African American Entertainers

Original Author: Andrew Demeulemeester, ENG 206 SP11

Revision Author: Matthew Brown, ENG 346 FL12



African Americans were not only confined to small business shops in Davenport, IA; they also entered into the entertainment business. In William L. Purcell’s book Them Was the Good Old Days, Purcell describes a couple groups of African American Minstrels who became very popular in that time period.



One group of minstrels that Purcell describes was known as the Carnival City Minstrels. The members of this group are identified as Lew Eckhardt, Tom O’Brien, Hugo Hill, John Emendorfer, Frank Wilson, Gus Brown, Abbott, William Dewey, Fred Hoelmer, Gene Craft, Martin Oakes, Hearne, James Lindley, Frank Fort, and James Sampson.



The Carnival City Minstrels performed their first show in November, 1894 in Dixon, Illinois. Their first show turned out to be a hit after the prop manager at the theater fell from a ladder on top of the leader of the orchestra while he was trying to fix one of the lamps above the stage. The audience mistook this fall as a part of the show and from that point on the minstrels were golden. The songs that the minstrels played included: “Oblige a Lady”; “Little Darling, Dream of Me”; “Do, Do, My Huckleberry Do”; “Little Darling, Goodbye”; “Christopher Columbo”; “Silver Bells of Memory”; “Annie Laurie”; and “Put on de Golden Shoes” (Purcell 101). Following the songs, viewers were treated to a recount of political events performed by Frank Wilson; a song and dance performed by Charlie Brown; the musical team of Hugo Hill and Tony Biehl; old-time plantation melodies performed by Lew Eckhardt, Frank Wilson, James Lindley, and Martin Oakes; the Lindello Mandolin Club, and a performance entitled “On the Bowery” as the finale (Purcell 101-102). After the first performance the “show went big” and was scheduled to open at the new opera house the following spring. The show then moved on to Durant, Blue Grass, and Buffalo all located in Iowa. It was not until the group arrived to perform in Le Claire, Iowa that the group had met resistance. This resistance was led by a new rival minstrel group and involved both groups performing and agreeing to a draw. “The final performances [by the Carnival City Minstrels] were given at Schuetzen park on July fourth, afternoon and evenin’” (Purcell 102).



Not only were the crowds treated to the performances of the minstrels, but they were also given an opportunity to view some popular dancers well known in the city. One of these dancers was known as Billy Kelly. Purcell claims that “no dance was regular steppin’ unless Billy trotted out after supper to do the ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’…at clog, jig, or reel Billy had it forty ways on all the soft-shoe artists at the local shindigs” (Purcell 99). A group which consisted of Dan Leonard, Tom Ross, Steve Costello, and Grunter O’Donnell danced a clog and jig for onlookers.



Purcell also gives credit to the Carnival City Minstrels for providing the area with “many of [their] leadin’ bankers, business, and professional men” (Purcell 103). One man who owes his success to the minstrel group is Bill Heuer. Bill worked his way to Dixon and back by selling songbooks for a dime. He was such a natural at selling these books that he made a very impressive living off of it. Another individual who owes his living to the minstrel group is Otto Hill. Otto started as the musical director of the minstrel group and became a popular pianist as a result.



In the small town of Solon, Iowa, a collection of performers known as the Tank Town Troupers once played music and put on plays for locals in an opportunity to help put the town on the map. Solon is located roughly 63 miles west from Davenport and the Quad Cities and John West and H. H. Kerr founded the town in 1877.The town was not named Solon until ten years later. By 1883, nearly one of every popular store of the time could be found in the town, including grocery stores, a hardwarestore, specialty product makers (like wagons, harnesses, and shoes), saloons, and book store (“Early”).

During sometime in the 1890s (Purcell states the event happened roughly 30 years ago when he wrote his book, which was published in 1922), the population of the town had been growing and was nearly hitting the 1,000 mark when a man named Seth Smith decided to build an opry house (Purcell 105). An opry house was a building that hosted live country music and similar entertainment events for the public. After the building went up, the town of Solon would be considered a “tank town,” or town that was not part of the mainstream tour areas for major shows (Purcell 105-106).

An event soon became in the making after the opry house was finished and decoratively painted by someone named Charley Kindt, who advocated getting things started right away. Being not too far from Davenport, where many musicians had started out and been playing for a while, Solon was not necessarily placed in the middle of nowhere and unable to secure some entertainers for itself. The opry house manager, Impresario Kindt, made plans to host the town’s first major show and developed enough publicity to interest plenty of performers for the event. The railroad, which was connected to Solon in 1876, enabled Kindt to hook prospective entertainers up with free train tickets and convinced a good group of people (“Early,” Purcell 105-106).

The troupe had been practicing in the rail car of the train on their way there, and they arrived at noon to start the parade. It sparked a large turnout for the following performance. The troupe was decorated for the event with various things like canes and hats, as well as other things they found appealing to use and wear (Purcell 108).

Apparently, the owner of the local printing office did not carry through with his job and left before processing the flyers and programs for the later event, so a few people including Chris Schlegel and Charlie Kindt broke into the office and did everything, making it up with the owner when he arrived the next day (Purcell 108).

There were many great performers that joined the event and did their entertainment routines. Lew Greeley Horne was an apparent African American performer that utilized his color and “did the old darkey stuff.” Horne sang a song titled “Old Black Joe,” originally by Stephen Collins Foster:

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe”.

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low:
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe”.

Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain
Why do I sigh that my friends come not again,
Grieving for forms now departed long ago.
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe”.

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low:
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe”.

Where are the hearts once so happy and so free?
The children so dear that I held upon my knee,
Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go.
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe”.

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low:
I hear those gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe” (“Old Black Joe”).

He followed this song up with a song titled“Days When I was Young,” by Charlie Howard:

I love to think of the days when I was young,
Then my heart was free from care;
Among the girls and boys, it's there I had my joys,
There wasn't one who could with me compare;
I could sing until the breaking of the morn,
I could dance just as long as I could stand;
I was han'some, I was happy, I was gay
As any other nigger in the town.
Oh, I love to think of the days when I was young,
And it don't seem long ago.
Although my hands do shake, my eyes are wide awake.
And I think this is the way I used to go.

I love to think of the days when I was young,
When a little piccaninny so high;
It's where the cotton grows I first my eyes unclosed.
Then I was the apple of my mammy's eye;
I can see her as she pat me on my head,
And she called me her darling little child;
Then she kissed me and she put me in my bed,
And told me she thought that I was spoiled.
Oh, I love to think of the days when I was young,
And it don't seem long ago.
Although my hands do shake my eyes are wide awake,
And I think this is the way I used to go (“Days When I Was Young”).

A man by the name of Mel Trotter was there to perform, too. The first song he sang was titled “My Mother’s Old Red Shawl,” created by Charles Moreland:

It now lies on the shelf. It is faded and torn,
That dear old shawl my mother wore (mother wore).
'Tis all that is left for this heart to adore,
To bring to mind those happy days of yore.
How often the hands to these folds have been pressed,
That now beneath the daisies are at rest (at rest).
The tears come unbidden and silently fall,
To gleam like gems on mother's old red shawl.

It is useful no more,
Yet I fondly adore
That dear old shawl my mother wore,
And through life it shall be
A loved treasure to me,
That little old red shawl my mother wore.

Oh, my heart often aches with a dull throbbing pain,
When childhood visions come again (come again),
And sadly I think of the days that are past,
Too joyous and too beautiful to last.
Oh, fond, lovely childhood made bright by the smile
Of one whose love could ev'ry care beguile (beguile)!
How gladly I'd fly from the world's bitter thrall,
To seek the heart that throbb'd beneath this shawl!

It is useful no more,
Yet I fondly adore
That dear old shawl my mother wore,
And through life it shall be
A loved treasure to me,
That little old red shawl my mother wore (Canada Sings).

Trotter followed up this song with another, “The Prodigal Son” by Bill Nye:

There was an old man and he had two sons, he had, he had.
He lived on a ranch, so the story runs, he did, he did;
'Twas built on the good old Queen Anne plan,
Right next to the new Jerusalem.
The vicinity, it does not matter a----
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

The elder son was a goodly man, he was, he was.
And built on the Moody and Sanky plan, he was, he was;
With calm and sanctimonious face,
He talked about love And undying grace,
And hoped for a seat in the heavenly place,
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra. la, la, la, la, la, la.

The younger one was a son-of-a-gun, he was, he was.
He shuffled the cards and he played for mon', he did, he did:
He wore a red tie And a high standing collar,
Would go with the boys and get full and then holler,
Oh, he was a regular Jim Dandy loller.
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

The old fellow's purse was large and fat, it was. it was.
The Prodigal he was quite on to that, he was, he was;
And he of the sanctimonious smile.
Just kept his weather-eye on the pile.
And hoped he would get there after awhile.
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la. la.

To divide on the square he did his best, he did, he did.
The Prod took his share and went out West, he did, he did;
Fell in with some cowboys And had a great time.
Woke up in the morning with nary a dime,
Stranded 'way out in a foreign clime.
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

A telegraph man In his office sat, out West, out West,
When in rushed a tramp without a hat or coat or vest;
Come send this message right over the track,
The Prod is a wreck and is coming back,
Have plenty of veal for one on the rack.
Sing traIn, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

The answer he got was both short and direct, it was, it was.
It read: Yours received-Go to blazes! collect! it did, it did;
The Prod he was used to this knock-down of fate,
So pawned his suspenders and put on a skate,
And started for home on a limited freight.
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

To a lawyer's office he went next day, he did, he did,
And sued the old folks for pay while away, he did, he did;
Got out an injunction and put them out.
Oh, be was a la la, you hear me shout.
That's the sort of a Prod I am singing about,
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la.

That's all of the yarn yours truly knows, it is, it is,
I've gone as far as the parable goes, I have, I have;
I've never heard what became of pa.
The religious brother is tending bar.
And the Prod, I believe, is driving a car,
Sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la, sing tra la, la, la, la, la, la (“The Prodigal Son”).


The floor then opened up to other kinds of entertainers(Purcell 106).

Among musicians and singers were also actors and play entertainers. By using whatever resources were available to them, several people put on a musical for the crowd. The play consisted of Tony Biehl, acting as a Dutchman; Gus Wilson, acting as a Swede; and Lee Grabbe, acting as a professor (Purcell 106).

Intermittently in the play, Joke tellers had their chance to act out jokes to one another, too. A person by the name of Bill Korn did jokes created by Joe Miller, someone who had apparently written a joke book. After his favorite joke, Korn went on to sing a song called “Tit Willow,” originally by “the Mikado:”

On a tree by a river a little tomtit
Sang‘Willow, titwillow, titwillow!’
And I said to him, ‘Dicky-bird, why do you sit
Singing 'Willow, titwillow, titwillow?'
Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?’ I cried,
‘Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?’
With a shake of his poor little head he replied:
‘Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!'

He slapped at his chest, as he sat on the bough
Singing ‘Willow, titwillow!’
And a cold perspiration bespangled his brow,
‘Oh. willow, titwillow. titwillow!’
He sobbed and he sighed, and a gurgle he gave,
Then he threw himself into the billowy wave,
And an echo arose from the suicide's grave­
’Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!’

Now I feel just as sure as I'm sure that my name
Isn't willow, titwillow, titwillow,
That 'twas blighted affection that made hint-exclaim,
‘Oh, willow, titwillow. titwillow!’
And if you remain callous and obdurate. I
Shall perish as he did, and you will know why,
Though I probably shall not exclaim as I die,
‘Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!’ (Titwillow).

Next up was a play part from the melodrama “The Moonshiner’s Daughter,” where a man named Art McDonald played the part of a deacon, an officer of the church, on an imaginary horse while someone played the part of Mirandy, apparently the moonshiner’s daughter. After playing out what seems to have been a popular scene, McDonald switched over to performing “Uncle Tom.” Chris Schlegel acted while others, Lew Horne, Charlie Kindt, Bill Korn, and Tony Biehl, played some instruments (Purcell 106-107).

A quartet of Schlegel, Trotter, Grabbe, and Horne ensued thereafter while Charlie Kindt told a story titled “The Politician from Scott County,” a tale about a broke Irishman and Scotchman in a bar. Another play part happened after that with actors Matt Lamb, Fred Coates, Tony Biehl, and Billy Ritter (Purcell 107).

Though there was a storm going on outside during all of this, most of the audience stayed in the opry house to watch the rest of the night and everyone continued to perform. The troupe left the next day on the train (Purcell 107-108).

Purcell made it a point to emphasize that the whole event was not necessarily professionally done like it was later, but the quality of the show was great (Purcell 108).


Works Cited:

Purcell, William L. Them Was the Good Old Days. Purcell Printing Company, 1922. Print.

"American Old Time Song Lyrics: 09 Willow Titwillow." traditionalmusic.co.uk. Traditional Music, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/09-willow-titwillow.htm>.

"American Old Time Song Lyrics: 29 Days When I Was Young." traditionalmusic.co.uk. Traditional Music, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/29-days-when-i-was-young-.htm>.

"American Old Time Song Lyrics: 34 The Prodigal Son." traditionalmusic.co.uk. Traditional Music, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/34-the-prodigal-son.htm>.

Canada Sings for SATB. London, England: Alfred Publishing Company, Inc., 1997. 42-43. Print.

"Early Township Records, Solon and Big Grove Township, Johnson County, Iowa ." Westerly Journeys. Marilou West Ficklin, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2012. <http://westerly-journeys.com/BigGrove/TextTwp.html#S1>.

"Old Black Joe." American Dreams - The Music of Stephen Collins Foster. W. Tomaschewski, n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <http://www.stephen-foster-songs.de/foster022.htm>.

Images:
Davenport's Celebrated Carnival City Minstrels.0. Old Timers of Davenport, Solon, IA. Them was the good old days: in Davenport, Scott County Iowa. By William Purcell. Davenport, IA: Purcell Printing Company, 1922. 104. Print.

Kindt's Minstrel Troupers at Solon.0. Old Timers of Davenport, Solon, IA. Them was the good old days: in Davenport, Scott County Iowa. By William Purcell. Davenport, IA: Purcell Printing Company, 1922. 104. Print.

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