IT must be eight years ago," he commenced, "since the Ethiopian serenading come up— aye, it must be at least that time, because the twopenny boats was then running to Londonbridge, and it was before the "Cricket" was blown up. I know that, because we used to work the boats serenading. I used to wear a yellow waistcoat, in imitation of them at the St. James"s Theatre.
The first came out at St. James"s Theatre, and they made a deal of money. There were five of them—Pell was bones, Harrington was concertina, I think, White was violin, Stanwood the banjo, and Germain the tambourine. I think that"s how it was, but I can easy ascertain. After them sprang up the "Lantum Serenaders" and the "Ohio Serenaders," the "South Carolina Serenaders," the "Kentucky Minstrels," and many other schools of them; but Pell"s gang was at the top of the tree. Juba was along with Pell. Juba was a first class—a regular A 1—he was a regular black, and a splendid dancer in boots.
As soon as I could get in to vamp the tunes on the banjo a little, I went at it, too. I wasn"t long behind them, you may take your oath. We judged it would be a hit, and it was fine. We got more money at it then than we do at any game now. First of all we formed a school of three—two banjos and a tambourine, and after that we added a bones and a fiddle. We used to dress up just the same then as now. We"d black our faces, and get hold of a white hat, and put a black band round it, or have big straw hats and high collars up to the ears. We did uncommonly well. The boys would follow us for miles, and were as good as advertisements, for they"d shout, "Here"s the blacks!" as if they was trumpeting us. The first songs we came out with were "Old Joe," "Dan Tucker," and "Going ober de Mountain," and "O come along, you sandy boys." Our opening chorus was "The Wild Racoon Track," and we finished up with the "Railway Overture," and it was more like the railway than music, for it was all thumping and whistling, for nobody knowed how to play the banjo then.
When I went out pitching first I could sing a good song; but it has ruined my voice now, for I used to sing at the top—tenor is the professional term.
It wasn"t everybody as could be a nigger then. We was thought angels then. It"s got common now, but still I"ve no hesitation in saying that, keep steady and sober, and it works well to the present day. You can go and get a good average living now.
We could then, after our "mungare" and "buvare" (that"s what we call eat and drink, and I think it"s broken Italian), carry home our
5s. or 6s. each, easy. We made long days, and did no night-work. Besides, we was always very indifferent at our business, indeed. I"d be blowed if I"d trust myself out singing as I did then: we should get murdered. It was a new thing, and people thought our blunders was intended. We used to use blacking then to do our faces—we got Messrs. Day and Martin to do our complexion then. Burnt cork and beer wasn"t so popular then.
I continued at the nigger business ever since. I and my mate have been out together, and we"ve gone out two, and three, or four, up to eleven in a school, and we"ve shared better when eleven than when we was two. The highest we"ve got in a day has been 1l. 6s.
each, at the Portsmouth review, when Napier went out with the fleet, above two years ago. We walked down to Portsmouth a-purpose. We got 14s. 6d. each—and there was five of us—at the launch of the "Albert."
The general dress of the nigger is a old white hat and a long-tailed coat; or sometimes, when we first come out, in white waistcoats and coats; or even in striped shirts and wigs, and no hats at all. It"s all according to fancy and fashion, and what takes.
When we go to a cheap concert-room, such as the Albion, Ratcliffe-highway, or the Ship and Camel, Bermondsey, our usual business is to open with a chorus, such as "Happy are we," though, perhaps, we haven"t had a bit of grub all day, and been as wretched as possible; and then we do a song or two, and then "crack a wid," as we say, that is, tell an anecdote, such as this:—
Three old niggers went to sea on a pavingstone. The first never had any legs, the next never had any arms, and the other was strip stark naked. So the one without any legs said, "I see de bird; so the one without any arms took up a gun and shot it, and the one without any legs run after it, and the one that was strip stark naked put it in his pocket. Now, you tell me what pocket that was?"
Then another says, "In his wainscoat pocket." Then I return, "How can he if he was naked? Can you give the inflammation of that story? Do you give it up?" Then he says, "No, won"t give it up." Then I say, "Would you give it up if you had it." Then he says, "Yes!" and I reply, "The inflammation of that is the biggest lie that ebber was told."
Sometimes we do conundrums between the songs. I ask, "Can you tell me how to spell blind pig in two letters?" and then he, remembering the first story, answers, "Yes, the biggest lie that ebber was told." "No, that"s not it." Then I continue, "P, g; and if you leave the i out it must be a blind pig, Jim."
Then we go on with the concert, and sing perhaps, "Going ober de Mountain" and "Mary Blane," and then I ask such conundrums as these:
"Why is mahogany like flannel?" "Because they are both used to manufacture into
drawers;" and then we do this rhyme, "Because mahogany makes drawers to put your clothes in, and flannel makes drawers to put your toes in."
Perhaps we do another conundrum, such as this:—"Supposing you nigger was dead, what would be the best time to bury you?" One says, "I shan"t suppose." Another says, "I don"t know." And then I say, "Why, the latter end of the summer;" and one asks, "Why, Jim?" "Because it"s the best time for blackberrying." Then I cry out, "Now, you niggers, go on with the consort;" and one of them will add, "Now, Jim, we"ll have that lemoncholy song of Dinah Clare, that poor girl that fell in the water-butt and got burnt to death."
Another of our dialogues is this one:— "Did I ebber tell you about that lemoncholy occurrence, Mary Blane, the young girl that died last night in the house that was burned down this morning, and she"s gone to live in a garret?" "I shall call and see her." "You can"t." ""Cos why?" ""Cos she moved from where she lives now; she"s gone to live where she used to come from." "Did you ever see her broder Bill?" "No; he"s dead." "What! broder Bill dead, too?" Yes; I seed him this morning, and axed him how he was." "Well, and what did he told you?" "He told me he was wery well, thankye, and he was going to lib along with Dinah; and he"d only been married three weeks. So I asked him how many children he"d got. He said he"d only got one. So I said, "Dere something very dark about that, and I don"t think all goes right, if you was to have a son in three weeks." So he said, "Look you here, sir; if the world was made in six days, it"s debblish hard if we can"t make a son in three weeks." "Go on with the consort."
Another of our dialogues is this:—"Did I ever tell you, Jim, about my going out a-riding?" "Neber." "Well, then, I"ll told you, I had two dollars in my pocket." "Had you?" "And I thought I"d do it gentlemantell-like." "Yes." "So I went to the libery dealer." "Who?" The libery dealer—the man that keeps the horses" stable." "Oh! golly! you mean the stable-man." "Yas. Well, I axed him if he could lend me a horse to ride on;" so he said, he"d only got one horse." "Wall?" "And that was a grey mare. I thought that would do just as well. "Of course." "And I axed him what that would cost me? and he said he should charge me two dollars for that—so I paid the two dollars." "Wall?" "And he put me the spurs on my boots, and he put de bridle on the horse"s back." "The bridle on the horse"s back!—what did he do with the bit?" "He neber had a bit at all; he put the stirrups in the mouth." "Now stop—you mean, he put the saddle on the back, and the bridle in the mouth." "I know it was something. Den they put me on the saddle, and my feet
on the bridle." "You mean he put your foot in the stirrups." "So I went out very well." "So the mare begun for to gallop, so I caught hold of the turmel of the saddle." "The tummel!" "Yes, Jim, the tummel." "No, no; you means the pummel." "Wall, hab it the pummel—you knows—but, but, I know, I"m right. So I caught hold of the mane, and I got on berry well till I come to a hill, when the mare began to gollop hard down the hill, because she was shy." "What was she shy at?" "She saw a new-found-out-land dog crossing the wood." "A new-found-out-land dog crossing the road!" "Yes; so I thought I"d try and stop her: so I stuck my knees into her side, and my spur into her, and by golly, she went too fast." "And did she now?" "Till she falled down and broke her knees." "Poor thing!" "Aye, and pitched poor nigger on his head; so I got up and tought I"d take the debil of a mare back to the stable. So when I got back I told the libbery man about it." "Yas, the stable-man." "And he said I must pay 2l. 10s." "What for?" "For repairing the mare; so I said I wouldn"t; so he said he would take me before the court, and I said he might take me down the alley, if he liked; so I thought I had better go and insult a man ob de law about it. So I went to the man ob the law"s house and pulled at the servant, and out comed the bell." "No; you means pulled the bell, and out comed the servant. Wall?" "I said, Can you conform me is de man ob de law at home?" so she told me he was out, but the man ob de law"s wife was at home, so down she come. So I said I wanted to insult the man ob de law, and she said, Insult me; I do just as well." So she says, "Plane yourself." So I said, Well, den, supposing you was a gray mare, and I hired you for two dollars to ride you, and you was rader rusty, and went too fast for me, and I wanted to stop you, and I stuck my knees in your side, and my spur into you, and you falled down and broke your knees, how could I help it?" So she flung the door in my face and went in. So now go on with the consort."
Sometimes, when we are engaged for it, we go to concert-rooms and do the niggerstatues, which is the same as the tableaux vivants. We illustrate the adventures of Pompey, or the life of a negro slave. The first position is when he is in the sugar-brake, cutting the sugar cane. Then he is supposed to take it to be weighed, and not being weight, he is ordered to be flogged. My mate is then doing the orator and explaining the story. It"s as nice a bit of business as ever was done, and goes out-and-out. You see, it"s a new thing from the white ones. The next position is when he is being flogged, and then when he swears revenge upon the overseer, and afterwards when he murders the overseer. Then there"s the flight of Pompey, and so on, and I conclude with a variety of sculptures
from the statues, such as the Archilles in Hyde-park, and so on. This is really good, and the finest bit of business out, and nobody does it but me; indeed it says in the bill—if you saw it—"for which he stands unrivalled."
We sometimes have a greenhorn wants to go out pitching with us—a "mug," we calls them; and there"s a chap of the name of "Sparrow-back", as we called him, because he always wore a bob-tailed coat, and was a rare swell; and he wished to go out with us, and we told him he must have his head shaved first, and Tom held him down while I shaved him, and I took every bit of hair off him. Then he underwent the operation of mugging him up with oil-colour paint, black, and not forgetting the lips, red. Ah, he carried the black marks on him for two months afterwards, and made a real washable nigger. We took him with us to Camberwell fair, and on the way he kept turning round and saying how strong he smelt of turps, and his face was stiff. Ah, he
was a serenader! How we did scrub it into him with a stiff brush! When we washed at a horse-trough, coming home, he couldn"t get a bit of the colour off. It all dried round his nose and eyes.
When we are out pitching, the finest place for us is where there is anybody sick. If we can see some straw on the ground, or any tan, then we stays. We are sure to play up where the blinds are down. When we have struck up, we rattle away at the banjos, and down will come the servant, saying, "You"re to move on; we don"t want you." Then I"ll pretend not to understand what she says, and I"ll say, "Mary Blane did you ask for? O yes, certainly, Miss;" and off we"ll go into full chorus. We don"t move for less than a bob, for sixpence ain"t enough for a man that"s ill. We generally get our two shillings.
Sometimes gents will come and engage us to go and serenade people, such as at weddings or anything of that sort. Occasionally young gents or students will get us to go to a house late in the morning, to rouse up somebody for a lark, and we have to beat away and chop at the strings till all the windows are thrown up. We had a sovereign given us for doing that.
The Christmas time is very good for us, for we go out as waits, only we don"t black, but only sing; and that I believe—the singing, I mean—is, I believe, the original waits. With what we get for to play and to go away, and what we collect on boxing Monday, amounts to a tidy sum.
There"s very few schools of niggers going about London now. I don"t think there are three schools pitching in the streets. There"s the Westminster school—they have kettledrums and music-stands, and never sings; and there"s the New Kent-road gang, or Houghton"s mob, and that"s the best singing and playing school out; then a St. Giles"s lot,
but they are dicky—not worth much. The Spitalfields school is broke up. Of course there are other niggers going about, but to the best of my calculation there ain"t more than 40 men scattered about.
Houghton"s gang make the tour of the watering-places every year. I"ve been to Brighton with them, and we did pretty well there in the fine season, making sure of 30s.
a-week a man; and it"s work that continues all the year round, for when it"s fine weather we do pitching, and when it"s wet we divide a school into parties of two, and go busking at the public-houses.