One-act Play by Tommy Thompson
Daniel Decatur Emmit was the most popular American entertainer
of the 19th Century. He is known as the composer of the southern
anthem "Dixie," "Old Dan Tucker," "The Boatman’s Dance," and dozens of
other familiar songs and melodies. “Uncle Dan” was a fiddler, banjo
player, singer, dancer, and a comic storyteller. He was also the
founder of the Virginia Minstrels, the original black-face musical troupe.
The group gave its first performance in New York City in 1842. The
program included vocal and instrumental music, dance, comic skits and monologues.
It was billed as an authentic depiction of life among plantation slaves.
In truth, it was a parody of that life. Emmit and
his fellow entertainers, like many other young white men, had journeyed
in the South, and had indeed studied the performing arts of the slaves.
And then they had returned to Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey,
wherever; donned outlandish costumes (mocking the ragged hand-me-downs
of the slaves), darkened their skin with burnt cork, tuned up their instruments,
and become America’s first pop stars.
Emmit wasn’t much of a bandleader, and the Virginia Minstrels
soon folded. But the “minstrel show” flourished as a theatrical genre.
The instrumentation remained essentially as Emmit conceived it: fiddle,
banjo, tambourine and bones.
The banjo was African. It was made from a stick
of wood, a dried gourd, and the gut and hide of a mammal. Its practitioner
was brought to America in the hold of a slave ship. He played it
in a way that looked to his incurious white master like beating a growly
drum. Everything about it was foreign—the odd-looking stroking of
the strings, the sonority, the melodies, and above all, the syncopated
rhythms. And so, it took several generations of the two races listening
to one another to invent the banjo and violin duet.
Nobody knows just where or when it happened, but that
New York performance of the Virginia Minstrels is the earliest documented
instance of the two instruments performing together. It was the marriage
rite of African and European musical tradition, a marriage that spawned
ragtime, jazz, blues, hillbilly, country, rock—all that we proudly think
of as our uniquely American music. It also spawned the music industry
and some dandy new ways for white men to make money off the labor and inspiration
of black men.
John Proffit is fictitious. Dan Emmit is factual.
So are Al Feld, Seeley Simpkins, and the Snowdens. All the other
characters are fictitious. Dan Emmit’s pink marble gravestone in
Mount Vernon says he gave Dixie to America. In a little weedy graveyard
just out of town is a tiny stone of the same pink marble. It says,
“Ben and Lou Snowden. They gave Dixie to Dan Emmit.” I thank
Howard and Judy Sacks, of Gambler, Ohio, for the information about the
Tommy Thompson, Playwright
of the Story of John
The character John Proffit is a fictional compilation
of the musicians Tommy Thompson has known in his years of participation
in old-time music. First performed in 1984, the play takes
place in 1900 in the kitchen of John Proffit’s West Virginia cabin.
Thompson portrays Proffit as an 87-year-old man who was a friend and fellow
minstrel with Dan Emmit. The story unfolds around Proffit’s hardscrabble
life in pre-Civil War North Carolina and his friendship with Emmit, “the
prince of foolishness,” and interweaves the birth of a nation’s most popular
music with the death of its most peculiar institution. Proffit quits
the minstrel show when he realizes it insults the blacks who taught him
to play and goes on to tell the tale of how Emmit stole the tune for Dixie
from blacks and took the credit for being its composer. Thompson’s
dry, flawless comic timing and the underscore of old-timey banjo tunes,
original songs, and classics amplify the serious comment on racial relationships
in the late 1800s. “In the Ramblers,” Thompson explains, “we
always try to credit where a song comes from on stage—who wrote it, what
its history is. Creating John Proffit was just a more vivid and striking
attempt at the same thing.”
Click on the
images for larger views
Flyer from an
Two pages from the program for the original production
"The Last Song of John Proffit" at UNC in 1984 (collection
of Roy C. Dicks)
Quotes from the Reviews
"Thompson has a rich tenor tinged with gravel--like chess
pie chased with a shot of white lightning" --Kay Robin Alexander, The
"A solo actor created a well-crafted evening of entertainment...(Thompson's)
gestures and mannerisms as an 87-year-old man rang with authenticity"
--Melissa Ingells, Central Michigan Life
'Whatzit' band's leader to perform his solo 'whatzit'
at the Ark Tuesday
Harmen Mitchell, Ann Arbor News 9-7-85
Anyone who has spent any time around the world of folk
music knows that one of its greatest pleasures is that all too rare opportunity
to sit and talk with some living legend of the genre, someone old enough
to have lived in the thick of times that most have only heard of and eager
to reminisce about the people, and sing the songs, they knew first hand.
It is not necessarily electrifying, but it is the only
connection with the real traditions of folk music --an oral tradition passed
from those who know to those who want to learn.
"The Last Song of John Proffit" is a combination folk
music/folk tale, a theater piece by Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers,
who will perform it at the Ark Tuesday night in a scaled down version.
Ostensibly, it tells the story of the fictional title character, who acts
as if the theater audience is a group of visitors who have come (in the
year 1900) to hear the 85 year-old Proffit tell of his acquaintance with
Daniel Decatur Emmitt, the real-life originator of the blackface minstrel
shows and the composer of "Dixie."
It deals with the controversy over the sometimes capricious
and underhanded Emmit and, through the exploration of the passion of white
audiences for white entertainers made up in blackface, shows how black
culture has always been robbed, mocked, and then obliterated by whites.
Along with that, however, Thompson also incorporated the
richest parts of the folk tradition, the songs of the period as they were
originally sung, and the descriptions of day-to-day life over a century
Tommy Thompson, who wrote the script and all of the songs,
has a unique fascination among folk performers. Both with the Ramblers
and as a solo performer, he is intrigued with the possibilities of combining
folk music. In the case of "John Proffit," the between-song
patter that is the cartilage of a good folk performance is scripted not
only to entertain and provide continuity, but also to tell a story and
make a few points about problems in society that never seem to get solved.
In a recent telephone interview, Thompson joshed that,
though every word in the 90-minute show is "part of a script which
I spent a good many hours memorizing," the overall effect is "spontaneous…unless
I'm having an off night!"
The show evolved out of Thompson's 20 years of banjo playing,
first as a college student and then as a professional musician. Like many
musicians, Thompson became curious about the history of his instrument,
but hadn't bargained in learning so much about the ways of life in rural
America in the 19th century.
Needless to say, the banjo didn't just arrive on the knees
of a white suited man just in from Alabama. "One of the things that interested
me historically was that it was the slave that brought the banjo to America."
At first, the instrument was merely paired with the fiddle
("a kind of marriage of the African and European musical traditions") ,
which Thompson says was just about the earliest known mating of white harmonics
and black rhythms. "Both were changed," He says, "forever."
Originally, he wanted to tell the story of Emmitt, the
Ohio-born musician and entertainer who formed the first blackface minstrel
show and wrote "Dixie." "He seemed like a dramatically interesting
character, but there was no way I could make him a sympathetic central
character, given his role in history."
Thus was concocted the, well, prophetically named character
Thompson will portray on the stage at the Ark, bringing, in the process
the traditions of folk back full circle. And with this "last song," John
Proffit gives back what was stolen in a tribute to the black man who taught
him the good things he learned about music, unlike Emmitt, who taught him
to take the music and run.
This is right up the alley of the 48 year old Thompson,
born in West Virginia, and still a little giddy at the thought that he's
actually making his living playing the music he loves. From the jazz
and pop songs he
remembers hearing on the radio as a kid during WWII and
into the 1950's, to his days in college in Ohio as a student of philosophy
and folk music, his background is rich in the popular and traditional musical
heritage of the United States.
The wild card that seasons what he deals audiences, both
in solo performances and with the Ramblers, is theater. "Down through the
years of being a Red Clay Rambler, I've had one touch or another, from
time to time, with the theater," he said.
That is, to say the least, modesty. The group (serious
musicians whimsically tagged America's premier "whatzit" band) has done
its own theater piece ("Diamond Studs") and was the pit band for the pre-Broadway
run of "Big-River," the hit musical version of Huckleberry Finn.
What separates "John Proffit" from such one-man shows
as "MarkTwain Tonight!" or such fictional attempts to recreate an era as
"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" is its attention to musical detail
and its focus on the title character. It is, in a way, the best of
both ideas, a single character fictive account of an era, and audiences
in the show's North Carolina debut were reportedly galvanized -- more than
4,000 people attended the three-week run.
Tommy Thompson is sorry he never finished getting his
Ph. D. in philosophy, but there are plenty of people who not so charitably
don't mind, and he admits that it's certainly "not the worst regret I have."
by Tommy Thompson (circa 1994)
DOWN ALONG THE CONGO
TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO
MAKEBA DRIED A DIPPER GOURD
AND TRIMMED IT OUT JUST SO
HE CLOSED THE HOLE WITH CALF-SKIN
BOUND TIGHT JUST LIKE A DRUM
FIXED THREE STRINGS FOR HIS FINGER NAIL
AND A SHORT ONE FOR HIS THUMB
MAKEBA'S DADDY'S FINGERS
BRUSHED ONE TIME ACROSS THE STRINGS
SAID THERE'S MUSIC IN THIS BANJO
LET IT RING, LET IT RING
DOWN ALONG THE CONGO
THE SLAVERS CAME BY NIGHT
THEY TORCHED THE HUTS
AND DROVE THE SLEEPERS
NAKED IN THE NIGHT
MAKEBA STOOD IN SILENCE
THE BANJO IN HIS HAND
THE WHITE MAN SAYS
"YOU PICK THAT THING?"
BUT WHO COULD UNDERSTAND?
MAKEBA STOOD IN SILENCE
THE BIG WHITE MAN DREW NEAR
"YOU HEAR ME BOY?"
AND PISSED HIMSELF IN FEAR