The Rabbit's Foot Company
The Rabbit's Foot Company, also known as the Rabbit('s) Foot Minstrels and colloquially as "The Foots", was a long running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show in the American South between 1900 and 1950. It provided a basis for the careers of many leading African American musicians and entertainers, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Butterbeans and Susie, Tim Moore, Big Joe Williams, Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee, Arthur "Happy" Howe, and Rufus Thomas.
Formative years, 1900–1911
The company was founded, organised, originally owned and managed by Patrick Henry "Pat" Chappelle (1869 – October 21, 1911). Chappelle was an African-American former vaudeville performer and entrepreneur from Jacksonville, Florida, who had established a small chain of theatres in the late 1890s. In 1900, he commissioned Frank Dumont (1848–1919) of Philadelphia to write a show, A Rabbit’s Foot, for a new touring company. The show included minstrel performances, dancers, circus acts, comedy and musical ensemble pieces. It was owned and operated totally by African-Americans.
The new "Rabbit’s Foot Company" toured widely and successfully, reaching New York as well as the South, where Chappelle’s gambling and business successes funded the company’s own railroad car and touring circus tents. By 1904 the show had expanded to fill three railroad carriages, and was describing itself as "the leading Negro show in America". The following year, one of the performers, William Rainey, brought his young bride Gertrude to join the company, and as "Ma" Rainey she soon became one of its leading attractions.
By 1906 Chappelle was able to maintain multiple tent shows on the road. However, growing competition from other companies took its toll, and Chappelle died in 1911. The company was then sold to a white carnival owner, Fred S. Wolcott, who continued with the touring show.
Later years, 1912–1950
In 1912, Ma Rainey brought the young Bessie Smith into the troupe, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915. Ida Cox was also a featured woman blues singer.
By 1918, Wolcott had moved the show’s headquarters to Port Gibson, Mississippi. Each spring, musicians from around the country assembled there to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his book The Story of the Blues, Paul Oliver wrote : "The 'Foots' travelled in two cars and had a 80' x 110' tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show...The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume..."
Louis Jordan performed with the troupe in the 1920s, sometimes with his father, a bandleader. Other performers with the company in the 1930s included the young Rufus Thomas, George Guesnon, and trombonist Leon "Pee Wee" Whittaker, a native of Newellton, Louisiana. Later on, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis also toured with the troupe.
As "F. S. Wolcott’s Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels", the company continued to tour among southern states until it disbanded around 1950.
Mississippi Blues Trail
A historic marker has been place by the Mississippi Blues Commission in Port Gibson, Mississippi, commemorating the enormous contribution the The Rabbit's Foot Company has made to the development of the blues in Mississippi and placing them on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
The song "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show", on The Band's 1970 album Stage Fright, was written by Robbie Robertson based on stories Levon Helm told him about the Wolcott troupe, which had come through Arkansas regularly when Helm was a boy.
References and notes
- Guidelines 1992
- Larry Eugene Rivers and Canter Brown Jr., The Art of Gathering a Crowd: Florida's Pat Chappelle and the Origins of Black-Owned Vaudeville, The Journal of African American History, 2007
- Some online sources incorrectly refer to Chappelle as "Fat" Chappelle
- "A Rabbit Foot Comedy Company". The Freeman. 13 February 1904. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
- "A Rabbit's Foot Company". The Afro American. 7 May 1904. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
- "Wait For The Big Show". The Afro American. 23 April 1904. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
- "Notes: Rabbit Foot Company". The Freeman. 26 April 1913. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
- Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, 1972, ISBN 0 14 00.3509.5
- Cheseborough, Steve (2009). Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues (3rd ed.). United States: Upress. p. 209. ISBN 978-1-60473-124-8.
- Sideshow World, Sideshow Performers from around the world
- "Rabbit Foot Minstrels". www.msbluestrail.org. Retrieved 2008-05-28.
- This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, Plexus, London (1993)
- Peter Dunbaugh Smith, Ashley Street Blues: Racial Uplift and the Commodification of Vernacular Performance in LaVilla, Florida, 1896–1916, Florida State University, 2006, pp. 42–61