Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Meet Gumbo Chaff, The Ethiopian Flute Instructor, etc., etc.

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1848, a curious little volume of "negro melodies of the day," The Ethiopian Flute Instructor, was published in Boston. Containing ninety-one songs for the flute, including Band of Niggers, Get Along Home Yaller Gals, Jim Crack Corn, Carry Me Back to Old Virginia, Happy Are We Darkies, Jim Crow Polka, De Old Jaw Bone, My Pretty Yaller Gal, Old Zip Coon, Stop Dat Knocking, and many more, it was written by one "Gumbo Chaff."

Who was Gumbo Chaff? He's credited as A. M. A. First Banjo Player to the King of Congo, and author of the Ethiopian Glee Book, Ethiopian Accordeon Instructor, Ethiopian Violin Instructor, Ethiopian Flute Instructor, &c., &.

He wasn't Ethiopian, an upscale American euphemism for a black man. Gumbo Chaff wasn't even a man. He was a folk character who became a song which became a pseudonym.

Gumbo Chaff was one of the earliest black-face characters in America, based upon characters found in tall tales told by river boatmen and frontiersmen during the Jacksonian era. The song Gumbo Chaff merged these frontier elements with stereotypes of black slaves, creating a new character who lived

On de Ohio bluff in de state of Indiana,
Dere's where I live, chock up to de Habbana,
Eb'ry mornin early Massa gib me likker,
I take my net and paddle and I put out de quicker,
I jump into my kiff and I down the river driff,
And I cotch as many cat fish as ever nigger liff.

Gumbo Chaff, the song, was first performed in the early 1830s. It became a standard in the repertoire of early black-face performers such as Thomas Dartmouth Rice and George Washington Dixon. Because of the song's popularity, the contemporary black riverboatman became a popular character in minstrel shows, and black-face singers routinely performed "Gumbo Chaff" with a mock flatboat on stage.  

So it made sense for a publisher in Boston to ascribe authorship of a collection of minstrel songs to Gumbo Chaff. The author was actually Elias Howe Jr., the book's publisher and also author of minstrel song collections for banjo, accordion, voice, and violin. He was - no surprise - a white man.

The Elias Howe Company was a 19th and early 20th century musical firm located in Boston and founded by Elias Howe, Jr. (1820–1895), a fiddler. This Howe was not that Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, but a contemporary and possibly a distant relative. How many Howes of the same name at the same time could there have been in Massachusetts, one fiddling in Boston, the other sewing across the river in Cambridge? What, you were expecting Minstrel Songs For The Sewing Machine? Tote that barge, lift that bale, sew that hem, mend that seam!

Howe's first collection of songs, for the fiddle, appeared in 1840 as The Musician's Companion. By 1850, Howe had published several other song collections and musical instruction books as noted above. In the same year he sold his copyrights to the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston and, by agreement, refrained from publishing music for ten years, after which he returned to publishing and became one of the country's most prolific music publishers. During the American Civil War Howe expanded his business to include manufacturing drums for the military. He was offered the position of Director of Bands for the United States Army with the rank of Lt. Colonel by President Lincoln but he chose to continue manufacturing drums and fifes and publishing books on their performance by marching bands.

Of note to folk musicologists is that on page forty-two of this volume the music for Stephen Foster's  O! Susanna appears. This was not the first publication of O! Susanna - that occurred in the same year (Cinncinati: W.E. Peters, 1848) - but it seems to be the song's second appearance in print, and its first in a published collection. The first public performance of the song occurred on Saturday, September 11, 1847, when the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, PA presented a "Grand Gala Concert." At that performance "Susanna - A new song, never before given to the public," was sung.

Here's a modern perfomance of Gumbo Chaff:


CHAFF, Gumbo (pseud. of Elias Howe), The Ethiopian Flute Instructor, Containing Full and Complete Instructions, With All the Popular Negro Melodies of the Day, Including Those of the Christy Minstrels. Boston: Published and Sold by Elias Howe, 1848. First edition. Oblong 4to. 6 3/16 x 9 3/4 inches. 48 pp. Quarter cloth over printed wrappers.

Images courtesy of John Howell For Books, currently offering this volume, with our thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,Bale Washintu Iregna (The Shepherd Flutist). This was the first Ethiopian classical music, which was composed by Dr. Ashenafi Kebede. He was the first director of Qidus {St.) Yared Music School. The composition was first performed in 1968 with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. This version is by Nebiyu.Thanks to all!!!
    Africa Current News


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