November 28 is the natal day of Edwin Pearce (“E.P.”) Christy (1815-1862).
Christy’s name has lived on through a rather roundabout way, giving it probably a higher Q Factor than it otherwise might at this late date: around a century after he died, a man named Randy Sparks formed a vocal ensemble he called The New Christy Minstrels, which actually had several hit records in the early 1960s. This is a highly interesting phenomenon, one I’ve not yet seen much written about. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this guy starts a singing group, names it after one of the famous of all the blackface minstrel** companies, and the act is very popular. I’ve seen New Christy Minstrel records in many people’s houses (including my own when I was growing up). It seems very “dog whistle-ly” to me. Am I wrong? It never gets SAID, it’s just in your record collection. Minstrels. They didn’t wear blackface, they just used the name. They still do! For some weird shit, go here.
E.P. Christy was originally from Philadelphia and became a professional minstrel in Buffalo when the craze first hit in the 1830s. I call him “intermediate” because, as I wrote in No Applause, he falls between T.D. Rice’s initial popularization of the form, and the later emergence of huge, full scale minstrel shows. Christy had a company of six men: Christy’s Minstrels. But that said, though the company was smaller, Christy was instrumental in creating the minstrel show’s three part form, and introducing such elements as the walkaround, with its characteristic cakewalk, the “line” with Mr. Interlocutor stage center with “Tambo” and “Bones” as the “End Men”, the “olio” (a variety section that was hugely influential on the development of vaudeville), and the inclusion of a plantation play, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
He is also famous for popularizing the songs of Stephen Foster, particularly “Old Folks at Home”, which made a ton of money for Christy, though not for Foster. Christy also wrote his own songs. The popular song “Goodnight, Ladies” is attributed to him.
Christy himself stopped performing in 1855, although he continued to produce theatre. For a time he operated his own chain of opera houses (in old style American usage opera houses presented not just operas but also minstrel shows, melodramas, variety shows, and even lectures) and later licensed the name, so that other folks operated a Christy company. In 1862, despondent about the advent of the Civil War and his future financial prospects as a result of the conflict, he committed suicide by throwing himself out a window. He is buried in Green-wood Cemetery. I visited there today and took these pictures (his grave is unmarked but easy to find):
Christy is portrayed in several Stephen Foster bio-pics. In Harmony Lane (1935) he is played by William Frawley; in Swannee River (1939) by Al Jolson; and in I Dream of Jeanie (1952) by Ray Middleton.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.