The name George Washington Dixon (ca. 1801-1861) has traditionally vied with that of T.D. Rice for the position first blackface minstrel star.** Like Rice, Dixon was associated with a particular song and the character it depicted. In Rice’s case it was “Jim Crow”; in Dixon’s case it was “Zip Coon”. The two men came to prominence at around the same time, though Rice is generally acknowledged to have edged out his competitor by a nose.
Dixon is believed to have come from Richmond, Virginia. He is said to have joined a circus at age 15 as a stable boy, but quickly established himself as a singer and a giver of recitations. It is not known at what stage he began performing in blackface, but it is known that in 1829 he achieved a smash success singing at New York’s three main theatres, the Park, the Bowery, and the Chatham Garden. He was initially associated with the song “Coal Black Rose”, but also performed other racist numbers such as “Long Tail Blue”. With “Zip Coon”, sung to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”, he scored his biggest hit of all. He was once traditionally credited as the song’s composer, but scholarship has cast doubt on that crediting. In addition to singing in blackface, Dixon also performed without cork, delivered orations, acted in farces, and even did ventriloquism. He was widely and highly praised for the beauty of his singing voice. Later he added hypnotism and clairvoyance to his list of skills. Dixon catered especially to working class audiences and had such a rapport with the unruly throngs that he once quelled a riot with his rendition of “Zip Coon”. His key years purely as a stage star were few: 1829-35.
Dixon, perhaps Quixotically, next turned to higher ambitions. Given the populist, rabble-rousing nature of much of the theatre of the time, it was natural for performers to become satirical and political. They directly poked fun of the issues of the day in their patter and in the content of their songs and sketches. The next natural step for someone who wanted to make his voice heard was journalism. Starting in 1833 Dixon started a series of controversial newspapers, which brought him trouble and attention in equal measures. He possessed a unique combination of beliefs seemingly calculated to alienate almost everybody. On the one hand he championed the lower classes and attacked the upper classes. This put him at odds with the rich and powerful. On the other hand, politically he was a Whig, and later a Radical Republican, which put him at variance with the working classes, who were Democrats. Dixon’s time as an editor and publisher was as a consequence plagued by legal troubles, libel suits, debt, bankruptcies — and once he was even brained in the street with an ax. Interestingly, his political enemies often castigated him as a “Negro” or a “mulatto”. While he was often described as having swarthy skin and curly hair, the actual truth of these assertions is not known and probably not knowable. But the possibility is intriguing.
Meanwhile Dixon continued to perform on stage from time to time. His last performance was in 1843. He also participated in publicity-generating fads, such as pedestrianism (long distance walking). Circa 1848 he retired to New Orleans. At the time of his death of TB, on March 2, 1861, he was a sort of homeless local character and a charity case.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
**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.