The minstrel show, one of the most popular forms of entertainment a century ago, is a public embarrassment today. It’s hard for most of us to understand why white men and sometimes women would black their faces and perform crudely humorous skits and music under the pretense that they were African-Americans.
But this historical issue does not detract from the obvious talent of some of the performers of minstrelsy. One of the greatest was Maine native Emory M. Hall, whose prodigious feats on the banjo, a difficult instrument if there ever was one, earned him international fame.
Today it’s almost impossible to find any detailed information about Hall. There are probably two reasons. One is his connection with minstrelsy, which was considered a low form of entertainment even in its day. The other is his relatively early death in the famous Iroquois Theatre fire on Dec. 30, 1903, in Chicago, in which nearly 600 people died.
I stumbled across Hall’s name while paging through the old Bangor Daily Commercial. On June 4, 1904, a few months after his death, an anonymous eulogizer, identified only as C., wrote an account of Hall’s life and fame. The paper ran it with a photograph. I tracked down enough fleeting references about him in old books and newspapers and on the Internet to verify that the Commercial writer was only giving Hall his due.
E.M. Hall was born in Chelsea “around 1845.” He enlisted in the 14th Maine as a musician, serving between 1861 and 1865. After his service, he turned up in Bangor where he worked as a barber for John B. Packard on Water Street. But the young man, who was a popular and engaging fellow, had other ambitions. He wanted to play the banjo and tell jokes in the traveling minstrel shows that crisscrossed Maine and the nation.
His friends tried to discourage him, “but he made an industrious use of his time and talents with a success that has more than justified his early decision,” according to C.
Indeed, Hall played his first gig – a song and dance – with Sharpley’s Minstrels in 1865. That’s according to “Monarchs of Minstrelsy,” an authoritative reference work that described Hall in 1911, not too long after his death, as “one of minstrelsy’s greatest banjoists.”
Perhaps Hall found temporary employment with Sharpley’s as the company traveled through Bangor, for he was still living here in 1867-68. The Bangor Directory for that time period lists him as boarding at Avenue House, his occupation – comedian.
Later he would prove himself to his skeptical friends, returning in the 1890s to play at the Bangor Opera House with his own company, Hall & Donnelly’s Minstrels, and at Riverside Park to crowded houses.
Paskman and Spaeth in their 1928 book “Gentlemen be Seated: A Parade of the Old-Time Minstrels” recalled, “The greatest banjo player of them all was E.M. Hall, whose wonderful feats are still remembered in stageland.”
But perhaps the most extravagant praise he received was during his lifetime in a British publication, the London Era, during a tour of Europe in 1890 with Moore and Burgess Minstrels.
“E.M. Hall has made an extraordinary hit with his banjo playing. He may be called the Paganini of the banjo, for never before have we heard that instrument manipulated in such an artistic style,” said the publication as quoted by C. “There is a kind of fantastic poetry in the way Mr. Hall plays the banjo.” The writer went on to describe how he produced all the musical effects of a skilled pianist or violinist.
During his career, Hall was also praised for his “fine tenor voice” and his comic talents. We don’t have to guess too much about the contents of his act. According to an advertisement I found in The New York Times for Sept. 19, 1897, Hall was featured “in a darky monologue” at Proctor’s Twenty-Third Street Theater.
Hall, who lived in Chicago during the last 15 years of his life with his wife and children, was also a composer and arranger. One piece he composed was called the “Bangor Jig,” according to an Internet site. He also wrote a Banjo Method book for students of the instrument, and he manufactured the instruments as well.
Minstrel shows had a tremendous impact on American music. Today they are the subject of scholarly research. One reference book I consulted concluded that “the minstrel show produced worthy material … and many gifted exponents who were to expand their art in other fields; and it was in retrospect, an important, even essential link between the time of total obscurity and the gradual emergence of Afro-American music on its way to becoming the dominating strain of 20th century popular music.”
Hall was one of those gifted exponents, yet his name has been virtually erased from public memory.
One interesting question: Could E.M. Hall have been a relative of R.B. Hall, the famous Maine bandmaster, who was born in 1858 in Bowdoinham, a few towns south of Chelsea on the Kennebec River?
I will also mention that I found a piece of Hall memorabilia – a publicity poster of the performer – at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, but the price for reproduction and publication rights was prohibitive.
Richard H. Shaw contributed material for this column. Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at email@example.com.