Music can be a great resource for researching your family tree, especially if you have ancestors, who were involved in popular music. I was reminded of this the other day when I received an email from a reader, who was looking for music published in the Mohawk Minstrels Magazine.
The Mohawk Minstrels were formed in London in 1867. So called “Black-face” minstrelsy was hugely popular at the time, and was the first form of distinctively American entertainment to storm Britain. Audiences were thrilled by the seemingly exotic music and dances performed by the minstrels, and were also reassured that in a minstrel show, they could expect a rather more refined kind of music, inspired by the structures of classical music, and lacking the doubles-entendres, and suggestive lyrics, beloved of Music Hall audiences.
Some elements of this minstrel music owed at least something to the music of African-American slaves, most notably the banjo, which was developed from instruments devised by Caribbean slaves, drawing on their West African heritage. There was such an enthusiastic response that banjo tutorial volumes were hurriedly published, with even the Prince of Wales learning to strum.
Generally though, despite appearances, minstrel shows were surprisingly conservative musically. The music of Stephen Foster, for instance, became an integral part of many a minstrel show, despite owing rather more to the immigrant music of his childhood, than America’s Deep South, which he only visited once.
By 1873 the Mohawk Minstrels had taken over the lease of the Agricultural Hall in Islington, London, and would stage shows there on a continuous basis until 1900. The Mohawks were founded by brothers James and William Francis; who were soon joined by composer, David Day, and later in the decade by lyricist and performer, Harry Hunter; who was head-hunted from a rival minstrel show. Between them, they would form one of the largest publishers of popular music, Francis, Day and Hunter, who would go on to become founding members of London’s own Tin-Pan Alley, publishing Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, among other eminent names, before being bought out by EMI in the 1970s.
Perhaps slightly ironically, in view of the important part that Frederick Day, son of David, would play in the Copyright Act of 1911, all of the Mohawk Minstrels magazines were aimed at a wide audience, proudly boasting that “These songs may be sung by anybody”.
The popularity of the black-face minstrel show now seems distinctly uncomfortable. That racist attitudes underpinned it is undeniable, and musical depictions of happy slaves leading easy lives on the plantation (see, for example, the original version of My Old Kentucky Home) cannot be seen as anything but repugnant. It also had an unexpected effect on black performers trying to break into the industry, in that they were forced to conform to the racist stereotypes created by the minstrel shows, in order to be able to get any work on the stage.
As Derek B. Scott perceptively points out in The singing bourgeois (M748.c.95.25): “…it must be stressed that the blackface mask denoted a certain kind of theatricality, and when genuine black performers confirmed the minstrel stereotypes, it was because they needed to adopt the conventions of blackface entertainment to enjoy success. The black stereotypes projected by the minstrel show had their repercussions in other musical genres: no longer was it possible in 1870, as it had been in 1770, for a black actress to take the part of Polly in The Beggar’s Opera.
For some performers though, whether white or black, belonging to a Minstrel act, with its mix of professionals and amateurs could be a liberating experience, and a route out of poverty. Which brings me back to our reader looking for information on her family. Her great-grandfather, John Fuller, and his son, Walter, were members of the Mohawk Minstrels in the 1880s.
They came from a desperately poor family in Shoreditch, London. Musically talented, Walter taught himself to play the piano, organ and double-bass; while the whole family were confident singers. Following on from their success in the Mohawk Minstrels, the Fullers were able to get enough money together to emigrate to Auckland, New Zealand.
It was here that they moved away from the blackface minstrel show, and went into vaudeville, hiring Auckland Town Hall, where six members of the family performed regularly. They were evidently successful, as by the 1920s John Fuller owned a chain of over 90 theatres across New Zealand and Australia, with sidelines in wax works and magic lantern shows.
By now, the act itself, had become much more wide ranging with comedic turns and light opera as well as hits from the Mohawk days. Fuller was evidently a canny businessman, as it was around this period that he started to move into the cinema business, noticing that fashions were changing.
His sons continued in the business. Walter remained in New Zealand where he ran a chain of cinemas and theatres, while John Junior became a director of the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Older brother, Benjamin, also a former minstrel, attempted to set up an antipodean opera company, staged the first performance in Australia of No, No, Nanette, and, in 1949, organized a tour by the Old Vic theatre company, starring Sir Laurence Olivier. A philanthropist, he was knighted in 1921. It was all a long way from Shoreditch…
Many thanks to our reader, Virginia Rundle, for sharing the story of the Fuller family. More information on their astonishing story may be found on her website – Relatives matter, which was recently web-archived by the Australia National Library’s Pandora project.