A picaninny was the minstrel show’s cute unthreatening surprise, sometimes brought onstage in a sack slung over a shoulder and then ceremoniously dumped loose and free, unleashed, a blur of dance and delight and condescension. started out as a pic in his father and uncle’s act; think of the startling energy explosion of the Jackson 5 as centered around the tiny time-bomb of little Michael Jackson, side-slide gliding across a stage somewhere within shouting distance of 1920s Okemah, Oklahoma, shouting back even farther, and so much deeper than Woody’s own hick-town version.
Woody Guthrie’s earliest memory, he would sometimes claim, was a “Negro minstrel jazzy band blowing and tooting and pounding drums up and down our street.” The minstrel show had come to town, in many more ways than one. Down the road a piece, still in the Okemah’s own Okfuskee County, just over ten miles away, the entirely Negro town of Boley had been entirely hornswaggled out of their entirely Republican vote during Oklahoma’s very first election in 1907, and thus the Democratic candidate, Charlie Guthrie, was duly sworn in as District Court Clerk.
It was a time of blackface minstrelsy, of coon songs and cakewalks becoming fiddle tunes and folk culture as ragtime faded and a mysterious black art called jazz invaded the biggest cities.
Okemah, a brief bit of a boom town, was nothing like a big city, or even a city.
- first chorus of “In The Jailhouse Now (Number Two)” by Jimmie Rodgers, 1930, Hollywood, California; a Victor recording, published by Peer Music: Ralph Peer, owner and operator, sole proprietor.
It’s the perfect American frontier moment at the very border of modern times.Land in Indian Territory was declared free, free for the taking — Free Lunch! — by President Benjamin Harrison (he who pulled Northern troops out of the Reconstruction South, unleashing a tide of lynchings) as of, somehow, the precise stroke of the absolute pocket-watch stroke of the courthouse clock-tower stroke of noon on April 22, 1889, when wild-eyed settlers assembled all along the Arkansas and Texas borders, lining up with toes touching the dusty borderline, waiting for the whistle to blow, the cannon to fire, the race to commence.The typical lively tableau, lacking only Mark Twain to report it from high aloft in a hot air balloon, shows a pistol fired into the air, bugles being blatted bravely but badly, and a mad dash of buggies and buckboards and ponies and fringed surreys and wild-eyed folks clinging to the steam engine’s cow-catcher with derby-hatted dudes pedaling big-wheeled velocipedes in what is obviously the Le Mans start to end all Figure-Eight dirt track racing for at least the next decade or so.Rogers’ newspaper column was widely syndicated — 800 newspapers, distributed by the New York Times from 1922 until his death in 1935 — and hugely popular; Woody wrote for the West Coast Communist newspaper People’s World for a brief while but never managed to break into the big leagues.(“Woody Sez” began May 12, 1939; by August 25, Pravda proudly announced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact allying Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia; “Woody Sez” appeared sporadically until November 1940; during that time, under the Non-Aggression Pact’s benign accord, Hitler invaded Poland, then Stalin invaded Poland too; Stalin invaded Finland (causing the Soviet Union to be expelled from the League of Nations), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Baltic States, while Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and blockaded Britain, sinking non-combatant ships throughout the Atlantic and launching rocket and bombing attacks against England’s civilian population; Woody Guthrie maintained his faux-folksy Party line throughout, following the Communist Party insistence on “neutrality” perfectly until Hitler attacked the Soviets on June 22, 1941, at which time the line changed overnight and Guthrie enthusiastically joined in demanding that the United States attack the fascists, that America must “Open Up The Eastern Front” and defend the Soviet Union.) Once a top-billed vaudeville headliner known as “The Cherokee Kid,” Will Rogers never in life went quiet about being part Indian, never quit nimbly waltzing his massive syndicated newspaper column’s all-American audience over to that other end of reservation so as to have a good quick glance at how things looked from the fucked-up smoky-ass side of the campfire.