Music, spectacular costumes, and strutting down Broad Street? It must be New Year's Day in Philadelphia with the Mummers Parade!
This proud tradition, well over a century old, comes with some less appealing baggage, however—a history of racial intolerance, the use of blackface, and the exclusion of minorities and women in the parade.
As the City of Philadelphia and the Mummers strive to improve the parade's image and bring a new era of sensitivity to its ranks, it's worth remembering that some of the Mummers' most important hallmarks, including that famous strut and their golden slippers, come directly from minstrelsy, plantation slave shows, and African-American culture.
And what about “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” the unofficial Mummers’ theme song? In its original form, it was a spiritual sung by black slaves to express the hope of freedom and of meeting God.
WRTI's Debra Lew Harder speaks with jazz host Bob Perkins about the song's history, and its composer, James Bland.
[Music: “Golden Slippers,” Fisk Jubilee Singers]
Debra Lew Harder: When they sang the spiritual “Golden Slippers” in 1878, the Fisk Jubilee Singers expressed their hope of joining a heavenly choir. A year later, African-American composer James Bland wrote a parody for a minstrel show.
[Music: “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” George Shirley, tenor, and William Bolcom, piano]
James Bland’s version immediately became a hit. Bland…
Bob Perkins: was a very talented man. He wrote some 700 songs, and several of them became hit songs. He was a resident of England for 20 years. And he made quite a bit of money traveling around doing minstrelsy.
DLH: WRTI’s Bob Perkins. When Bland returned to America, minstrelsy had given way to vaudeville. He worked in one of the last minstrel shows, in Philadelphia, dying penniless in 1911. By then, the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, begun in 1901, had turned into an annual New Year’s Day event. The Mummers’ strut came from minstrel shows. And their unofficial theme song? “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.”
[Music: “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” Polish American String Band]
Perhaps it’s ironic that the famous strut and theme song of the Philadelphia Mummers, made up almost exclusively of white men, come from African-American culture. But as Bob Perkins says:
BP: That Parade should be a unifying thing. If it were more inclusive, I think more people would forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones, and come out and enjoy. It’s unique to Philadelphia, you know?
DLH: Those golden slippers could enter a golden age.