Thomas Rice is credited with
creating the Jim Crow character, but the truth is that the character has
a long tradition in black African culture. Blacks in America were
performing Jim Crow long before the character was appropriated by
The Character: African cultural traditions
include many folk tales of trickster animals, including birds, such as crows and buzzards who
seem foolish, but who always manage to get what they want through
cleverness and luck. In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, he is a crow named
"Jim." The slave trade brought these folk tales to
America and "Jim Crow" was a favorite. Some slaves even
adopted a Jim Crow type attitude as a way of coping with their
enslavement. They would play dumb or act the fool as a clever way of
The Dance: Laws were passed in the
17th Century that prohibited slaves from performing their native dances
because whites believed the slave way of dancing formed a cross with
their feet, something they considered blasphemous. In order to evade the
law, slaves developed a shuffle dance where their feet didn’t cross.
They called the dance the Jim Crow.
Many North American slave owners barred Africans from most forms of dancing. Africans found ways of getting around these prohibitions. For example, since lifting the feet was considered dancing, many dances included foot shuffling and hip and torso movement.
In 1690 it was determined the slave way of dancing formed a cross with their feet something that was not acceptable. A law was passed forbidding slaves to dance in such a manner, and in order to evade the law slaves developed a shuffle dance where their feet didn’t cross the Jim Crow.
Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois
"...to dance and cross one's feet in antebellum America was illegal, a ban that came into effect in 1690, so to avoid being accused of breaking the law, the enslaved crafted a clever way of dancing by shuffling their feet.
Later on, Rice painted his face with soot..."
The Song: Jump Jim
Crow began as a slave folk song, then became a "corn song;"
sung by slaves at corn huskings.
Encyclopedia of African Folklore
Most early African American musical innovators remain unidentified, but a few specific names are available to us today. The banjo player Picayune Butler (d. 1864) became famous from New Orleans to New York: In approximately 1830, the entertainer George Nichols “first sang ‘Jim Crow’ as a clown, afterwards as a Negro. He first conceived the idea from. . .a banjo player, known [along the river route] from New Orleans to Cincinnati as Picayune Butler.”
Originally, Jim Crow was the name of a character in a plantation song in the American south.
Rice didn't create the Jim Crow character, song or dance, but he did
personalize it and make it famous. He originally
learned it from watching black slaves and then added his own touches to
it. Rice’s performance of Jump Jim Crow “eventually turned him into
the highest paid minstrel performer around” and, by 1838, the Boston
Post reported that, “the two most popular characters in the world at
the present time are [Queen] Victoria and Jim Crow.” By the late 1850s
Rice was beset with progressive paralysis, which soon ended his career
and eventually took his life.
Buy a No
That Really Works!
San Francisco Theatre Research
Work Projects Administration
Author: Estavan, Lawrence
Volume: 1939 13
CONCERNING THE ORIGIN OF "JIM CROW'''
All of these troupes, including the Philadelphia Minstrels, came to San
Francisco with an established repertory. There is no available
information as to what that repertory was, but one may hazard a guess
that it varied little from the usual songs, dances, jokes, and
afterpieces. First in importance was "Jim Crow, " popularized
by Thomas D. Rice, the ''daddy of American Minstrels." Although,
strictly considered, this was a song, it had in connection much stage
business and occupied therefore a prominent place on minstrel programs.
Pauline Jacobson in the San Francisco Bulletin, June 30, 1917 writes an
interesting account of its origin which is still a matter of some
"Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and Boston all claim
that audiences first greeted Rice as Jim Crow in their respective
cities. The character is said to have been a negro hostler, a negro
stage driver, a negro deckhand, a negro porter. "Most authentic
seems the story of Edmond S Connor, member of the Columbia Street
Theatre, Cincinnati, 1828-29, when he met Rice doing negro bits between
acts. Reminiscing to L. Hutton, he told of how Rice had seen the
original Jim Crow in Louisville the preceding summer. "
A man named Crow; ran a livery stable back of the theatre in which Rice
played. Actors, leaning from the windows of the theatre, enjoyed
watching the bustle and activity of the stable. The scene included a
character which interested them immensely. This was an old slave whose
name was Jim and who had adopted the family name of his master,
thereafter being known as Jim Crow. Sadly deformed, his right knee was
drawn high, his left leg stiff and crooked at the knee. The result was a
painful and hideous limp.
Dressed in ragged, ancient garments, he sang an old tune and at the end
of each verse he forced his grotesque limbs into a step known as 'rockin'
de wheel.' The words of the refrain were:
Wheel about, turn about, do jis so, .n' ebery time I wheel about, I jump
Jim Crow. '
"In the old slave. Rice recognized that his was a character new to
the stage. He began to write verses and assemble a costume similar to
Jim Crow's. Shortly afterward he appeared on the stage in an old
wretched coat, torn shoes (patched here and there), and a rough straw
hat over a 'dense black wig of matted, moss.' Immediately there was
strong reaction to this extraordinary apparition. The orchestra opened
with a short prelude, then Rice introduced himself to the following
‘Oh, Jim Crow’s come to town
As you all must know,
An’ he wheel about, he turn about,
He do jis so,
An’ ebery time he wheel about
He jump Jim Crow.’
"Like the slave. Rice 'rocked de heel' after each verse. There was
great applause. Rice sang all the verses he was prepared with and then
had to improvise. Connor said that he was recalled twenty times.
Everyone, humming Jim Crow next day, tried to 'rock de heel.' Stage
drivers carried the air from town to town. The most staid individuals
found themselves impersonating the character."
Notes, in no particular order:
Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born in New York in 1808 and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice as a lad. Rice, though, had a love for the theatre and began to perform in it on the side around the 1820s playing extraneous characters for which he received no billing and little pay. Later in the decade, Rice decided to go into show business full time and joined various theatre troupes. Rice showed a flare for comedy for which he began to get some amount of notice. During a three-year stint in Kentucky, Rice developed a liking for the music and dances of the Blacks in the area, most were likely slaves, and began to study them. Rice befriended them to the extent that he was able to observe their dances and talk and eat with them while studying everything about them. He thoroughly immersed himself in what it was to be Black to talk like them, perform their dance steps, sing their songs, joke like them, laugh like them. He was the Blackest White man in America.
Around mid-1830, Rice was performing in blackface as a character named Jim Crow. Exactly how he came up with his gig is not really known except apocryphally. One story is that Rice observed a Black, crippled stable hand dancing a strange, disjointed jig while singing a little song. Another, which may have more truth to it, is that Rice was taught or at least convinced to perform in blackface by a seven-year-old White boy named Sam Cowell. His father, Joe Cowell, was an Englishman performing in American theatre as a mainly comic actor. When Cowell and son heard “Coal Black Rose” being performed—perhaps by Dixon although others were doing it as well—young Sam decided he could perform that number in blackface. When he performed it onstage, claimed the elder Cowell, the audience rained the stage with money. Cowell also reported that Rice was a young and very unassuming man of rather a modest character and had no idea that the man had his own blackface act. This would indicate that Rice developed his character shortly after the Cowells departed the area and that the first city to see Rice perform as Jim Crow was, in fact, Louisville where it can be proven that he was living at the time and so this would put the emergence of Jim Crow at mid-1830. Certainly he was performing Jim Crow by September of that year because there is a handbill from that period still in existence advertising Rice as Jim Crow.
Rice, however, must have had an idea about performing as Jim Crow for some time because Rice did not invent Jim Crow. He must have learned about this character from the Blacks he had befriended. In the Yoruba culture of West Africa, their myths contain a crow that is something of a Trickster figure, that is, it accomplishes its ends by manipulating those around him. To haughty, highbrow types, he presented himself as an obsequious servant; to those with low self-esteem, he presented himself as an authority figure. Through skillful cunning and deceit, the Trickster figure gets what it wants from others by using their own natures against them. He is not always self-absorbed but might use his cunning to help others by tricking those who had no intentions of providing that help. The mythological figure that gives fire to man, for instance, is, in all cultures, the Trickster.
The Yoruban crow in their mythology is not only a Trickster but has the name of “Jim.” When West Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, the Trickster crow named Jim simply became “Jim Crow.” These early slaves often consciously practiced Jim Crow by pretending to be dumb or lame to get out of work. Jim was both a popular slave name (think Huck Finn) as well as a popular minstrel name (Jim Crow, Dandy Jim, Jim Josey, etc.). When Whites banned certain forms of slave dance that involved crossing the feet or legs (seen as subversively anti-Christian), slaves developed dance steps that shuffled without crossing and called this dance “Jim Crow” possibly because it subverted the ban. It was this dance that Tom Rice observed and appropriated for his act. That would not likely happen on the sudden. So Rice must have had the idea of performing this dance onstage for some time and perhaps seeing Sam Cowell’s blackface routine and hearing of the rewards of the performance convinced him to try it out..
We can further deduce that Rice’s earliest performances were not particularly noteworthy. Nothing in the available evidence indicates that audiences were swept up by the song. It is not listed on any bills as a smash or a special feature but just as one song among several and neither as an opening nor closing number. So, we can deduce that Rice worked on it and probably got suggestions from other performers on how to spice it up.
We know, though, by 1831, that Jim Crow was garnering a lot of notice. Rice would “explode” onto the stage. As he pranced about, he would belt out his song, “Jump Jim Crow,” in his falsetto voice singing in slave dialect. Throughout his number, he would punctuate the song with explosive moves, twirls and twists. His limbs seemed to move independently of one another in this very odd but entertaining disjointed fashion as though his arms and legs has extra joints on them. However, it was all very carefully choreographed and required a unique skill to pull off. Clearly, no one else was doing anything like it nor could they hope to. To finish off the number, Rice would “explode” off the stage to a wild ovation. By 1832, Rice was set to tour the East Coast where audiences crowded the theatres eager to see the act they had read so much about. They were not disappointed.
When he performed Jim Crow at the Bowery Theatre in New York, Rice became something of a superstar. From there, Rice toured extensively all over the U.S. and then went to the U.K. where he was also a huge hit. He even married an English woman while in London and then returned to the U.S. with his new wife in tow in 1837. He would return to the U.K. in 1839 and again 1842 and returned each time to tour the U.S.
While “Jump Jim Crow” was a perennial favorite, he had other hits as “Clare de Kitchen” which we discussed earlier:
The thing to keep in mind concerning “Jump Jim Crow” is that the song is, at its core, political and not just a dance tune. For example, one verse goes:
I’m for union to a girl
An dis is a stubborn fact,
But if I marry and don’t like it
I’ll nullify de act
References to union and nullification are code words and only thinly disguised. In some of the printed versions of “Jump Jim Crow,” we learn that he is against the U.S. Bank and its president, Nicholas Biddle who battled with Jackson over renewing the bank’s charter but lost. Crow refers to him as “Ole Nick,” a name for the Devil. Crow also criticizes Andrew Jackson’s opponents in Congress.
To further illustrate just how political “Jump Jim Crow” actually was, the burning of the Ursaline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts in August 1834 during an anti-Irish/Catholic riot led by Callithumpians was headed by a man whose followers asked him to sing “Jim Crow” according to the courtroom testimony of Asa Barker, one of the firemen who arrived to battle the blaze, at the man’s trial. The prosecution later summarized the incident so: “When the convent is in flames, …Barker too at that time sees him by the engine; and then he was asked to sing Jim Crow, the Io Triumphe of the rioters…” So it can hardly be doubted that the song was primarily political and recognized as such by the Callithumpians and the attendees in the courtroom.
More importantly, we get a clue into who championed the song—working class, pro-Jackson, anti-Bank, anti-immigrant whites and primarily males. We remember too that George Washington Dixon used Callithumpian tactics and counted many friends and supporters among them. But wasn’t he anti-Jackson and pro-Bank? Yes, he was. Between Zip Coon and Jim Crow, we get two ends of a political spectrum. Both were working class and both were Callithumpian at the base but Dixon expressed what would become the radical Republican platform while Rice represented the Jacksonian Democracy. One blackface character was a Northern freedman dandy while the other was a shabby-dressed Southern slave. One was more about acting than music while the other cavorted in eye-popping dance steps of seeming infinite variety. One favored Northern Republicanism while the other favored Southern Democracy.
The Republican Party formed from the Whigs who began in 1832 as the Anti-Masonic Party after the murder of William Morgan in 1826 due to the way the Masons manipulated the justice system to favor the murderers. By 1833, the anti-Masonic issue was wearing thin and so the party banded with the National Republicans of John Quincy Adams (who called themselves “Anti-Jackson” and who were fracturing after Adams failed to get reelected in 1828) to form the Whig Party. They opposed Jacksonian Democracy and slavery (Jackson was everything they hated—a slave owner, a Mason and anti-Bank). To keep from losing the South, the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor as their presidential candidate. He was a slave owner which infuriated the hardcore Whigs (among them, a chap named Abraham Lincoln) and they split from the party forming the Republicans with Lincoln running as their very first candidate. The radical republicans were a faction of the party led by Thaddeus Stevens who wanted slavery abolished, freedmen given the vote and, after the war, wanted harsh penalties against the Confederacy and opposed many of Lincoln’s more lenient, moderate policies of reconciliation. That Dixon voiced much of the radical republican agenda before it existed is remarkable.
Many of Jackson’s opponents referred to him as “Jackass” which he played along with until his democracy was represented as a jackass. In 1874, political cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly used the jackass and the elephant as political symbols after a New York Herald hoax story about the animals in the Central Park Menagerie (a zoo) escaping and the images stuck.
I don’t mean to get too far ahead of the topic at hand but there is so much history attached to minstrelsy that it is inexcusable to neglect explaining it so the reader can place events in context. To explain minstrelsy without understanding the politics of the time would be a pointless endeavor. We must, for example, recognize that the word “Callithumpian” was a general term and not one that represented a united party or organization—there was no cohesion and many Callithumpian groups were very opposed to one another’s views.
Likewise, the same was true of minstrelsy. It appealed to the common man but the common folk were not united and so enjoyed minstrelsy for different reasons and interpreted it differently. To further confuse things, many whites opposed to what Jim Crow stood for nevertheless attended Rice’s performances for the sheer enjoyment of it and the same goes for Dixon. Then again, some of the verses of Jim Crow criticize whites and slavery. While “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow” are political songs, they are not true social commentary but rather presented a loose assemblage of views found in the common people and verses were added to please the various factions of common folk rather than attempt to criticize or marginalize any. These songs, by their nature, are inclusive.
But what does the music itself tell us? If one listens to the clip of “Jump Jim Crow” that I posted earlier, one can hear that there isn’t much to it. It is rather simple. Rather anti-climactic to hear the music after reading about the fame and cheering crowds. In fact, a British journalist wrote: “America has sent us a filthy abortion of a song, with neither talent nor humor.” We would think the song must have been a catchy tune but instead hear something so simple that it is monotonous. What was it about the music that made audiences request encore after encore?
“Jump Jim Crow” is in the best tradition of the Callithumpians and mummers—a bunch of racket. There is some evidence that it derived from the Black slaves’ corn-husker songs. Two teams would compete shucking corn for a prize—usually a feast put on by the master of the plantation in which the winning team goes first. These festivities were also very loud and occasionally violent. Here again, the Lord of Misrule rules. I have not yet explained what the Lord of Misrule is—he governs the Christmas celebration as it used to be when it descended from the Roman Saturnalia (December 17-23). During this time, slaves became the masters and masters became the slaves. This societal inversion was known as “misrule.” In corn-husking, the master serves a fine dinner to the slaves and this often occurred on Christmas. Also, the each slave man was invited to the master’s house where the master greeted him cheerily, gave him gifts to give to his kids (usually firecrackers—again something noisy), poured him a big snifter full of his best bonded whiskey (whiskey aged in a barrel as least four years), a big cigar, wished him a Merry Christmas and then guided him to a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars and invited him to plunge his hands in and take as many as he could carry. This ritual tended to humanize slave to master and master to slave which resulted in a better working relationship (once again, the enforcing of “good” behavior).
Christmas celebration in the U.K. as it once was. The jester-like fellow leading the celebrants is the Lord of Misrule. The connection to Callithumpian and mumming practices is quite apparent.
In blackface minstrelsy, the entire show was presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The blackface character onstage manipulates his master to peals of laughter from the audience. With Zip Coon he is a Black freedman who sings of being the “bery nex president” governing every White American. When the White performer dons blackface, he is not really imitating or mocking a Black man as we all too often assume today but rather he was making himself into the “Other” or the “Outsider” thumbing his nose at the upper class, the rulers, the authority that governed his life as completely as it governed those of the Blacks—one held in slavery, the other in wage slavery. He can no more belong to that class that he aspires to than the freedman dandy in his mismatched clothing of the landed aristocracy trying to speak the King’s English with a slave barnyard dialect.
In mythology, great rackets and boisterous laughter represent great change. The reason Christmas was once such a loud, bawdy affair was because the year was ending and a new one coming. We still tend to get loud and drunk to ring in the New Year and even the phrase “ring in” signifies noise—the clanging and banging of the Callithumpian procession as it wound its way down the street. We celebrate the Fourth of July with great fireworks not to symbolize the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air but simply that a new nation had emerged, a new epoch was dawning and we celebrate it annually as a promise of eternal renewal even if by that we may be overreaching a bit.
The minstrels and the Callithumpians were following this same mythology, their noise a way of putting the aristocrats on notice—that changes were going to be made. The minstrel music was this great racket played on banjos and fiddles. It was meant to the oppose the fine, cultured music of the aristocrats with their opera and their symphony orchestras reeling off extravagant, richly textured chords. Minstrel music was stripped down, clumsy, crude, discordant and meant to grate on the ears of those accustomed to fine arts. Minstrel was, as punk was a century and a half later, anti-music.
By 1840, Tom Rice, still riding high in his popularity, began to experience stiffness in his joints and even in his voice but he kept dancing and singing. By 1847, his wife passed away. By the time the 1850s arrived, the first wave of minstrelsy was drawing to a close and a new one arose to take the reigns with even more boisterous noise than its predecessor. Rice still wore his blackface onstage his stiffness had steadily increased until he could no longer dance although he still acted in legitimate theatre but even that became impossible eventually.
On September 19, 1860, Thomas Dartmouth Rice passed away. Although seven years junior to George Washington Dixon, Rice preceded him to the grave. He left behind no descendants, none of his children survived infancy. The exact cause of death was supposed by some to be liquor. Although Rice was a rich man at one point and wore extravagant clothing (making him a type of Zip Coon), a New York Times memorial piece stated that Rice spent his fortune away in the saloons. Be that as it may, Many mourned his death as the newspapers eulogized him. The exact opposite of how Dixon was treated. And yet, we remember “The Zip Coon Song” as “Turkey in the Straw” while “Jump Jim Crow” has faded completely from our memories. The only tribute to Rice’s character after his death occurred in a most unflattering way: the South’s brutal, dehumanizing segregation laws bore his name.