Archeophone's Monarchs of Minstrelsy is a collection of American and English minstrel singers, most born in the 1860s and 1870s though some in the 1850s, performing songs, skits, and routines associated with the waning days of minstrelsy. Some of the tunes, and even jokes, included among the generous 28 selections here will appear stubbornly familiar, so ingrained are these melodies and gags in the collective consciousness of Americans. Monarchs of Minstrelsy is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 24-page booklet with full discographical data and thumbnail biographies of each performer involved. The recordings are remarkably quiet overall, though a few selections are noisier than others. The last of these recordings was made the year Eisenhower was elected president, and the earliest date from Theodore Roosevelt's first full year in office -- most were made before the debut of talking pictures.
It would be easy to say that this is about the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, except that Monarchs of Minstrelsy is so well done. It is respectful of its subject and annotators Allen G. Debus and Richard Martin take great pains to present this material in a historical context that would be comfortable to most interested listeners, even as its corresponding social context might seem irredeemable to others. By virtue of the historical era commercial recording got underway, American minstrelsy was captured on recordings only in its final stage of development, a period dominated by troupes led by Lew Dockstader and George M. Cohan. By this time vaudeville was on the rise and would soon overtake the minstrel show as the top draw on the American theater circuit in the big cities, although its popularity would outlast vaudeville altogether in the American South. While Monarchs of Minstrelsy is not as consistently revelatory and as fascinating as that other extraordinary Archeophone compilation, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, it's not hard to imagine someone knowledgeable about American musical theater being mystified at the very notion of having access to all three recordings made by Lew Dockstader in a single package.
Some of the songs consist of sentimental, non-dialect fare that would seem to have little to do with the blackface minstrel milieu, even to the extent that they have outlived their original context -- "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" among them. However, as a whole Monarchs of Minstrelsy is far from being "racially pure"; if you do not like to hear "the N- word," then you shouldn't be listening to this. For those who dare, Monarchs of Minstrelsy is a very good survey of what is left in recorded form of this significant nineteenth-century genre of entertainment in first-hand documents. As minstrelsy played a large part in shaping popular culture in the United States, and to some degree Britain as well, Archeophone's Monarchs of Minstrelsy will be welcomed by those who have no trouble accepting American history as it is. On the other hand, just as likely it will be condemned by those who insist on judging the distant past by the values system current in their own time.