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 start.

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 (see 1896).
  • 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 wear it.
  • 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 "FOR DANCING".
  • 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.