In the summer of 1917 America, with the stern face of high seriousness, was gearing up to go to France and join the calamity of the Great War. George M. Cohan’s patriotic bugle call song, Over There, had singers and their captive audiences bragging to a martial beat of how the Yanks were coming to clear up the mess of the bad Old World. Meanwhile, a lazy- daisy pastoral idyll rhapsodising nostalgically about a country boy whose life consisted of skipping school to go fishing and to get into mischief – and all this with no clothes on – had become a national hit.

Huckleberry Finn, with words by Tin Pan Alley journeymen Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young and a catchy tune by Cliff Hess, Irving Berlin’s musical amanuensis, was only the latest offering from continuous boatloads of ‘Huck’ merchandise and spin-offs from the Mark Twain industry. The novel, first published in England in 1884 to a puzzled public (All that American dialect!), had since become a million-seller. Championed by writers from Rudyard Kipling to Theodore Dreiser, the novel had become a table-must for worldwide celebrities such as Germany’s Bismarck and Russia’s Czarina; and now, courtesy of the licensing department of the Mark Twain Estate, it was about to become a newspaper comic strip: the adventures of Tom & Huck.

Huck had been transformed from a wild natural boy bobbing about in a nasty land of con-men, cold-blooded street murder, tar and feathering, feuding and lynching into a lovable scamp wandering a stage set of rural bliss with a cast of whimsical characters whiffing strongly of lost innocence. The only leftover from the original nature-boy of the novel was the nakedness – the ‘coat of tan’ in the 1917 hit song.

The author of such fun and fancy-free, now a national treasure as a comic novelist, had died in 1910 utterly disillusioned with life, raging that therewas no God, no universe, that it was all a dream, ‘a grotesque and foolish dream’. Twain was just a year too late to experience ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. He would have enjoyed that as a respite from man’s inhumanity; he had from childhood enjoyed rowdy, spirited music, rhythms that pulsated with American blood, popular art that owed nothing to the sickly sentimentalism and stuck-up nature of Europe – Yankee grit against courtly fuss and feathers.

Twain relished the rough and ready, raw and unrefined native Show Biz that was thrusting its way up against imported European culture, marking its ground with spit and pizzazz: the circus with its freaks and ‘drunk’ riders, the makeshift touring theatrical gypsy bands with garbled Shakespeare, the patent medicine shows with hucksters selling bars of cut- up soap wrapped in tissue that guaranteed to eradicate freckles, take out stains and wash blacks white. But more than any of the above raucous, rancid, tumultuous and good taste-free fare, he worshipped the minstrels. He said that the minstrels were ‘the show which to me had no peer’. And they were All-American.

America’s very first original mass entertainment form, and a unique contribution to the mirth of nations, the minstrel show was a team development from the roving ‘Ethiopian Delineators’ of the early nineteenth century. Individual black-face actors had created the two essential stereotypes of African-Americans, fun figures that were to last well into the twentieth century and one of whom, the brazen and bombastic one, is still lurching around today, armed with mike and gun, as Mr. Hip Hop, the rabid rapper.

The two figures, celebrated in song, were Zip Coon – the smart-assed city slicker in sausage skin-tight pants, swallow tail blue coat, living at no fixed abode but living for the fun of the fleeting moment – and his counterpart, Jim Crow – the servile, slow-witted shuffler from the old plantation where he was at home with the old folks, plunking a banjo and humming pleasing melodies while lying under a magnolia tree in the comfort of southern moonlight. Thus arose the alienated and uppity urban and dangerous new Negro as opposed to, or coupled with, the original undefiled child- man with his natural air of freedom, a freedom that so-called civilised Americans might envy and desire.

In the 1840s minstrelsy became a national craze, inspired or copied from The Virginia Minstrels, a four-man white troupe from New York who electrified audiences with their high-speed stage antics. They would rush around the stage, unable to sit still in the circle commanded by the white boss man, Mr. Interlocutor; they would pull grotesque faces, holler with uncontrolled laughter, break into song, tell salty jokes, ‘argufying’(a mixture of arguing and testifying) with each other until Mr. Interlocutor ordered the miscreants to cease and desist. The chief culprits were the two devils who sat on either end of the magic circle, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones.

Minstrelsy outlasted its craze stage, becoming an institution in which almost every American took part at some time, from future presidents to humble clerks. From its later ranks rose Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, while many of Irving Berlin’s early songs concerned staple minstrel characters like raggy Alexander and the delectable Mandy. It was Berlin’s company that published the ‘Huckleberry Finn’, hit song of 1917. Minstrelsy’s power, for good or ill, permeated American Show Biz.

Mark Twain, growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, was exposed to the first manifestations of the form – crude, slam-bang troupes who played his town in the 1840s. The primitive banjo numbers, accompanied by the banging of bones, pleased him. He had no time for any sweet love songs of the parlour variety – they were far too genteel European. What he really relished were the comic exchanges between the end men and the boss. The language was pure American – vernacular, dialect, mangling of the King’s English. He found it hilarious. He later wrote, ‘Sometimes the quarrel would last five minutes, the two contestants shouting deadly threats in each other’s faces with their noses not six inches apart, the house shrieking with laughter all the while at this happy and accurate imitation of the usual and familiar negro quarrel.’

And so it was, decades after his boyhood, when the author transposed one of these minstrel arguments into Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim, during their Mississippi river trip, discuss ‘King Sollermun’. Readers would have recognised this as a familiar comic/straight-man routine. The con-man shenanigans of the Duke and the King would have fitted in nicely as a novelty act in the Olio section of a show. And so it goes, with Shakespearian burlesques and camp meeting call-and-response

numbers and all manner of early American entertainment throughout this picaresque river-road trip of a book, not so much a novel as a literary minstrel show, as Twain scholars have pointed out.

But whereas the minstrels’ job was to provide a merry escape from worldly dull cares – or, as master showman J. H. Haverly of Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels later stated: ‘I’ve got only one method and that is to find out what the people want and then give them that thing’, Mark Twain had a different mission – to delineate the darker side of the American Dream, the viciousness, corruption and hypocrisy rotting the Republic.

Huck’s adventures include a lynching and a litter of corpses – thirteen violent deaths to be exact. This is no boy’s book or mere comic novel. This is a tough morality tale of deceit and eye-opening reality. Only on the raft are Huck and Jim safe as natural beings from ‘sivilization’, as Huck scorned it. Whenever they go ashore they find nothing but greed and violence, often cloaked in Victorian bad taste.

Huck’s stay at the big house of Colonel Grangerford, a fine old Southern gentleman, takes us on a tour of this temple of kitsch. The boy casts an inventory eye of the house, noting the piano fitted with tin pans in order to make exotic sounds suitable for use in a performance of the current hit, The Battle of Prague – particularly the whizz of bullets and the cries of the wounded; such was the pop music of the day, a harbinger of rock’n’roll.

He (Twain, in fact) takes note of sentimental ballads like The Last Link is Broken, by William Clifton, a successful contributor to minstrel shows. It is ‘painful music’ for the lively lad but full of ‘noble resignation’ for its seasoned writer, a song of lost love and the subsequent life of nightly prayer till ‘life’s sun is set’.

In contrast to the stoic suffering and pity within the culture of the mansion is the bloodthirsty ongoing feud between the Grangerfords and their deadly rivals the Shepherdsons – a Hatfield & McCoy situation – which, during Huck’s stay, results in a few shooting deaths.

Twain is heavy on the satire: a family mired in slushy ballads goes outdoors to commit murder. It brings to mind Hitler’s love of romantic music and Al Capone’s bursting into tears after a few bars of Melancholy Baby.

Clearly Twain is making his point about the unreality of certain popular culture. He hated tearjerkers as much as he hated the pernicious gallantry in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, so beloved by Southern gentry. What Twain liked was straight-ahead healthy Yankee sing-along and dance – like the minstrels.

In fact, if he had had his way he would have become a popular playwright. Dickens had yearned to conquer the professional stage too. Both giants of the printed word had to make do with public readings.

In 1902, though, Twain lent his name to a production of Finn in which a line of buxom chorus girls and satin pierrots cavorted to I Want to be a Drummer in the Band by Broadway songsmith Silvio Hein. The play was a flop, denounced as a ‘debauched classic’. Pop culture in the end rejected the man who so admired, and who was so influenced by, certain aspects of it.

The great satirist, the man Ernest Hemingway lauded as the writer from whom ‘all modern American literature comes’, was in a line of literary men who, though using pop song and show biz as colour for their books, never actually managed to be heroes of pop.

Perhaps they knew in their heart of hearts that all the words carefully poured into their closed door library work could never match the pangs of delicious heartache-fix orgasmically summoned by one chorus of I’ll Be Seeing You or We’ll Meet Again, written in the rushing hothouse of the music industry.

The best they could receive from the God of Pop would be a smoothing out of the spiky and unpalatable truths of their books into a tasty snack – like the Huckleberry Finn song where life is frozen into one long sunny afternoon of fishing and swimming and unbridled naturalness in a boyhood that never ends.

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