Early Black Musicians in New York State

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Early African American FiddlerThe film 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was lured away from Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841, and sold into slavery. Though he played the fiddle (and the men who tricked him into leaving Saratoga told him they wanted him to fiddle for a circus), the film overstates Northup’s status as a musician. Primarily, he earned his money from other work.

In his 1853 autobiography however, Northup wrote that prior to moving to Saratoga he had performed: “Wherever the young people assembled to dance, I was almost invariably there.” He attained some renown in Washington County, since: “Throughout the surrounding villages my fiddle was notorious.”

Northup does not mention playing in Saratoga. He does say he worked as a carriage driver, did unspecified work at hotels, and labored on the construction of the Troy  and Saratoga Railroad. Court documents also show that he did rafting on the Champlain Canal during his residency in Saratoga.

Northup perhaps did play at one or more Saratoga hotels, though actual evidence of this is lacking. In Twelve Years a Slave, Northup made reference to “those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa.” Indeed, many occupations were effectively closed to blacks, but the field of music was an avenue that they could, and in fact, did, pursue. Though music was but one way Northup earned a living, other African-Americans performed more regularly and more prominently across New York.

Francis Johnson

As a black musician, Northup probably could have found acceptance in Saratoga, because the way had been paved by Francis “Frank” Johnson. Johnson, a black resident of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, performed with his band during many summers at the best hotels in Saratoga. Johnson could fiddle, but his preferred instrument was the Kent bugle (more akin to what we know as a trumpet), and his brass band played many gigs in Philadelphia; Cape May, New Jersey; and other cities.

In the 1820s, a Philadelphia resident who was a frequent visitor to the Spa City suggested that Congress Hall hire Johnson’s band to perform there. This may have been the first time any American hotel had hired musical performers. Johnson played in Saratoga every season (except one, when he was shunned for asking for more money) from 1822 to 1843.

Over the years, Johnson’s band became a Saratoga institution, performing at Congress Hall, the United States Hotel, and Union Hall (sometimes alternating between venues). In early August 1839, his musicians heralded the arrival of President Martin Van Buren. Soon afterward, the band provided a musical escort for visitor Henry Clay. Later that month, the musicians played for several Troy fire companies, on an excursion to Saratoga, leading them to the dinner prepared for them at the Columbian Hotel. Though Johnson died in April 1844, his band continued to perform; in the summer of 1844 they took a break from Saratoga and played “Home Sweet Home” at a jubilee in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The band continued for years afterward,

Johnson was a composer as well as a musician, and his legacy–in addition to the continuation of his band–included published music. He had traveled to England in 1837 to perform at ceremonies related to Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, and was probably the first African-American performer to tour overseas. “Frank Johnson Day” was observed for some time in Saratoga, apparently as recently as 1978.

Prince Freeman

Prince Freeman, a black man, was born in Fulton County, New York around 1813. By the 1840s, he was living in Rome, New York, where he frequently took out newspaper ads promoting the services of his band. Freeman, like Northup, was a fiddler, and his band likely performed at the types of gatherings Northup had played in Washington County. Freeman’s ads, which often identified the group as a “colored band,” usually appeared in the fall or winter, and specified that Freeman would be in Rome for the season (suggesting that he performed elsewhere during summers). “Superior music,” promised the ads, would be furnished “for Cotillon and Dancing Parties.”

In 1840, the public was advised that the band, (billed as “Freeman’s Polka & Quadrille Band”) had “recently made considerable improvement in their Band, both in Music and Changes.” Polkas and waltzes were among their offerings. Freeman apparently had separated from his band by 1855, as an October advertisement in the Rome Sentinel noted that a William Johnson had “engaged all the Musicians composing the Band known as Freeman’s band,” and was ready to make engagements.

Freeman himself had relocated to Auburn, and had formed a new band, since ads appear there as early as 1857 for “Freeman’s Quadrilles Band.” In these ads, Freeman announced to Auburn citizens that he would furnish the “best music” for private parties and balls, that instruction on the violin and guitar were available, and that the band had “no connection with Freeman the Barber-Shop.”

Happily there are some descriptions of Freeman’s performances in Auburn. An impending appearance at a “Social Hop at Corning Hall” prompted this remark in the Auburn Daily American in 1858: “We bespeak for Prince a large attendance, for surely no one individual is more deserving of a benefit than he. He has an excellent band, and the music will therefore be of the first class.” In 1859, at the ball for Neptune Fire Engine Company #1 (also held at Corning Hall), the music provided by the band “was of the very highest order, and was as much enjoyed by the lookers on as it was by those who joined in the ;jovial dance.’” At the German Ball (same venue) “Prince Freeman, with his full band…discoursed delightful music throughout the evening,” and apparently was able to satisfy the Germans, “the best dancers in the world.”

By the mid-1860s, Freeman was residing in Cleveland, Ohio, where he continued to fiddle, and became known as “Old Prince.” He died there in June 1885, and an obituary mentioned that he was originally from New York, had also lived in Detroit, and “for ten years or more, was the leading violinist, irrespective of color, in the city of Cleveland.” Old Prince had been “well liked by all who knew him.”

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

Elizabeth (often called  “Eliza”) T. Greenfield was born a slave near Natchez, Mississippi, probably before 1820. Her female owner (also named Elizabeth Greenfield) moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she manumitted several slaves she owned, including Greenfield. Her former owner provided Greenfield with some musical instruction, and she became a pianist and singer. It was for her ability as the latter that her talent became recognized.

In 1851, Greenfield gave some concerts in New York State. In October 1851, an initial debut, before a small group of listeners in Buffalo, earned her some praise.  After attending this preview concert, a writer in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser noted that the public would soon be “astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction” who had “completely surprised and delighted” the reviewer. She had a “voice of purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass [i.e., range].”

Soon afterward, Greenfield, appearing at Buffalo’s Townsend Hall, sang to a crowded house. She had already been given the sobriquet “The Black Swan” (which was something of a parody  of that of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”) and it would stay with her the rest of her life.

In December, she gave a concert at Rochester and it was reported that “we have never seen an audience so curiously expectant for the debut of a new vocalist,” to the point that “hearty applause …responded to the first verse she sung [sic].” She soon obtained a performance contract with Col. J.H. Woods, a white promoter who had operated a P.T. Barnum-style museum in Cincinnati. In doing so, she broke off a professional relationship with a black man who had been helping her with her career.

In February 1852, the Oneida Herald, describing a concert in Utica, said that the  “mellifluousness and flexibility in her voice, blended with an electric something…which takes the heart captive and literally bewilders all the senses.” Not only were the audience delighted but they “made no effort to conceal their delight.” Her talent was a bit raw, however, and it was observed that “With more culture–with the advantages which long practice and eminent instruction can only give –…she must…stand in the front of musical prodigies.”

The same point was made by a Boston newspaper, but in a more heavy-handed way. “We are really at a loss to discover any peculiarity in the ‘Black Swan’ that should entitle her to be considered a ‘musical wonder.’” Though it was admitted that she had “a great compass of voice,” the reviewer felt “she has neither taste, method, nor style.” But Greenfield understood that she needed more training, and this critic noted that “we are told that she makes no pretensions to be an artiste, and that she contemplates a visit to Europe for the purpose of finishing her musical education.”

After a concert about a year later (again in Buffalo), “it is said [she] has improved her style of singing very much.”  She made plans in the spring of 1853 to travel to Europe, to perform and also to receive more training. Prior to leaving the U.S., she gave a much heralded concert at New York City’s Metropolitan Hall. This March concert was well-attended, partly out of curiosity. What was, in a way, more curious was that she sang to a totally white audience. An item carried in a New Hampshire paper said “The most amusing part of her arrangement is that no darkies were admitted to her concert, and she was waited upon by a young white gentleman.” The hall had made no provision for a “blacks-only” section and therefore they were not admitted. (Segregated seating had been arranged–and acceded to by Greenfield–at her public concert in Buffalo in 1851. As a consequence, a mere two-dozen blacks had attended, others having been put off by the insult.)

Greenfield did tour Europe, meeting with acclaim, and even performed for Queen Victoria. After her return to the States, Greenfield’s performances were scattered and fairly infrequent. She probably spent more time providing musical instruction to other blacks. She died in 1876 in Philadelphia, where she had continued to reside.


8 thoughts on “Early Black Musicians in New York State

  1. Dave Ruch

    Very interesting article, thanks. I have been quietly amassing evidence of African American fiddle playing in NYS for a few years now. William Sidney Mount, the Long Island painter, fiddler, and fiddle tune collector, notated many tunes he’d learned locally from black fiddlers in the early-mid 19th century, including one Anthony Hannibal Clapp, or “Black Tony” as he was known. Alva Belcher was an African American fiddler who was called for “far and wide” (Delaware County over to Kingston NY) in the 19th-century, according to his obituary. It’s fun to play some of the music they played, though we have no idea what it really sounded like. It seems that by the age of ethnographic and folkloric field recordings (1930s-present) , there weren’t many black country fiddlers still plying their trade, OR, the collectors weren’t as interested in them.

  2. Ben

    I’m wondering if you could share with us the connection between Solomon Northup and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? I have seen an article recently that referenced this connection but I have been unable to find any other details.
    Many thanks for your article and the many other details of history that you bring to our awareness!

  3. David FiskeDavid Fiske

    I do not know of any connection. Northup’s daughter Margaret married a black man named Philip Stanton. He was from the Glens Falls, New York area and there’s slight evidence he was originally from Vermont. No apparent connection between him and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The only thing I find curious is that she was in Omaha, Nebraska for a while, and Philip and Margaret’s son, Solomon Northup Stanton, lived in that city prior to his death in 1893. This could well be just a coincidence.

  4. Kim Mabee

    Hi to Dave and Dave —
    You might also want to hear about a Claas Mabee– in doing research through the years on the people from the Mabee Farm Historic Site, I ran across a one sentence reference to him in the historian E. Z. Carpenter’s papers– Saying he was a fiddle player at many local parties. He was a black man — the Mabee family of the historic house are white, but owned slaves until 1827 when NY outlawed it— It was also documented that his fiddle was later owned by a Dr. Toll– we have been wondering where it might be today but have not had any luck.
    Kim Mabee

  5. Jackson Davis

    Dear Dave,

    Thank you for a most informative article. What are your sources of information about these various early black musicians in New York State?


  6. Pingback: Slave to Fiddler: Utica’s Joseph Pell | The New York History Blog

  7. Roberta Walsh

    I wonder if you know more about the painting that served as an illustration for The New York History Blog of November 1, 2011. I would like to identify the black violinist. It is an 1866 painting by Thomas Hicks (1824-1890) The Musicale, Barber Shop, Trenton Falls, New York, which now hangs in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. The singer in the painting, William Brister, was also the barber at the hotel. He lived in Newport, NY, and had two daughters, Ella and Isabella, who were both musically gifted and were popular local entertainers. One of his daughters is in the painting, sitting in the group just outside the door.


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