure—the war of 1812”, just as the Yankee had from the War of Independence, the Revolution. “He was not only half horse, half alligator, he was also the sea-horse of the mountain, a flying whale, a bear with a sore head. He had sprung from the Potomac of the world. He was a steamboat, or an earthquake that shook an enemy to pieces, and he could wade the Mississippi. … He was the ‘gamecock of the [CR/40] wilderness’ and the ‘Salt River Roarer’.”



“Strength was his obsession—size, scale, power … ” Shouting was his thing [the Rebel yell].



Ancestry: similar to that of the Yankee—his early faith was a rooted Calvinism (“though the Ulster and Scots inheritance among the first inhabitants of Kentucky seems to have been stronger than among the New Englanders, and their history—also one of persecution—had been more violent.”)

In the virgin lands on the Yadkin to which they migrated when unable to settle in the Shenandoah Valley they “took on savage colouring as if for protection” from the fact that the forest was full of threats to their security.

“Renegades were plentiful; men like the Harpes plundered with no object, and like ogres in medieval fairytale slept with their victims in order to slay them, while creatures such as the Jibbenainosay haunted the land—half white, half Indian, monstrous and ghostlike, phantasms of terror to whites and Indians, moving through the forests on vengeful errands.”

“Indian legends seeped into the consciousness of the new settlers, turning this awry. After the harsher dangers were [CR/42] over, many a Kentucky pioneer was like the red-headed Peter Featherton, who one day crunched over dry snow for miles without a sign of game and at sunset found the streams running in the wrong direction, shadows falling the wrong way, and his own shadow travelling around him like the marker on a sun-dial, though much faster. A spell was laid upon his rifle that was relaxed only by Indian incantations and the appearance of a snow-white fawn.” White fawns frequently appeared in these legends. “The backwoodsman conquered the Indian, but the Indian also conquered him. He ravaged the land and was ravaged in turn.”



The backwoodsman and Mississippi boatman merge into a single heroic figure of 19th C America. (Davy Crockett and Mike Fink; see CR/52)As the terrors of the forest receded people took to the fiddle and “the sound of Scotch or English airs and ballads [arose] from the clearings. … Both the backwoodsman and the boatman were lively dancers, mixing Negro breakdowns with Irish reels and jigs.”

Daniel Boone wanted more ‘elbow room’ and while the boatman was constantly on the move the backwoodsman didn’t like to be crowded.

“Like all frontiersmen they possessed a gift for masquerade; they wore blank countenances. They were fond of costume, wearing bright fringes and many-coloured coats. Each carried a gun, which was his dearest possession, his friend, his clown.”

“With these simple outlines the backwoodsman emerged into the general view during the early decades of the nineteenth century.”



The backwoodsman, like the Yankee, was branded a braggart and a liar. He was a notorious marksman and CR/47 had extraordinary eyesight.



On his early travels with a small circus Barnum met a tall story teller whose lies crept up on the audience until the wholly legendary nature of the tale was revealed. “Half magnification, half sudden strange reversal, these tales were likely to culminate in moments of ‘sudden glory’ that had a touch of the supernatural. Indian traces appeared in them with a comic movement upside down. Fragments of Gaelic lore brought by the earlier pioneers may have strengthened a sense of natural magic.”



The tall tale has a characteristic “knock-down force … [with an] unexpected thrust at the end. Almost always the listener loses a foothold or draws a sudden breath. It was the wilderness with its impenetrable depths, the wild storms of the West, the great rivers, the strange new wonders on every side, that produced the content of the stories—those natural elements that had brought terror and suffering to earlier pioneers and still belonged to the farther, unknown West, but now were apprehended with an insurgent comic rebound and a consciousness of power.”



Note mention of the Devil-Jack Diamond-Fish and refer to the Jack of Diamonds from the blues repertoire.



Davy “Crockett first emerged as a coonskin follower of Jackson; he later became Jackson’s opponent, and was transformed into an oracle throughout the land, with a position similar to that of Jack Downing. … Crockett’s philosophy was simple: he wanted to save the land from the speculator. In his early phase he was rather more the settler than the huntsman.”

The actual Davy Crockett died in 1836 and thereafter his legend became more and more mythologised to the point where he had never died; [CR/55] “he became a demigod, or at least a Prometheus.”

‘double shuffle’ is a phrase used by Davy Crockett.



The tall tale came into its prime in the early 1830’s. [Note the paradoxical nature of some of them: “A man was so tall that he had to get up on a ladder to shave himself. There was the immemorial oyster, so large that two were required to swallow it.”


CR/57 These tall tales “wore the lustrous air of new birth.”



The American tall tale retains the European fairy tale’s touch of natural magic “but [their] excess belings to the American frontier.”

“The backwoodsman may have gained his freedom with language from that large area of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century out of which many of his progenitors had stepped, passing so soon into the wilderness as to preserve their habits of speech, and to be uninfluenced, presumably, by the later stability of the English language.”


“ ‘What orator’, said a Kentuckian, ‘can deign to restrain his imagination within a vulgar and sterile state of facts?’ ”



Comic oratory (see CR/59 for a wonderful example of ‘buncombe’ - burlesque) was at its height in Jacksonian America and “Barnum enjoyed it in his early years.”



Kentucky’s Ben Hardin accompanied Davy Crockett on his more wondrous exploits.



“The true tall tale with its stress upon the supernatural was laid against others of a prosaic grounding.”



“Scallywags, gamblers, ne’er-do-wells [and so on] were drawn into a careless net of stories against a background of pine barrens, sandy wastes, half-ploughed fields, huts with leaky roofs. Their implements were rusty … [and these characters] belonged to a rootless drift that had followed in the wake of the huntsman and scout. … Sly instead of strong, they pursued uncharted ways, breaking from traditions, bent on triumph.”



“Those evasive dialogues by which the Yankee sought to learn everything and tell nothing and accomplish an expanded sociability were repeated by the backwoodsman.”

Compare CR’s recounting of the man and his name being whatever you want it to be with  ‘Alias’ in Pat Garret’s biography of Billy the Kid.

“The backwoodsman was likely to appear in pairs, leaping or boasting or telling stories in matches with the background of a crowd.”


That Long Tailed Blue



Irving created comic mythology (with his Knickerbocker History and Rip Van Winkle) “as though myth-making were a native habit, formed early.



Whilst all other regional types tended to come to the surface for a short while and then vanish amid the motley throng, the Negro emerged strongly.



The Negro “became, in short, a dominant figure in spite of his condition, and commanded a definite portraiture.”

In the early 1820’s, “at almost the precise moment when the backwoodsman appeared in legend with his Hunters of Kentucky, the southern plantation Negro was drawn on the stage in Cincinnati by young Edwin Forrest. … and punctually in the early ’30’s, when both the Yankee and the backwoodsman leapt to full stature on the stage, the Negro was also pictured in firm, enduring outlines.” [See Eric Lott, p251: “Forrest,a great fan of minstrelsy, was also certainly one of the first to ‘black up’—as ‘Cuff, a Kentucky Negro,’ in Cincinnati in 1823.” EL/251

TD Rice, a white man, appeared in blackface on the stage in Pittsburgh as Jim Crow. Still in blackface, he



disappeared to re-emerge, dressed “in the red and white striped trousers and long blue coat of the Yankee. The coat became the subject of one of his most popular songs, ‘That Long-tail’d Blue,’ a ballad telling of the trials besetting the wearer of that garment.”

A few years later, in 1842, Negro minstrelsy was born. Led by Dan Emmett, a backwoodsman, three Yankees (i.e., 4 actors all together) and dressed in ‘that long-tail’d blue’ they performed with Negro musical instruments to a New York hotel audience.



Despite the racist overtones and despite the fact that for the primitive comic sense merely being black was funny, the black minstrel set about depicting Negro humour which was “always abundant … [From] it early minstrelsy drew as from a primal source, keeping the tradition for direct and ample portraiture. Burlesque appeared, but burlesque was natural to the Negro.”

The Minstrel songs and dances, though claimed to be the creative efforts of white men, bore the hallmarks of Negro origins. Dan Emmett’s ‘Ole Dan Tucker’, for example, is almost certainly based on a Negro song cycle.



"The “crow was a comic symbol for the Negro himself, though he might at times take the form of a sheep or a hog, while the master or the overseer or the patrol—the ‘patter-roller’—was the bulldog or sometimes the bullfrog. The jaybird habitually took the sinister part, descending into hell on Fridays; and other birds and animals were freely drawn in symbolical relations.”

These “cryptic bird and animal fables” referred to in ‘Ole Dan Tucker’ “have proved to be a consistent Negro creation”.




[Negro trickster] “Dan Tucker was pictured as a vagabond Negro who was laughed at and scorned by his own kind but who constantly bobbed up among them with outrageous small adventures. Since he consorted with the two sagest creatures in the animal world of the Negro, the fox and the jaybird, he was endowed with a comical magic; yet for all this he was an outcast, looming large as he combed his hair with a wagon wheel, shrinking small and growing ridiculous as he washed his face in a frying-pan, and at last through the transformations of many years changing from black to white. … Dan Tucker was a legendary figure, as long-lived as Crockett.

“Emmett belonged to a family that had been among the early pioneers from Virginia; in later years his father’s 


house in Ohio had become a station for the underground railroad.”

Through “his impressionable years Emmett had been brought into close contact with the Negro; indeed he declared that he had always confined himself to ‘the habits and crude ideas of the slaves of the South,’ even though in the next breath he insisted that the songs were of his own composition. Negro melodies and fables had possessed his mind. Plantation cries echoed in his walkarounds and choruses. Some of his songs were close to the spirituals, which are the acknowledged creation of the Negro. The opening stanza of his first version of ‘Dixie’ contains a touch of the characteristic biblical picturing—

Dis worl’ was made in jes six days

An’ finished up in various ways—

Look away! look away! look away! Dixie land!

Dey den made Dixie trim and nice

But Adam called it Paradise—

Look away! look away! look away! Dixie land! ”

Controversy has in fact gathered around the entire question of the composition of Dixie, and Emmett has been denied even the smaller glory of transcription or adaptation. Whatever the circumstances, the traces of Negro origin remain in the biblical touch—never to be found in the cries of the chorus, and in the melody, which sounds like a fiddler’s tune.”



Stephen Foster also used the negro spiritual; he “haunted Negro camp-meetings for rhythms and melodies; and his songs were immediately appropriated by the minstrels.”

See CS’s reference to the Negro spiritual ‘Somebody’s Knocking at My Door’.

The walkaround (the climax of the minstrel performance) “was clearly patterned on Negro dances in the compounds of the great plantations, which in turn went back to the communal dancing  of the African. … in New Orleans early in the [19th] century … hundreds of Negroes followed through the streets a king chosen for his youth, strength, and blackness. Licence ran high and the celebrations ended in saturnalia of barbaric contortionistic dancing.”



The use of the phrase ‘jaw-bone’ is from minstrelsy.

Note, too, minstrelsy’s lyric

            “And nebber was heard of since dat day”

(This is from Rice’s ‘Sich a Gittin’ Upstairs’)



            ‘O I’se sorry I sold myself to the debbil’

[This lyric from minstrelsy echoes the blues/spiritual dilemma of the 20th century.]

Of the minstrel songs Cs says “Defeat could be heard in the occasional minor key and in the smothered satire.”



Minstrelsy’s characters:

“little limping Jim Crow with his plaintive song” was first; “Zip Coon [was] that ‘very learned skoler’, rougher simpler, and more humble” was next; “The third figure, old Dan Tucker, was perhaps the most enduring of all in spite of his many transformations; he was always the outcast … ”

“All three of these characters were outcasts even beyond the obvious fate of the slave.”


All of the characters in the minstrel shows “revealed the Negro character [but, more significantly] they showed that greater outline and more abstract drawing which reveals the world of legend. Magic was mixed with small events in these portrayals; and even real places took on the large and legendary air, as in the nostalgic lines of ‘Dixie’. the biblical allusions heightened the air of legend.”

"The symbolic ‘long-tail’d blue’ “was seldom seen after the first few years of minstrelsy [but] its nationalistic promise was kept. The Negro in minstrelsy took a turn at playing oracle.”

Eg., Little Jim Crow’s comical political talks



Zip Coon acquired “that legendary assumption of wisdom which had appeared persistently among American comic characters.”

The “rise of the Negro minstrel coincided with a marked change in his place within the nation. Little Jim Crow appeared at almost the precise moment when The Liberator was founded; [In Boston, January 1831, by William Lloyd Garrison; 24-year-old T D Rice toured the northeastern seaboard with his celebrated ‘Jim Crow’ act, landing in New York in November, 1832 (EL/111)] and



minstrelsy spread over the land and grew in popularity as the struggle for emancipation gained power through the 40’s and 50’s. The Negro minstrel joined with the Yankee and the backwoodsman to make a comic trio, appearing in the same era, with the same timely intensity.”

i.e., “the turbulent era of the Jacksonian democracy, that stormy time when the whole mixed population of the United States seemed to pour into the streets of Washington, and when many basic elements in the national character seemed to come to the surface, the Negro minstrel was deeply grounded in reality, even though the impersonators were white, even though the figure was a myth.”


It wasn’t that the Yankee, the backwoodsman and the blackface minstrel “represented any considerable numbers in the population, but because something in the nature of each induced an irresistible response. Each had been a wanderer over the land, the Negro a forced and unwilling wanderer. Each in a fashion of his own had broken bonds, the Yankee in the initial revolt against the parent civilisation, the backwoodsman in revolt against all civilisation, the Negro in a revolt which was cryptic and submerged but which none the less made a perceptible outline. As figures they embodied a deep-lying mood of disserverance, carrying the popular fancy further and further from any fixed or traditional heritage. Their comedy, their irreverent wisdom, their sudden changes and adroit adaptations, provided emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait. Comic triumph appeared in them all; the sense of triumph seemed a necessary mood in the new country. Laughter produced the illusion of levelling obstacles in a world which was full of unaccustomed obstacles. Laughter created ease, and even more, a sense of unity, among a people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities.”



“With all their rude poetry it was about a mind that these myths centred, a conscious, indeed an acutely self-conscious, mind. Masquerade was salient in them all. Minstrelsy was of course white masquerade; and the double use of the mask seemed to create a profound satisfaction for American audiences, as if the sheer accomplished artifice aroused an instinctive response among them. The mask might be worn as an inheritance or for amusement or as a front against the world in any of these impersonations, concealing a childish and unformed countenance: but it was part of a highly conscious self-projection.”

Emotion was kept at bay in these mythical representations (even the overt emotion of the minstrels was communal, not per the individual).

“Simple ties existed between this trio and the animal world. The Yankee looked there for swift, familiar comparison in order to identify a human being, often satirically. The backwoodsman pictured himself as a savage and cunning beast and turned to the wilderness mainly for destruction. At the same time he evoked it. The Negro saw beasts



and birds as emblems of himself and of others; his mood was that of companionship; and he kept to the gentle realm of the cotton-field, the meadow, the pasture, or the fringe of forest. In some sense wild creatures were seen in an alliance with man in all these glimpses; yet the unchanging stress was upon the human character, as if an absorption in character were primary.”



Of the three figures, “the Negro in minstrelsy” left the deepest footprint. “The appeal of minstrelsy was insistent and enduring”.

Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh Susannah!’ became a minstrel song and “a rallying cry for the new empire. a song of meeting and parting turned to nonsense, a fiddler’s tune with a Negro beat and a touch of smothered pathos in the melody.”



Despite German songs and the Jew appearing on the minstrel stage, “Negro music and Negro nonsense still prevailed; through years the old pattern was kept. The young American Narcissus had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image.”


In 1830 the young Horace Greeley "was the very picture of the Yankee lad of the fables" and whether or not it was deliberate then, as the years rolled on "his sense of masquerade became acute"; he cut the figure of the droll and uncouth Yankee in white hat and coat.

The way a man dressed in New Orleans, New York or Baltimore, his bearing and even his physical type, revealed his origins. During the first years of the Republic's rising grandeur there was a tendency to adopt the image of the antique Roman (Daniel Webster, for example) but this type didn't last and the Yankee character took the place of the Roman. Americans wanted representative characters in public life (and on the stage).


Genuine individuals, real down to earth characters were not adopted by the public; instead, they wanted “bold and conscious self-picturization”; i.e., larger than life symbolic figures. “The Americans had in fact emerged as a theatrical race ... The new country made a strangely painted backdrop before which the American seemed constrained to perform; and every powerful force in pioneer life led toward outward expression. Self-consciousness had perhaps been induced early in the American by the critical scrutiny abundantly accorded him by the older races; and theatrical tendencies in the American character were heightened by a long intimacy with the stage.”

As early as 1686 in Puritan New England Increase Mather noted that there was a drive for stage plays and by 1750 plays were being staged in coffee houses in Boston and a theatre built soon after the Revolution. Playhouses were built along the eastern seaboard as far south as Charleston and then following the westward migration from New England to upstate New York, Pennsylvania and the Western Reserve, theatricals sprang up there. Small companies of players had reached Kentucky by 1815 “and improvised theatres soon dotted the West” (including the use of ballrooms of plantation mansions and in taverns). On the Western frontier, “where the mixed


elements of the American character were taking a pronounced shape, the results were hardly considerable as drama. … With transient audiences and scratch companies and the hardships of travel there was small chance for intensification and depth; even the elder Booth [John Wilkes Booth’s grandfather or father?] concentrated only on single scenes.  … nothing can be clearer than the fact that drama as a powerful native form did not appear in America at this time or even throughout the entire nineteenth century. But the theatrical seemed a native mode. The Yankee first fully emerged in the theatre; each of the trio of native characters was seen there.”

[American psyche as having trickster psychology] “ … the theatrical, as opposed to the dramatic, is full of experiment, finding its way to audiences by their quick responses and rejections. On the stage the shimmer and glow … the jokes and dances and songs, the stretching and change of plots, are arranged and altered almost literally by the audience or in their close company; its measure is human, not literary. The American theatre then, particularly in the West, was a composite of native feeling. It had significance, not because it might at some later time evolve into great national art, but because it was closely interwoven with the American character and the American experience. It marched with the forces of dispersal, essaying a hundred things by way of entertainment and revealing a growing temper.”

Strolling actors followed the trail of the pioneers. [Trickster theme: Huckleberry Finn’s confidence tricksters were doing a bit of acting, a bit of revival, and so on: the trickster writ is who we’re talking about here]; they travelled down the rivers. In the makeshift frontier theatres “the world which [the actors] created for a few hours was no more fanciful than that which existed in the minds of their small audience.”


[Trickster:] The itinerant theatrical group could change you “a forest into a front parlor, a desert into a dining room, a stormy ocean into a flower garden, a palace into a den of thieves, all on the sound of a boatswain’s whistle.”

The backwoods folk “joined deeply with the players” [paradoxically] knowing they were being entertained by actors and yet identifying so strongly at times that they intervened in the play to


admonish or lend a helping hand to the character, one audience member throwing money on the stage to help a gambler’s wife make ends meet, advise her to keep the money from her husband, and then suggest that now they could get on with the play.

Here, in these theatrical performances, emotions “in disguised and transmuted forms … which had been dominant in the early day of the pioneer [now] lived again—emotions stirred by a sense of the supernatural, and those grosser feelings begotten of a primitive conflict between man and man, or of man and a rude destiny.”

During the westward migration, the Indian was being “driven farther and farther from those fertile lands which the white invader wished to occupy [and in his place was created] a noble and mournful fantasy.”

In the 1820s James Fenimore Cooper’s Indian novels and in the 1830s a series of stage plays and even ballets saw that the “Indian’s pride, his grief, his lost inheritance, his kinship with the boundless wilderness, were made enduring themes.”

“About [the Indian’s] figure the American seemed to wrap a desire to return to the primitive life of the wilderness. … In the Indian plays he could drench himself in melancholy remembrance of the time when the whole continent was untouched. … Like the novels of Cooper, the plays were immensely popular; and their elegiac sentiment surged up in a region where a more realistic view might have been expected to prevail, in the West.”


The romantic and noble stature of the Indian on the one hand contrasted with the almost comic regard for the heroes of the Revolution on the other. Writers wrote about the heroes but the audiences weren’t there for this stuff except insofar as it was turned to farce or even a circus act. Israel Putnam, for example, was a favoured Revolutionary figure but less for his deeds than his dry Yankee humor; the patriotic play’s noble deeds were crowded “off the boards” by circus comedy and tricks. Increasingly, talk declined as audiences demanded “the singing heroes of melodrama. … The Yankee, the backwoodsman, the minstrel, who had begun in brief interludes or afterpieces, now


often usurped the larger part of a performance. Dancing was abundant.” Moreover, the audiences demanded overdrawn, exuberant, eccentric, fabulous, larger than life, fantastic figures with emphasis on the comedy. Emotion “was submerged” and burlesque was increasingly prominent.


[Trickster theme emerging strongly in 1830s America]

“once a territory is invaded by burlesque, all its objects are likely to look puffed and stretched, pinched and narrowed. But pure satire stands aloof, while burlesque wholly possesses its subject and wears the look of friendship.”

Burlesque became increasingly popular until, by the 1840s and 50s, “legitimate theatre came to a standstill.”

Burlesque joined readily with the “comic array provided by the Yankee, the backwoodsman, and the Negro minstrel.” William Mitchell was the pioneer of burlesque—in New York in the 1830s. “Mitchell caught and punctured every current wild obsession, romantic or merely comic, every theme which the current American fancy had taken up with its familiar extreme fervour. He revealed all the characteristic native capacity for plunging headlong into new enthusiasms. He was in fact burlesquing the American public as well as its preoccupations. And the American public responded with another


headlong response, as if any extravagant romantic emotion could sweep it away, even though this emotion was changed into satirical grotesquerie, or as if after all its responses were fickle, and popular suffrages had been on the point of turning from these familiar obsessions.” Then, when after 10 years his career suddenly faltered, the burlesque continued unabated as the audience preference, now with Burton and Brougham. They burlesqued current political movements (such as the women’s movement in later 1840s America) and wrapped it in innocent songs sung to tunes such as ‘Roisson the Beau’


With respect to burlesque, says CR, “American audiences enjoyed their own deflation; they liked the boldness of attack, the undisguised ridicule. Once


again, as in the portraiture of the comic trio, the subject was essentially themselves.

“As if it were wilful and human, the comic spirit in America had maintained the purpose—or so it seemed—to fulfil the biblical cry running through much of the revivalism of the time” to ‘make all things new’. It was a levelling agent. The distant must go, the past be forgotten, lofty notions be deflated. Comedy was conspiring toward the removal of all alien traditions, out of delight in pure destruction or as preparations for new growth.” [The whole of the past few pages is a more or less comprehensive description of American trickster psychology.]

Nevertheless, it “was not a realistic spirit that was abroad. The world of burlesque was still the familiar native world of phantasmagoria.”


Revivalism [the Second Great Awakening with good evidence of American trickster psychology in the revival movement]]

The revivalists were not all that far removed from the stage characters in early 19thC America. The revivalists “the groups of millennium-seekers, the believers in cults” belonged in “a fundamental and not irreverent sense … to the theatre; they too followed the arc of romantic feeling; and they moved toward comedy, even toward burlesque.” [Preaching from the rock’n’roll concert stage is a form of burlesque.]

The first pioneers in the West “had lacked direct religious influences, and the backwoodsman had become subject to suggestions of place and of Indian mores which affected him deeply. Less than 10% of the people of Kentucky at the end of the 18th century, for example, had religious



affiliations. But they were ripe for the picking once the prosletysers got to work among them. “They were of the race who proclaimed their identity with the leaping, heel-cracking comic figures who proclaimed their identity with the lightning and the alligator. [Davy Crockett] They joined the orgiastic forest revivals on the Red river and the Gaspar river, shouting and pleading to be bathed in the blood of the Lamb, and bending writhing, jerking, falling, barking and creeping over the ground like the creatures of the wilderness. Periodic revivals sprang up; in these the cruder expression was left behind; and a free ritual developed with wailing and singing and approaches to the anxious bench and  the massive pageantry of nocturnal baptisms.

“Comedy was enacted there, a rude and violent form of the divine comedy. The restraining bonds were broken of that rigorous faith which seemed a solid American inheritance from the older civilisations.” Calvinism with its “inner conflicts and cataclysmic formula of the human relation to God [regarded the] individual [as] the least and meanest of all things. … In the new resilient faiths now rapidly springing up this strict and sombre drama was left further and further behind. … the movement was away from creeds and close formulas, toward improvisation, rapturous climaxes, happy assurances and a choral strain. In the revivals of Methodism and the other free new faiths all was generic, large and of the crowd; in the end all was widely hopeful. Rhapsody was common; the monologue in the experience meeting unfolded those inner fantasies toward which the native mind was tending in other, quite different aspects of expression, not in the analytic forms of Calvinism, but of pure unbridled fantasy and exuberant overflow.”

Comedy was evident in the “innumerable cults which sprang up in the ’30s and ’40s as from some rich and fertile seeding-ground.”


Traditional religious and social forms were cast aside in many cases: Oneida broke the bonds of earthly marriage; spiritualism “proposed to break the bonds of death.” The pioneer was all too familiar with death but the revivalist movement gave it a happy and optimistic visage with the promise of the Millennium. The Mississippi valley was to be the site for the Second Coming. ‘New, new … make all things new’ was the [chiliastic] cry.

Latent humor was apparent in the names these cults gave themselves or acquiesced in: Shakers,


Groaners, Come Outers, New Lights, Hard Shell Baptists and Muggletonians. Brigham Young claimed to be a prophet with a mischievous twinlle in his eye. “Frequently it was hard to tell when burlesque was involved, when fakery, when a serious intention.” The whole revivalist movement in the West had a light-heartedness about it. The “orgiastic forest revivals [had] a pagan spirit and savage manifestations”. The whole thing had theatre about it “All their modes were outward, rhapsodic, declamatory, full of song, verging upon the dance, adorned with symbolic costume, moving toward that oratory which was half burlesque. Most of tehse effects were shaped for or with an audience: that is, they were theatrical. … After the hegira to Utah, [Brigham] Young introduced theatricals as a staple element in the Mormon scheme … [and] made a firm rule against tragedy … thus following a

Sequence which had prevailed within American attitudes, that of flight away from oppressive circumstances into comedy.”

“The early revivalism had arisen in the deep backwoods. In the Southwest the Negro had often joined in the revivals; in New England it was among country people that the new cults took shape; many may be traced to the hillsides of Vermont and New Hampshire.” Whatever their peculiar stripe, they all “joined to make a loosely striated underply of comedy which ran through the life and consciousness of the entire country through the first half of the [nineteenth] century.”


The Roots of American Culture - Constance Rourke


“Folk-evil was present in our colonial settlements from an early period, drawing upon a common inheritance of medieval beliefs in daemonic powers, coloured by an infiltration of Indian faith in strange earth spirits, and shaped by the terror of the wilderness. These forces found expression in the concentrated madness of the early religious persecutions of New England and the witchcraft delusions spread through the later half of the seventeenth century: the influence of Indian beliefs upon the episodes in Salem has been made abundantly clear.” The religious intolerance at the root of these delusions has been dealt with but the fact of their being “cumulative folk-obsessions, which found other milder outlets in old ballads of magic and witchery and in many minor pagan beliefs and practices” has been overlooked.


Witch hunting took place in Pennsylvania and Virginia, not just in New England. In western Massachusetts, as late as the period of the Revolution there were repeated outbreaks of revivalism “of the most primitive character. … “In small villages and in thinly populated rural areas these revivals grew to a culminating intensity under the leadership of obscure traveling evangelists who were able to play upon isolation, ignorance and a hoarded collection of fears, hatreds and ancient half-pagan beliefs.

‘Your people, sir – your people is a great beast,’


Hamilton said” – and has earned the wrath of many for its implied attitude against democracy. But traveling preachers such as “Whitefield had told the throngs who listened to him that they were half-beasts, half-devils and had persuaded them that this was true. These obsessions were part of widespread folk-experience which had by no means ended when the young nation emerged. … Creative forces sometimes flow from the dark daemonic as well as from loftier or gentler emotions.” [The Great Awakening of the 18th century, then, merged with the Great Revival] 


"The Great Revival began in the West in 1800. Within a few years it had spread like an underground fire into many of the smallest hamlets in the eastern states, not as an upflare of a few months but as a continuing agitation of a number of years. Indeed, the wild outbreak on the Red River in Kentucky seems to have set free emotional aptitudes which were to be expressed almost as a ritual, particularly among country people, as a natural form of their religious life. The original impetus came from the traveling Methodist preachers and elders, who, with Bishop Asbury as their leader, had been stirring the embers left by the Great Awakening since 1770. In the West the other sects were quickly aroused, the Presbyterians as well as the Baptists: the sweep of agitation became general. Music freely belonged to it. The Methodist initiative made this inevitable, and for a time small pamphlets containing only the words of hymns were circulated at camp meetings. "


"New England was never so deeply swept by the Great Revival as was the West or the South ... "

The music of New England, influenced as it was by “the complexly intellectual religious thought belonging to the Puritans” differed from that of the more primitive, the more directly emotional music of the South and West.


New England communities, even the more remote ones, placed a premium on literacy, complexity and subtlety. The music of the South is often thought to be associated with the highlands [Appalachians] but this is incorrect, says CR, and in fact “others living prosperously in the fertile valleys have likewise retained the older modes in music … ” The prevailing belief tended to be that the “purer strains [of primitive music modes] have been preserved in [the Appalachians] by poor and unlettered mountain people who for generations have lived away from the main tides of migration.” This is compounded with another mistaken belief; i.e., “that the music they have retained is mainly secular.” Religious songs are more prominent in the South but because of the predilection of the song collectors like Sharp for ballads has given us a false impression.


Sharp was probably influenced by Child’s emphasis on English and Scottish ballads. Apart from that, balladry came via the oral tradition whereas religious music was traced via the written word. These religious songs embody “deeply striated forces within the national character and [offer] as well sheer beauty and a seminal influence that has not yet been exhausted.” [A decade after this Harry Smith’s Anthology came out.]

The migration of Germans “from Philadelphia to the Valley of Virginia” was facilitated by the pre-Revolutionary period of commerce and migration into the region;


eg., around Harrisonburg.

The ‘spiritual’ [including, presumably, the ‘Negro spiritual’] was so named because its rhymes were created under the influence of the Holy Spirit; the German sects used it in this specific manner: they came from direct communication between the Holy Spirit and the composer, “particularly under the influence of the psychic disturbance and release of the revival.” The Germans who thus brought their music to the Valley of Virginia “were pietists, whose religion with its simple rituals of baptism and foot-washing was essentially primitive. In revivalism and other larger matters they found themselves at one with the Scotch, Scotch-Irish and Welsh whose numbers sharply increased in the Valley at the beginning of the nineteenth century, coming from across the mountains or across the sea. They were Methodists for the most part, or they readily yielded to the sway of traveling Methodist elders or preachers. Music from folk-sources had long been drawn upon for Methodist 192

worship. When Wesley said that he saw no reason why the devil should have all the pretty tunes, he apparently did not mean that true religionists should compose pretty tunes of their own … but that they should take the devil’s tunes, particularly the dances, and turn them to religious uses. In the Great Revival of the West, and now in the smaller religious gatherings of the same order that were spreading out in its wake, something resembling a primitive dance took place, in ecstatic, circling, swinging, movements, in jumping, jerking, stamping and leaping when excitement rose to a height. … Irish fiddle-tunes in triple quick time lent themselves to hosannas. Phrases of ‘Yankee Doodle’, which almost certainly seems of Irish origin, slipped into a hymn, linked with other fragments of melody, and praises were sung to bagpipe-tunes.”

While some melodies harked back to the middle ages, “may others were adaptations of the more famous ballads” (such as ‘Barbara




The “Great Awakening in the West was a powerful influence … in the development of song … ”

Here, CR is conflating the Great Revival with Great Awakening but she’s referring to what others call the Second Great Awakening.