Friday, July 04, 2014

Boz and Juba, an Unknown Image

It began last week at this time, as I checked out the weekly rare book and autograph offerings at Heritage Auctions. I seldom bid into even three figures but most of the books and prints are in off condition so even with a small purse I can sometimes win, and anyway, in the rummaging lies the fun. I am partial to American popular lithographs, and I love not only Currier and Kellogg and Prang but also, and especially, the crudely executed prints and ephemera (vinegar valentines, penny ballads, e.g.) issued by by T.W. Strong.

When I spotted this item as Lot 94383 I was instantly moved to bid my typical $11. The description read: Original Hand-Colored Lithograph, "Heel's and Toe's." Measures 11" x 8". Some wrinkling and handling wear. Very good. From the collection of Zita Books.

With its subtitle of "The African & the Anglo Saxon," I figured this to be yet another in the long line of popular lithographic contrasts between high and low, with the latter as its intended audience. The "African" strides confidently on his heels through the muck and mire of a city street near the fish market; the eels are a first clue. The high-hatted "Anglo Saxon" tip-toes ineffectually. 

Knowing that antebellum humor was littered with winks and nudges, I thought harder on what was being signaled here. As an antiquarian in all things with a special knowledge of New York City (and baseball), I recalled that "dancing for eels" was a documented contest near the waterfront or in the Five Points neighborhood and had been memorialized in several period images. John Jay Brown wrote in The American Angler's Guide; or, Complete Fisher's Manual for the United States (1849):

"A singular practice was in vogue at Catherine Market, foot of Catherine Street, New York, some years ago. The fish markets, as usual in large cities, were open on Sunday morning, in the summer season, for a few hours after sunrise. At the above-mentioned market the negroes used to gather from all parts of the city to the skinning, immense quantities [of eels] being brought in for that purpose. After the operation was performed and the fish were tied into bundles, certain lots were purchased by the lovers of fun, to be danced for by the negroes. The ceremony of dancing for eels was performed with great skill and dexterity by the sons of Afric's soil upon an ordinary shingle, brought by each competitor for that purpose. The spectacle was witnessed by hundreds of lookers-on, composed of all classes of people, who expressed their satisfaction and approbation or dissent by cheers, claps, or groans. There were certain rules for the regulation of the dance, one of which was that the individual who shuffled off the shingle lost the prize, and was considered beaten. On some occasions, to produce more excitement and stimulate them to greater effort, larger bunches were put up for the dance. The grotesque appearance of the crowd, with the negro in the centre, attired in a white or check shirt, little the worse for absence from the wash-tub, an old straw hat, and pantaloons rolled up to the knees,

'Intense emotion glitter'd in their eyes,
Each eager watching for the slimy prize,'

surrounded by the fishermen with their red shirts and tarpaulin hats, the various dark-skinned polished face and white-teeth competitors with shingle in hand, watching anxiously their turn, surrounding the inside of the ring, and the motley laughing, joking, and betting crowd without, furnished a scene which we believe has been undeservedly neglected by the artist, and belongs to the history of New York as it was." 

I knew that the "African" portrayed in the Heritage Auction litho so evidently of mid-century vintage was not Cuffee, the famous eel dancer shown above in a Currier & Ives print of 1865. If the "African" was a specific dancer, might it be the legendary Master Juba, born as William Henry Lane in about 1825? Juba's innovation as a dancer was born of his neighborhood, the Five Points slum in which blacks and Irish mingled and merged bits of their native origins. In Juba's dance the plantation walkaround merged with the Irish jig. Charles Dickens in his visit to New York that he memorialized in American Notes (1842), wrote of this slum:

"What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points.

"This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.
"Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?"
P.T. Barnum hired Juba in 1840, putting him in blackface--so that he danced as a black imagined to be white under his makeup. Barnum staged challenge dances against the white champion of the day, John Diamond, for whom no indisputable image survives. But apart from several caricatures, one reasonable portrait of Juba is extant, from 1848:

Could this be the "African" in the Heritage image? Yes, I thought ... and might the "Anglo Saxon" be his rival John Diamond? This advertisement from the New York Herald of July 8, 1844 was typical:
great public contest
Between the two most renowned dancers in the world, the Original JOHN DIAMOND and the colored boy JUBA, for a Wager of $200, on monday evening July 8 at the bowery amphitheatre, which building has been expressly hired from the Proprietor, Mr. Smith, for this night only, as its accommodations will afford all a fair view of each step of these wonderful Dancers. The fame of these two Celebrated Breakdown Dancers has already spread over the Union, and the numerous friends of each claim the Championship for their favorite, and who have anxiously wished for a Public Trial between them and thus known which is to bear the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World. The time to decide that has come, as the friends of Juba have challenged the world to produce his superior in the art for $100. That Challenge has been accepted by the friends of Diamond, and on Monday Evening they meet and Dance three Jigs, Two Reels, and the Camptown Hornpipe. Five Judges have been selected for their ability and knowledge of the Art, so that a fair decision will be made.
Rule—Each Dancer will select his own Violin and the victory will be decided by the best time and the greatest number of steps.

Then it came to me, several days after I had placed my paltry opening bid. The true likeness of Juba above was drawn during his tour of England, where he performed as "Boz's Juba," the new sobriquet coming from Dickens' description of him in American Notes (Boz was Dickens' pen name for his early works):
"The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly ...
"... But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.
"Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels [reflect on the title of the Heritage lithograph--jt]  like nothing but the man's fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs—all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!"

The "Anglo Saxon" of the Heritage image was not John Diamond, or Gilbert W. Pell, the organizer of the London troupe who, in blackface, played Mr. Bones to Juba's Mr. Tambo. It was Boz: Charles Dickens himself, slumming uneasily alongside Juba in New York.

I came to that conclusion only yesterday, in time to up my bid before the auction closed. I soared into the unaccustomed ozone of three figures but, as it turned out, won the lithograph for $75.


Blogger VassarGirl said...

John, this is a gem of a column and a gem of a discovery. Also helps with the parsing the line "jump for Juba" of logging songs...

5:26 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home