Thursday, May 24, 2018

And now for the ‘Ethiopian Serenaders’…!


Songster of the Ethiopian Serenaders (USA)

Here’s an interesting snippet from 1850, indicating the early presence of blackface minstrel shows in Australia, even before the gold rushes. Minstrelsy, deriving from the ‘Jump Jim Crow’ comic song fad, was in Australia shortly after it first appeared in the early 1830s and was amazingly popular up to the end of the nineteenth century, and beyond. (Offence alert: racist language).

Ethiopian Serenaders

A company, of performers, calling themselves Ethiopian serenaders, have recently arrived in the colony, and are giving entertainments at the Royal Hotel. This description of amusement had a great run when first introduced into England a few years since. The singing consists of what are generally termed " nigger songs," which are accompanied by an accordeon, a banjo, (which much resembles a guitar,) a tambourine, and the " bones," or castanets, and from the excellent time kept by the instruments, the effect is most pleasing. One of the company, Mr. Howard, has a most sweet voice, and his singing of several plaintive airs, accompanied by himself on the accordean [sic], from which he elicits most delightful tones, was much admired, as was also the solo of Hark the Merry Christ Church Bells on the banjo. The performance on Wednesday evening appeared to give much satisfaction to a numerous and respectable audience.

The Sydney Morning HeraldApril 5 1850, 3.

One of the intriguing aspects of Australian folksong is the extent to which it used American tunes, even well before the era of recorded music. The minstrel shows from America and Britain, as well as other touring entertainments, are the prime suspects for the spread of these imported tunes and songs. 

This English band was probably the first minstrel group known to have appeared in Sydney. ‘Blythe Waterland’s Serenaders’ performed at the Royal Hotel on 1 April, 1850, and at other venues. Their leader was Henry Burton (stage name ‘Blythe Waterland’, also a founder of Australian circus). The band, which included two members named ‘Howard’, toured country centres as well as Melbourne, Launceston and Hobart and returned to Sydney as ‘The Ethiopian Serenaders’. 

Their repertoire included ‘Lynchburg Town’, ‘Walk Along John’, ‘Johnny Boker’, ‘Dandy Jim’, ‘Old Grey Goose’, ’Ole Dan Tucker’, ’Boatman's Dance’, ’Jenny get your hoecake done’, as well as that show-stopping church bells number. For sea song tragics (me included), it’s interesting how many of these were shanties. It was not unusual for minstrel shows to include a wide variety of other styles, not excepting sacred music. These travelling entertainers quickly generated local imitators who continued to spread the repertoire and aided its adaptation into the folk tradition

The instruments mentioned have also been influential in the tradition here. Certainly the accordeon, banjo and ‘bones’, here referred to as ‘castanets’, became popular. But what happened to the tambourine? Did it become the ‘jingling Johnny’, said to have been a possible precursor of the bush band lagerphone? 

Many will equate tambourines with the Salvation Army. But, from this and other accounts, it seems that the tambourine was quite commonly played as percussion in a variety of bush and other more or less spontaneous ensembles, as well as by professionals. All this was long before the Salvation Army was formed in 1865.

Maybe those Sally Annie timbrel troupes just frightened everyone else off?

Graham Seal


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