What’s in a name?
Too much, according to presenters of the Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series. They have agreed to re-label their long-running Morris Township concerts as the Troubadour Acoustic Concert Series, to avoid unwanted associations with 19th century blackface minstrel shows.
“We don’t want to turn people off,” said Paul Fisher, president of the nonprofit Folk Project, which runs the Friday night series.
In the wake of blackface scandals that rocked Virginia politics earlier this year, congregants at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, the series venue since 2005, questioned the propriety of hosting an event with a name that could trigger offensive connotations.
The concerns arose after a Black History Month sermon by Senior Minister Alison Miller, who challenged congregation members to root out vestiges of racism. Miller conveyed their misgivings about the Minstrel name, and the potential for misimpressions in the digital age, to Folk Project trustees.
Although The Minstrel series has welcomed performers and patrons of all races throughout its 43-year history, Folk Project Trustee Mark Schaffer acknowledged that anyone searching Google nowadays for Minstrel concerts is likely to get blackface images.
“And we don’t want that,” Schaffer said, citing the series’ roots in an activist folk tradition of the 1960s and ’70s that celebrates “social justice, equality and freedom.”
After meeting with Miller, the Folk Project board considered 150 names before settling on Troubadour. The change will appear on the Folk Project’s website and publications over the next few weeks, Fisher said.
Miller said she was “heartened that the Folk Project leadership reflected on the problematic connections of the word ‘minstrel’ in the name of their concert series, and by their commitment to diversity and anti-racism.”
A troubadour is “a singer especially of folk songs,” or a medieval poet / musician “often of knightly rank…whose major theme was courtly love,” according to Webster’s dictionary.
Reconstruction-era minstrel shows featured white actors who darkened their faces to perform racist caricatures of blacks. Blackface was perpetuated during the last century on radio shows such as Amos ’n’ Andy, and onscreen by stars such as Judy Garland and Shirley Temple.
Megyn Kelly got fired from the Today show last year for insensitive remarks about blackface Halloween costumes. Incidents persist on college campuses. Virginia’s political waters were roiled this winter when incidents involving the governor and state attorney general resurfaced from their college days.
The Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series was oblivious to such connotations when the Minstrel moniker was chosen decades ago, said folksinger Mike Agranoff, director of the series that has featured such folk favorites as Tom Paxton, Susan Werner and Vance Gilbert.
Disclosure: This writer also has performed at The Minstrel.
Folk Project events include weekly contra dances, a cable TV show and a ukulele festival. Everything is run by volunteers.
The concerts started in 1975 as It’s Good, Though, the punchline to a scatological story by Utah Phillips, in the basement of a French restaurant in Chester. The name and the venue would change several times over the years.
The Minstrel Show Coffeehouse was inspired by Before They Close the Minstrel Show, a song by Bob Coltman.
“To me, it was an innocuous song, about a musical troupe disbanding, and the sentimentality of the end of a joyful collaboration,” Agranoff recounted.
Video: Before They Close the Minstrel Show, sung by Mike Agranoff at 2015 Morris Arts award ceremony:
About 20 years later, he said, someone pointed out the song’s darker meaning.
“In truth, the collaboration was one of those (minstrel show) collaborations. It didn’t dawn on us” initially, Agranoff said.
So the word Show was dropped. The series continued as the Minstrel Coffeehouse. Eventually, Coffeehouse was scrapped, too, to avoid confusing younger generations who might expect a Starbucks experience, Agranoff said.
The weekly venture then became the Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series. Its logo — a medieval musician riding a guitar– was meant to evoke the ancient European tradition of wandering performers.
Agranoff said this struck him as sufficiently benign…until a recent Facebook posting by a black member of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship reminded him that “offense is in the ear of the beholder.”
And so, finally, Minstrel is on the way out. Agranoff recalled coming across the Coltman song while thumbing through albums in the 1970s and thinking, “that sounds right.”
“But it was wrong. It took us 40 years to figure that out.”