Of minstrelsy in Red Sorghum

Minstrels. We need the qualifier vernacular minstrels. Not chansonists at the French Court. Not Meistersingern of medieval Germany, who worked with high-literary texts and stories. More like Afro-American showmen of the 19th century, who took bits and pieces from opera, work song, white parlor music, etc., and sewed them together into song-dance (tapdance mainly) entertainment. Then took their repertoire on the road, or on the river. We once had such a class of entertainers: the grandfather of the backstage musical, Showboat (1927), tells their story, brings into view the class prejudice they endured but which strangely also gave them their “touch”: a fling-back of subtle satire at their audiences cloaked in the garb of just havin’ fun. Whence the Modern institution of “cabaret”, which always uses the (literal) lowness of the performance venue (the urban cellar) as a jumping off point, an auto-trope that queries: if WE are beneath contempt, then why are you here, paying to watch us? (Let’s wait for now on the subject of rappers…).

If this “pre-cabaret” chansonist array was a class or status group, it would of course control entry and mimesis. Indeed it did: http://vip.book.sina.com.cn/book/chapter_128064_83405.html Its vocabulary was taught through stories that actually WERE scripted to protect the genre “guild”. The iconic word(s) were jianghu (“rivers and lakes”), which meant transversers of the central China flatlands, where rivers converged into lakes or swamps. (whence of course “Water margin)

But, inevitably, the lower one descended in terms of market and earnings, the more one finds the specialized minstrel morphing into the jack of all trades, and of course the “gang”(ster). Wars over markets and clients and terrain were constant: their regulation or prosecution required instant-response fraternities: like the speakeasy franchises of the 20s, they needed allies or infiltrators to keep them alert about police raids, or competitive suppliers from the “South” side.

If this sort of glue-and-paste repertory arose thus in China, is self-evident that there probably was a similar vocabulary in every market center or church festival almost anywhere there was a print culture, and thus that a similarly casted profession of roving “minstrelcy” battening off already long diffused song and perhaps dance as well should turn up in a great number of “Western” venues. And likewise should one expect to find a nether-operatic music wherever ballads had acquired a print repertoire, which obliged street musicians to perform music on demand. “ Please play the one about XXX”; or “last time you were here my cousin says you did YYY with great flourish, much better than when ZZZ did it, so could you repeat it?” (coin in the hat follows). The globally best known of which would be the Harlequin/Pulcinella “acts” of comedia del’arte troupes: but Punch and Judy transforms are ubiquitous: Petrushka jesters may have first been court jesters, but they quickly diffused into the countryside, eventually to be taken up by Stalin as useful mockers of rich peasants (kulaks), whether or not there was such a class: the slapsticks that worked once usually worked elsewhere. Another version of our main story: “entertainers” are fair game for agitprop cooption: so make sure to hook up with a light hearted balalaika band and the jumpiest of Kalinka singers/dancers if you want to be on the State payroll. (Otherwise you work for the Church….and sing sad hymns, never ever lighthearted)

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