10. Before They Close the Minstrel Show
Lyrics and Music: Bob Coltman ©1971 Bob Coltman
Guitar: Mike Agranoff
Recorded live at the Folk Project Fall Festival, Stillwater, NJ Oct. 8, 2000
The poster's peeling underneath last summer's morning glory vine,
An old white hat and a stump of cigar, and an empty bottle of wine,
Lay me down, Carolina, lay me down, don't want to wake up in the morning no more,
Sing me one slow sad song for this one last old time before they close the minstrel show.
Banjo's got a broken string, don't 'spect I'll get to fix it now,
Won't be no more chance to sing, I'm rusty anyhow,
Daddy Bones is dead I guess, you probably don't know or care,
And Frank and Arch has gone away, somewhere, I don't know where,
The money and the crowd run out before we left the last town,
This old show done played its run and rung the curtain down,
Don't know where we go from here. Come to that, I just don't care.
Maybe we go to a better place, and the minstrel show'll be there
I had never met Bob Coltman. I had been singing this song since forever, and sort of made up my own background from its context. When I contacted him to arrange permission for my recording, I asked him for the real story. Here's what he had to say.
I am from eastern Pennsylvania. In the late 1940s, as a kid of about nine, I was taken to a local high school where some of the local men blacked up their faces and did a minstrel show. Right then, as I watched, minstrel shows were dying out. They had been a popular form of entertainment since the 1830s; popular booklets were sold telling how to do them in your community and lots of people did them thinking no harm, as today they do Gilbert and Sullivan or Thornton Wilder.
But by the time I saw that show the color line was already being broken in many ways, and such not-so-innocent portrayals of racism were beginning to feel uncomfortable. Only a few years remained before civil rights would put them behind us forever.
I didn't know anything about that, but I was confused at the silly antics of these men, one of whom I knew. What did they think they were doing? I was too little a kid to understand, I didn't get much of the humor. But the music was magic. And magic I understood.
Thirty years after that, I was looking through some notes for songs I'd partly written and stuck in a folder. I stuck together three song fragments, one about a girl or a place named Carolina, another about that poster. Didn't think they would work but they did. Quoting from the notes to my 1971 album of the same name (long unavailable I'm afraid):
"I never expected it to do well; it's a risky song so that if you don't listen carefully it calls up a fringey set of reflexes having to do with the old blackface shows. But when you know your music and where it's been, you know what a debt we all owe to the old traveling shows which, even before the radio and phonograph, carried songs and ways of playing from place to place, setting up by kerosene light in schoolhouses and off of wagon gates in town squares.
"We move our music around differently today, which is both a gain and a loss, like any other change. There is something to mark in the passing of the old minstrel men, and no stereotypes are adequate to deal with their reality. And when did you last hear anybody play anything pretty out in front of your house?"
Nearly everybody has been understanding about the song's intent. One who was not was the late Malvina Reynolds, who said she'd spent too much of her life demonstrating against minstrel shows to tolerate the song. I don't hold it against her because I know where she's coming from and I'm on her side. But I wrote the song for an era to come when these old angers and sorrows have played themselves out and we're all, of every color, able to enjoy our ancient frailties without rancor.