It’s been some time since I’ve posted any narrative about my work researching the history of the Virginia Glee Club. That’s honestly because a lot of it has been fairly uninspiring heavy lifting: looking up death dates of alumni from the 1930s, transcribing rosters from bad photocopies of Corks and Curls, and so on. But this week, as I tried to put some narrative around the first decade of the Glee Club’s history (which for this purpose we’ll describe as 1871 to 1880), I ran into another one of those interesting corners that pops up from time to time.
This time the question that I found myself asking was: what were all the musical students at the University of Virginia doing between the demise of the Claribel Club in 1875 and the coming of Woodrow Wilson’s incarnation of Glee Club in 1879?
Turns out, they were putting on minstrel shows.
To summarize: between 1876 and 1878, the Virginia University Magazine published notes about three different minstrel performances. The first note, published in October 1876, noted that some students intended to form a “negro minstrel troup” to perform for the local audience and also for the “young ladies, orphans and lunatics” of Staunton, Virginia. The following year, we are told that a “repetition with slight variations of the long-to-be remembered minstrel performance of last year” will be held in the Town Hall, for the benefit of the Rives Boat Club. (The Town Hall, later known as the Levy Opera House, would be the site of a Glee Club performance in 1894; the Rives Boat Club was in existence at least through 1889 and appears to be the distant forerunner of UVa’s crew team.) In 1878, the performance returned and once again benefited the Rives, though the Magazine noted that attendance had fallen off the previous year. There is no mention of a show in the years following, during which the Glee Club returned, though there is evidence, in the form of a program, that a troupe re-formed and performed in 1886 or 1887.
This isn’t the first time we’ve bumped up against minstrel traditions in researching the history of the Glee Club, and it likely won’t be the last. But it’s fascinating to me to see how the threads intertwine, and see the Glee Club in a larger context. That 1886 program lists Glee Club president Sterling Galt as one of the performers in the minstrel program, along with J.R.A. Hobson and W.P. Brickell.
I’ve looked for minstrel troupe programs in the library catalog; while the 1886 program is there, there’s no record of the 1870s performances—they may have been lost in the Rotunda fire. But I hope to find more information about the performances some day. The dividing line between outright minstrelry and the banjo and mandolin performances—and membership—of the Glee Club appears to be pretty faint. Understanding the complexity of the interplay between Southern culture, race, and music in the formation of the early group provides a fascinating glimpse into student life in the dawn of the Glee Club’s years.