General Introduction by Sandra Jean Graham (2013)
Sam Lucas (c. 1840-1916) was one of the most celebrated entertainers of his generation. He entered the business in 1873 through blackface minstrelsy, which at the time was the largest employer of black musicians, comedians, comics, dancers, and novelty acts. Although almost none of these performers are remembered today, Lucas — along with James Bland, Pete Devonear, James Grace, Fred Lyons, James S. Putnam, Albert Saunders, Jacob J. Sawyer, George W. Scott, and Gussie Davis — created a significant body of black popular song that serves as an important window into the post-Civil War era and deserves to be understood and remembered. The only one of these songwriters to achieve enduring recognition was Bland, whose "O Dem Golden Slippers" (1879) and "In the Evening By the Moonlight" (1880) remained popular well into the twentieth century and whose "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878) was Virginia's state song from 1940 to 1997. It can be challenging to see beyond the repellant nature of minstrelsy with its propagation of racial, ethnic, gender, and class stereotypes, but minstrel performances had different meanings for different constituencies and reward close examination, including listening to the music. The songs of Sam Lucas illustrate a range of strategies: conformity to minstrel stereotypes, an attempt to recuperate the dignity of black folk song in his "commercial" spirituals, and ultimately liberation from minstrelsy through the adoption of white popular song style.
Why Sam Lucas? At a time when most performers, white and black, retired once new trends in performance displaced the old, Sam Lucas was an extraordinary exception: his career traversed minstrelsy (1870s to early 1880s), musical theater (late 1870s to early 1900s), variety and vaudeville (late 1880s and 1890s), and film (he portrayed Uncle Tom in William Robert Daly's 1914 silent film, Uncle Tom's Cabin). Lucas published some fifty songs under his name over the course of his career. It is uncertain how many of those he actually composed and how many he appropriated. ("Carve Dat Possum" — perhaps his best-known song and one that survives today in folk tradition — was published under Lucas's name but was written by his sometime rival Henry Hart; Lucas also "borrowed" some of his songs from the British music hall tradition.) Whether or not Lucas was the actual composer seems less important than which songs became his career-long companions, and why — this is the topic of my essay "Composing in Black and White: Code-Switching in the Songs of Sam Lucas" (in Patricia Hall, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Music Censorship, to be published at the end of 2013), which also contains Lucas's biography.
I chose the following twelve songs to represent different compositional and performance styles that Lucas embraced at particular stages of his career. They appear in chronological order. There is no way to know what an "authentic" performance sounded like because nothing was standardized. Any number of performers, white and black, sang Lucas's songs, and even the accompaniment varied. For example, in the minstrel or variety theater of Lucas's day, a small orchestra would have accompanied the singer — unless money was tight, in which case a piano or guitar or banjo would have sufficed. Lucas was a tenor, but the soloist here, Chad Runyon, is a baritone. Our intent was to "put the song over" rather than slavishly follow the sheet music (a skeletal score at best) or attempt a "historically accurate" performance. Lucas did not read or write music; he would sing his song to the orchestra and the musicians (also musically illiterate) would devise an accompaniment. An arranger would be hired to produce a piano-vocal score for publication. Most of Lucas's songs were published by Charles Albert White (1829-92) of Boston (not to be confused with the minstrel performer Charles White), who formed a professional relationship with Lucas early in his career. Links to the sheet music follow each title. Most of Lucas's sheet music can be found online at the Library of Congress and other digital repositories.
All text and audio at The Songs of Sam Lucas website are licensed by Sandra Jean Graham under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.