The Origin of the Jim Crow Tune From the New-York Mirror, 1841(as published)

The New-Orleans Picayanne states that a few years ago Thomas D. Rice, now the famous negro comedian, was an actor in a Western theatre, and though he did some things cleverly, he was particularly remarkable for nothing but being the best dressed man in the company. An original piece was got up, in which Rice was persuaded to do the character of a negro, much against his will. He consented only under the stipulation that he should have permission to introduce a negro song of his own.

Rice was fond of riding, and frequently visited a stable in town where there was a very droll negro hostler, who used to dance grotesquely, and sing old fragments of a song about one Jim Crow. Very little difficulty was found in trasforming the hostler into a tutor, and in half-an-hour Rice was master of the symphony, melody, and all the steps, words and drollery of the far-famed and irresistible Jim Crow!

The evening for the debut of the new play came on, and never did Kemble or Talma study more intensely over the effect of costume than did Rice in dressing for his negro part on this occasion. He had easily contrived to throw together a few verses with witty local allusions, and the heighten the extravagance of the dance to its greatest extent of grotesque absurdity. The play commenced and Rice went on, dragging heavily and lamely - Rice himself failing to stir up the drowsy audience with his clumsily-writte negro part until the third set, where the song came in.

Utter condemnation was lowering ominously over the place, and the actors had already pronounced it a dead failure, when the hitherto silent and gloomy green-room was startled by a tumultuous round of cheers breaking out suddenly in “front.”

“What is that!” said the manager. “Who’s on stage?” “Rice is singing a negro song,” was the reply. “Oh, that’s it! eh?” said the manager, who was a stickler for the “legitimate,” and concluded that an audience which could applaud such a thing would be just as lkely to hiss it the next moment.

But the new song continued to call down expressions of pleasure that could not by any means bee mistaken, and at its conclusion the manager bounce out of the green-room, and down to “P.S.” to listen to the loudest encore he ever heard in his theater.

The play was announced again, but after two or three repetitions it was discovered that the song was all the audience wanted, and so Jim Crow emerged triumphant from the ashes of a damned play, to delight Europe and America with -

“Turn about an’ wheel about,
An’ do just so;
An’ eb’ry time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow!

Rice soon found he way to New-York, and Hamblin was not long in snapping up the new card, which he made to tell to as handsome a tune as any other that the great caterer ever played upon the Bowery board.

“Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered;” and when Thomas D. Rice was playing “William Tell” in Cherry-street, New-York, he little dreamed of ever making a fortune by singing Jim Crow!

Return to Voyager Recordings Home Page