BLUESMUSE18

Johann Graupner

The
world’s first public performance of African-American-influenced music most probably
occurred at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston, in 1799, but not quite in the
manner the time-worn myth or Wikipedia portrays. 
According to popular legend, one of the
era’s leading classical musicians, the German oboist, Johann Christian Gottlieb
Graupner, is said to have performed his own slave-style song wearing blackface that
year. 
Recently arrived in the USA, he was inspired by black street music that overwhelmed him after he wandered
by mistake into a slave quarter in Virginia in 1795. This story has led to
Graupner being acknowledged, by some music historians, as the Father of Negro
Songs in America.
However, some astute detective work by the
American writer and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe, shows it was
actually Gottlieb Graupner’s English wife who did the performing. 
The lady in
question was the acclaimed opera singer, Catherine Comerford Hillier, who had a residency at the Federal Street Theatre, while Graupner would later co-found the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.
Catherine Comerford Hillier performed her husband’s slave-inspired song, ‘The Gay Negro Boy’, in an
interlude between acts at the Federal Street Theatre in late 1799. (And that’s the way they spelt ‘theatre’ in America back in those days, rather than the ‘theater’ Americans use now.)
It’s
not disputed that Graupner wrote that first African-American-style tune during
his time in America, just that he performed it and performed it in blackface.
It was his English wife. Shlomo Pestcoe has the documents that prove it.
Coming soon: The Englishman who kick-started the blues.
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