Charles Matthews

If you’ve read my
earlier blogs, you’ll know it was a German who wrote the first African-American-inspired
song after hearing slave music in Virginia in 1795; and his English wife who first
performed said song in Boston in 1799.
Some 20 years later,
another English performer turned up in America and did something that
kicked-started the cycle of evolution that ended up as blues. He was the
comedian, Charles Matthews, born in London in 1776. Aged 46, Matthews was
Britain’s undisputed master of a now forgotten form of theatre known as table
entertainment. Such an act consisted of improvisation, comic songs, mimicry,
telling stories and jokes, impersonations, quick change acts and recitations.
Matthews’ repertoire included making fun of typical British characters and
their broad regional accents. And from September 1822 to May 1823, he
successfully toured his one-man show to packed theatres across the United
To the delight of local
audiences, Matthews adapted his act to include caricatures of what he called
certain American types and their dialects. These types included the ‘fearless
frontiersman’, the ‘clever Yankee’, and the ‘African Tragedian’. The American audiences
loved it, even when Matthews was poking fun at their national stereotypes.
To cut a long story short (the longer version’s in my book), Charles
Matthews was watching an African-American performance of Shakespeare in New
York when the mixed audience started screaming at the lead actor to sing a
popular slave song of the era. This he did, and the crowd went mad.
Matthews, noting this, quickly added slave songs to his own act,
painting his face black for good measure. Being a master of impersonation, he
captured the songs and patois so accurately, his slave music performances became
the highlight of his sell-out American tour. When he took the act back to
London, a host of American performers filled his shoes to cater for the demand,
and a form of entertainment called Ethiopian delineating was born. It was
vulgar, it was working class, it appealed to all races and it predated the now
despised minstrelsy by 20 years.

Charles Matthews’ performances of 1822 and 1823 must
be considered the exact moment that black slave music started the 90-year
evolutionary journey that culminated in blues, as a form of music, being
captured on paper and specifically named, for the first time, in March 1912.


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