The Orientalization of American Show Business - A Selective Timeline
Liebe sey vor allen Dingen
Unser Thema, wenn wir singen;
Kann sie gar das Lied durchdringen,
Wird's um desto besser klingen.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), in praise of Hafez, the Persian poet
The following chronological compilation deals with the
impact of cultural traits from the orient on North American
entertainment from the mid-19th century until the Great War.
These traits were mainly imported by oriental people
themselves, but there was also ersatz orientalism right from
The geographical area I call "the orient" comprises
present-day countries from Morocco to Pakistan, from Sudan to
Tajikistan - more or less the Muslim world, although a
considerable number of the oriental artists performing in the
USA were Christians.
These entertainers spoke a variety of
languages. However, their word for "dance/dancing" was almost
without exception the Arabic raqs, in modern Turkish raks. It
derives from the Semitic root RQD. Its meaning hasn't changed
since Akkadian times, and it was probably the source of the
noun rag(s), the American vernacular for a special kind of
dance that emerged in the 1890s (see the table "Etymologies of
the American Vernacular rag").
Oriental, particularly female
solo dancing is distinguished by floating movements of various
parts of the body, as opposed to the rather angular dancing in
"sub-Saharan" Africa. The accompanying music is neither
polyphonic (a European domain) nor polyrhythmic (a West
African trait). The melodies are usually elaborate, microtonal
and modal, i.e. based on drones rather than chord changes. The
rhythmic modes of oriental music consist of asymmetrical
patterns that are also the essence of American rag
compositions (see the table "Orient and Occident: Some
Asymmetrical Rhythm Patterns").
The vocal and instrumental
music of the orient is often driving and expressive, swinging
and moving, at least for the experienced listener. The new
American genres from the turn of the century, viz. rags and
blues, show little kinship with the music of sub-Saharan
Africa, despite the pigmentation - "black, brown and beige" -
of most of its performers in the 20th century. What follows
are bits of information (mainly gleaned from contemporary
sources) hinting at a powerful, but nowadays largely forgotten
or ignored oriental influence on North American dance and
music before the jazz revolution of 1917.
- 1841/42: Showman Phineas T. Barnum, the "King of
Humbug", turns Scudder's American Museum in New York into a
pioneer dime museum with an affiliated theatre.
- 1842/43: The first blackface minstrel shows, the
Virginia Minstrels and Christy's Minstrels, surface in the
USA - in New York and Buffalo NY. Their main attractions are
"Mr. Tambo" and "Mr. Bones", playing tambourine and clappers
respectively. These two instruments are very similar to
their oriental equivalents, viz. = riqq (a frame drum with
jingles) and cahârpâra (Persian) or çârpâre/çâlpâra (modern
Turkish). It is quite possible that they were imported by
transatlantic sailors. Bones player George Christy's "wench"
character also points in this direction - he looks like a
köçek, a cross-dressing Ottoman boy dancer.
- Mid-1840s: Barnum employs minstrel shows in his venues.
- 1856: Barnum toys with the idea of buying and importing
Circassian women from Turkey to the USA. The Circassians
originate from the Russian part of the Caucasus.
- 1865: The end of the Civil War brings along a
double-edged freedom ("emancipation") for the enslaved,
mainly dark-skinned, Americans. They begin to form their own
successful minstrel shows, e.g. Brooker and Clayton's
Georgia Minstrels - "blacks in blackface". Barnum exhibits
Zalumma Agra, the first in a long list of "Circassian
beauties" appearing in the USA. They are regarded as prime
examples of the "white race". Some of them go to work as
snake charmers, a fixture in exotic entertainment.
- Ca. 1883: In a 1898 statement Will Marion Cook (see
1893) discusses "the much advertised 'rag' accompaniment" of
tunes like "All Coons Look Alike to Me" (see 1896): "This
kind of movement, which was unknown [in the USA] until about
fifteen years ago, grew out of the visits of Negro sailors
to Asiatic ports, and particularly those of Turkey."
- 1888: Worth's Museum opens in New York.
- Late 1880s: Circassian artist Omene appears on stage
(in vaudeville theatres and dime museums, at expositions and
fairs, etc.) and in the news. Born in the capital of the
Ottoman Empire (now called Istanbul), she turns into one of
the first oriental dance stars in the USA and later inspires
cowgirl Two-Gun Nan Aspinwall to work as "Princess Omene".
- 1890: Charles Kunkel of St. Louis composes and
publishes "Southern Jollification: Plantation Scene", a
"darkey" dance medley. There are no traces yet of rhythmical
asymmetry. Impresario Sam T. Jack of Chicago imports artists
(danseuses et al.) from the orient and combines them with
"black" and "white" Americans, thus creating a new minstrel
format with female participation.
- 1891: Here comes the earliest known printed use of the
American vernacular rag, found in the Topeka [Kansas] Weekly
Call of August 16: "The Jordan hall 'rags,' which are held
in Tennessee town [a part of Topeka] weekly, are a nuisance
and should be abated."
- 1892: J. Schott of New York publishes "The Opelika Cake
Walk" by F[red] Neddermeyer, a bandleader of Columbus OH.
This is the first composition to use the trademark
cake(-)walk, but not yet the asymmetrical rhythm that only
pops up four years later, after the breakthrough of the rag
- 1893: Assisted by Franz Boas (future professor of
anthropology at New York's Columbia University), John
Comfort Fillmore and Benjamin Ives Gilman record oriental
music at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Only
the Gilman cylinders seem to have survived.) In 1898, Will
Marion Cook states that "the odd [i.e. asymmetrical] rhythms
of the danse du ventre" [i.e. belly-dance] were to be heard
all over the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 exposition, and
"after that time the popularity of the 'rag' grew with
astonishing rapidity and became general among Negro
pianists". M. Witmark & Sons of New York publish
minstrel-show violinist Theo Metz's composition "Omene:
Turkish Waltzes". Dancers, singers and instrumentalists from
Turkey, Algeria, Persia and so on attract millions of
spectators to Chicago in 1893, and names like Fatima, Farida
and Saida become household words. Although not Armenians
themselves, these dancers are associated with the De Kreko
(originally Krekorian) clan from Elazig in eastern Turkey.
The De Kreko Brothers are to become an institution in the
outdoor amusement business after the Chicago exposition
closed, ultimately settling in St. Louis. Saida (from Egypt)
is to marry Jean De Kreko, Fatima (from Syria) the Algerian
circus horseman and fire-eater Ali Ben Dib, and Farida might
be the same person as the future Mrs. Andrew Spyropoulos.
Sam T. Jack's La Belle Creole Burlesque Company adds
"Fatima, the Midway Plaisance danseuse" to the "black"
talents of Irving Jones, Bob Cole (coon-song writers),
Charles E. Johnson (cakewalk pioneer) et al.
- 1894: In New York, Ruth St. Denis makes her first
public dancing steps at E. M. Worth's Model Museum and
Family Theatre. Here a number of important "black" artists
(Will Marion Cook, Bob Cole et al.) exchange ideas that come
to fruition within a few years. Otto Schmidt assembles the
main attractions of the Chicago exposition and goes on tour
under canvas. This is the first travelling carnival - a
multi-cultural microcosm that helps to revolutionize
American entertainment (including dance and music). From the
very beginning, carnivals feature minstrel shows (not
displayed at the Chicago exposition) and belly-dancing, soon
to turn into "cooch" shows.
- 1895: Schmidt employs Fatima and Farida. In Leipzig
(Germany), composer Johannes Brahms meets an American
banjoist (probably Marie Worth of Kansas City) and is
impressed by her asymmetrical rhythms.
- 1896: Apartheid in the USA is legalized - "separate but
equal". Edison films Fatima, then a Coney Island attraction.
Witmark & Sons publish Ernest Hogan's song "All Coons Looks
Alike to Me" with an additional "Choice Chorus, with Negro
'Rag,' Accompaniment, Arr. by MAX HOFFMANN.". Here the
right-hand part of the score for solo piano clearly shows
asymmetrical patterns throughout (see the table "Orient and
Occident: Some Asymmetrical Rhythm Patterns"). This is the
very first printed tune featuring such a rhythm plus the
word rag in a musical sense: a milestone. Earlier coon songs
are less adventurous, and so are all the plantation dances
and cakewalks before 1897.
- 1897: S. Brainard's Sons Co. of New York and Chicago
publishes "The Mississippi Rag: Two-Step" by W[illiam] H.
Krell. The cover of the sheet music for solo piano states
correctly that this is "The First RAG-TIME Two-Step Ever
Written, and First Played by Krell's Orchestra, Chicago".
This is another milestone, because it introduces the word
rag as a musical trademark, christening a genre that was to
dominate American popular music till the Great War. It also
establishes the term rag(-)time as a label for the
asymmetrical treatment of the melody.
- 1897/98: Both Bob Cole and Will Marion Cook come out
with trailblazing musical shows, viz. A Trip to Coontown and
Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk respectively. The
music is spiced with asymmetrical rhythms.
- 1899: Carl Hoffman of Kansas City publishes "Original
Rags", Scott Joplin's first rag composition. Then John Stark
of St. Louis publishes Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag". Joplin is
a master of asymmetry - the "King of Ragtime".
- Ca. 1902: Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues", is
reportedly introduced to blues singing by a young woman at a
tent-show event in a town in Missouri. Her vocal style is
unique, and so is the highlight of Rainey's outfit - a
necklace of gold coins, just like the oriental danseuses
- 1904: Jos. Placht & Son of St. Louis publish "One o'
Them Things!: Rag Time Two-Step" by James Chapman and Leroy
Smith. This instrumental includes a genuine twelve-bar blues
strain. Fatima is present at a great ragtime piano contest
in St. Louis; Joe Jordan finishes second to Louis Chauvin.
- 1909: Jos. W. Stern & Co. of New York publish "That
Teasin' Rag", a song and instrumental written by Joe Jordan,
formerly of St. Louis (see 1904). It is featured by dancer
and singer Aida Overton Walker, also a successful Salomé
performer and choreographer.
- 1911: Critic Salem Tutt Whitney complains about the
belly-dance movements of "coon shouters".
- 1912: The national blues boom begins with the publication
of W. C. Handy's "The Memphis Blues" etc. Most early blues
are associated with the rag milieu. Insider Paul Carter
criticizes belly-dancing blues singers.
- 1917: The Victor Talking Machine Company issues "Livery
Stable Blues" backed with "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step
Introducing 'That Teasin' Rag'", thus recycling Jordan's
1909 tune on the very first jazz record ever made. The five
instrumentalists are labelled as the "Original Dixieland
'Jass' Band"; the record label also states that the music is
- 1918: The Great War and the ragtime era end. The Jazz Age
has begun. Jazz, though, is firmly founded on rags and blues
and hardly anything else.
Tables : Etymologies of the American Vernacular rag and Orient and Occident - Some Asymmetrical Rhythm Patterns.
Dedicated to my friend Serena Wilson (1933-2007),
belly-dance icon of New York and pupil of Ruth St. Denis
(1879-1968), a pioneer of modern American dance who took
part of her inspiration from the orient.
Readers with a deeper interest in this topic are invited
to e-mail or write to: Karl Gert zur Heide, Braunschweiger Str. 89,
D-28205 Bremen, Germany. © 2011 by Karl Gert zur Heide
Ed note : Karl included many of the proper names in
Arabic, and we were unable to properly translate, as well as
correctly print accent marks here.