William Henry Lane (a.k.a Master Juba) came along way too early to be in my “Stars of Vaudeville” series, but a good chunk of the vaudeville experience would have been impossible without him. Juba, you see, invented the sort of dancing that became tap. And it was by way of just the sort of artistic miscegenation that distinguishes the best American expression. Lane was born in Providence, R.I. (yay!) in 1825 and moved to the Five Points section of New York where close proximity to the Irish caused him to emulate their style of dancing (jigs, clogs, etc). Inflecting it with African moves inherited from his own ancestors he naturally merged the two, creating something new and compelling. He began performing in saloons and minstrel shows, rapidly growing famous thereby. Charles Dickens actually checked out his act when he came to New York; you can read his “review” in his book American Notes. The British loved Juba. So much so in fact, when Juba visited the city during a minstrel show tour, he simply stayed. As Josephine Baker when she adopted Paris as her own 80 years later, you’d be crazy not to stay in a place where they treat you like a king, rather than stay in one where you’re considered closer to cattle than to men. But he only breathed that heady air for four years. He died in 1852 at age 27.
To find out more about Master Juba and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever edifying books are sold.