A Mystery Banjo and the Racism in Our Past

Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.

To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues.  Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”

Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.

Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone);  Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.

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There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).

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After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.

Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor of the Collegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.

As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.

If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.

Hall’s and the Collegian’s involvement in minstrelsy shows that even an item as seemingly innocuous as a musical instrument can shed light on a part of our history that we – especially those of us in positions of privilege – do not always acknowledge. Yet, minstrel shows at Virginia Tech continued well into the 1960s, and this form of racism (and others) continues in America into the present day.

After Hollins College recently addressed controversy of blackface depictions in their yearbooks, Virginia Tech released the University Statement on Offensive Photographs to address the racist imagery in our past, and the University Libraries prepared a statement for our digital yearbook repositories to affirm our commitment to the Principles of Community and providing historical documentation to researchers.

My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”

For more information about blackface and minstrelsy, please read “Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture blog, A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story, as well as Vox’s interview with author John Strausbaugh, “The complicated, always racist history of blackface” by Sean Illing.

(This post was edited May 22, 2019, with additional information about blackface and minstrelsy, the statements on offensive imagery in the Bugle yearbooks, and a revised title.)

American Song: A Sign of the Times

<em>These Times They Are A-Changin</em>, Bob Dylan, 1964
These Times They Are A-Changin, Bob Dylan, 1964

Did you hear? (Of course, you did.) Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago. As the Nobel committee wrote, it awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is a mighty step up for an already valued and valuable tradition that is even more varied than are Dylan’s songs themselves. Political, personal, complicated, narrowly topical, broad and metaphorical, silly, stupid, catchy, maddening, romantic, lyrical, sentimental, commercial: Whatever human emotion, quality, or experience you may think of, there are songs to go along. And when it comes to reflecting, initiating, or participating in social trends, songs are certainly there, too. So, although the occasion of Dylan’s winning the Prize didn’t, by itself, make me think about the sheet music collections we have here at Special Collections, specifically, collections of “popular” music, it did provide some of the impetus that leads me to write just a bit about some of them.

Sheet music has a long history. Printed sheet music goes back almost to Gutenberg, at least in the West, to about twenty years after his printing press. The variety of printed music is nearly endless–church music, orchestral music, opera, dance music, tunes, lieder–so much so that the best definition of sheet music has to do with its description as a physical object. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University offers the following:

On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages.

Honest Old Abe's Quick Step : for the Piano
“Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step : for the Piano” (Published, O. Ditson, Boston, 1860)
Take your gun and go, John. Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers. (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1863)
“Take Your Gun and Go, John, Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers” (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1862)

Some of the earliest popular sheet music we have in our collection dates from around the American Civil War. On the left is a tune published in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step. On the right, from just a couple of years later is Take Your Gun and Go, John, a song of resignation and sorrow, sung by a wife as her husband leaves for war.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Don’t stop a moment to think John, your country calls then go; Don’t think of me or the children John, I’ll care for them you know.
But take your gun and go John, take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .
And now goodbye to you John I cannot say farewell; we’ll hope and pray for the best John; god’s goodness none can tell.
Be his great arm around you John to guard you night and day; Be our beloved country’s shield till the war has passed away.
Then take your gun and go John take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .

This song may be from the Civil War, but just about 150 years after its publication, it still is timely. In 2013, it was recorded and released by Loretta Lynn, and although it is on an album of Civil War-era songs, it does continue to speak. Give it a listen.

Moving into the 20th century, the music publishing business increased dramatically as the theater, music, and entertainment industries grew. With the availability of inexpensive color printing, sheet music for popular songs began to feature colorful covers, illustrations that, along with the music and lyrics, offer an additional window into the contemporary currents of the time. Societal norms with regard to gender and race may be represented, as well as less weighty subjects, such as the sudden fashionability of bicycle riding, or the more significant increase in automobile travel, along with all its attendant themes of freedom, mobility, and romance, among others. World events, also, made their way into the popular song of the day. Consider “America, Here’s My Boy.”

"America, Here's My Boy" (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)
“America, Here’s My Boy” (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)

Before listening to the song, what do we see? I don’t know about you, but the sight of “Every American Mother” offering up her son to face what was, by May 1917, well-known carnage, is remarkable. Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how the image of American motherhood–even idealized American motherhood–has changed in a hundred years. But America needed men (and boys) to fight, so here was the message, as proclaimed in the chorus of the song:
 
 
 
 

America, I raised a boy for you.
America, You’ll find him staunch and true,
Place a gun upon his shoulder,
He is ready to die or do.
America, he is my only one; My hope, my pride and joy,
But if I had another, he would march beside his brother;
America, here’s my boy.

If you’re curious, here’s a recording of the song from 1918 by The Peerless Quartet. I should also mention something about this cover that I hadn’t seen and was pointed out to me by a most perceptive student. Apparently, the United States shares a northern border with another country, but has no such neighbor to the south! Mexico, though officially neutral throughout the First World War, shared a difficult, and often openly hostile relationship with the U.S. at the time. On 28 February 1917, a few months before this song was published, the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram was made public by President Woodrow Wilson. The contents of this communication, intercepted and deciphered by the British in January of that year, was sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, with instructions to propose a military alliance with Mexico, should the U.S. enter the war against Germany. (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but the deal was to involve return to Mexico of land lost to the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.) Anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. was already high, and this incident only led to its increase. So, as far as the illustration on the sheet music was concerned, perhaps, geography was taking a back seat to politics.

"Somewhere In France is Daddy" (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)
“Somewhere In France is Daddy” (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)

Staying with 1917, the title, “Somewhere in France is Daddy,” is just sopping with sadness. As shown on the cover, a young mother, with a framed photo of her soldier-husband in the background, has to explain to her young son why Daddy isn’t home. Daddy, of course, is fighting for home and country, for liberty . . . “somewhere in France” and he “won’t come back/ ‘Til the stars and stripes they’ll tack/ On Kaiser William’s flagstaff in Berlin.

It’s not quite at the level of . . . “Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t put me off of your train, For the best friend I have in this whole wide world Is waiting for me in vain; Expected to die any moment, And may not live through the day: I want to bid mother goodbye, sir, Before God takes her away” . . . which I know as a Blue Sky Boys song, and which, deservedly, has won every “Saddest Song contest” I’m aware of. But, as the young boy poses the question, he puts this song right up there:

A little boy was sitting on his mother’s knee one day
And as he nestled close to her these words she heard him say
Oh mother dear please tell me why our Daddy don’t come home
I miss him so and you do too, why are we left alone
He tried hard not to cry, as she answered with a sigh

Here are five more sheet music covers from songs associated with World War I. The links below will take you to a recording of the song, if available.

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We Don’t Want the Bacon: What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine” (Shapiro, Bernstein, & Co., New York, 1918) If this link from the Library of Congress is being difficult, try this.

“We’re Going Over” (Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917) Again, if this Library of Congress link doesn’t work, try this.

“Loyalty is the Word Today” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

“Over There” (William Jerome Publishing Corp., New York, 1917). If this link from Library of Congress doesn’t work, you can try this.

“Hoe Your ‘Little Bit’ in Your Own Back Yard: Where the Boy Scouts Go, ‘Tis Hoe, Hoe, Hoe” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

Sheet music may not be what you think of when your looking for a view on culture and society, but it can definitely provide an interesting, if unexpected, part of the picture. What were folks listening to? How was the music presented? How was it received? How did people react to it? When and where was it played? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Special Collections has three collections comprised entirely of sheet music, as well as individually cataloged pieces and occasional pieces in other collections. These links will take you to the finding aid for each collection, which, among other information, will list all the titles in the collection:

Annie M. Hale Sheet Music Collection
Archer Lawrie Sheet Music Collection
Sheet Music Collection

"When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)" (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)
“When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)

To end on a more hopeful note, is a song from World War II, written in 1942, in fact. The United States had been at war less than a year, though it had been a long war in Europe already. I didn’t recognize this one from the title, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World),” but once I heard it, I knew I had heard it before. It hit #1 on the Pop charts by early ’43. It’s an interesting illustration on the cover. Of course, where is the source of the light located? And, there is the “Buy War Bonds” logo in the lower right. Here’s how the song starts:

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello” to love

No more hard rain.

Lastly, to the folks who, given the beginning of this post, thought it might be about some great Bob Dylan stuff we have in Special Collections, I offer my apologies.