Barney Fagan

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Fagan in 1898

Barney Fagan (January 12, 1850 – January 12, 1937) was an American performer, director, choreographer, and composer.[1] He is recognized as being a progenitor of both music and dance genres, and is often referred to as the "Father of Tap Dance." [2]


Barney Fagan was born as Bernard J. Fagan in Boston, son of Douglass and Ellen Fagan. His father was the deputy wharfinger (old term that today is called a harbormaster) at Battery Wharf. He made his first professional appearance in Boston at the Howard Athenaeum in 1860, as the Cabin Boy in The Pilot of Brest. He remained at this theatre several seasons until 1865 when he played his first minstrel engagement with the Morris Brothers in Boston.

In 1870, Fagan went to Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, and appeared with Pete Lee's Minstrels. In 1873 he joined Buckley's Serenaders in Boston, and took a fellow dancer, Joe Parks, as a partner. During the period 1873-1876, Fagan and Parks, known as the American Lads, played variety engagements. In 1876 he did the famous Heifer dance with Richard Golden in Evangeline. Mr. Fagan next joined John Fenton in a dancing duet, and continued with him until 1878, when he formed a partnership with Lizzie Mulvey, which lasted one season. Fagan's specialty at that time was "clog dancing"—which was a dance performed while wearing wooden-soled shoes, a very popular form of stage entertainment in the late 19th century.[3]

Beginning in 1879, Mr. Fagan allied himself with Barlow, Wilson, Primrose and West's Minstrels, and continued with them until the company's dissolution in June, 1882. During the three years with Barlow and Wilson, he was general producer and performed as a soloist. Possibly Mr. Fagan's greatest achievement was in organizing and producing Willis Sweatnam, Billy Rice and Fagan's Minstrels, which gave their first performance at Albany, New York, July 25, 1887. This troupe was allegedly the largest minstrel company to travel America's entertainment circuit in the 19th century, featuring 105 performers on parade with 88 in the regular company.

In the following years, Fagan performed with various companies, including Thatcher, Primrose and West; Barlow, Wilson and Rankin's; and Cleveland's Minstrels, where Fagan performed opposite to Luke Schoolcraft.

Outside of minstrelsy, Fagan appeared in whiteface in such plays as Paradise Alley, and, in 1890, appeared in High Roller, a production of his own company. At this time, Fagan's work drew praise for notable marches, including "West Point Cadets", the "Phantom Guards" and "The Dance of the Popinjays". During this same period, he was general producer for Corinne for several seasons.

As a songwriter he was no less prominent, penning: "Everybody Takes Their Hat Off to Me" and "My Gal is A High Born Lady".[4] His plays were popular, too: The Land of Fancy and The Game of Love. Starting in 1895, Fagan performed regularly with Herietta Byron, of the Byron Sisters.

In the opinion of Sigmund Spaeth, Fagan's compositions were important in the development of ragtime. In his book A History of Popular Music in America (1948), Spaeth said:

Fagan's lively 'coon song', "My Gal Is a High-Born Lady" (1896), was definitely above the average in both words and music. Fagan was an Irishman, but familiar with minstrel technique and one of the great buck-and-wing dancers of his day. He was famous also as a stage director, creating many elaborate acts for Primrose and West, with a feeling for color and lighting far in advance of his time. There is a story (probably started by Fagan himself) that he wrote his great hit in Chicago one morning, when he found himself down to his last twenty-five cents, and on his wife's birthday at that. He took a bicycle ride along the Lake, broke a pedal and suddenly became conscious of a persistent rhythm as the dangling piece clicked against the wheel. The words ‘My gal is a high born lady’ fitted into the rhythm and suggested a rag-time melody. He stopped long enough to write down the main theme, then hurried home to complete the song, taking it immediately to a publisher and collecting $100.00 in cash, which he promptly spent on a birthday dress and a big party…(More important is the fact that the piano arrangement of 'My Gal Is a High-Born Lady' was made by a youngster named Gustav Luders, of later operatic fame.)" (pgs. 287-288). Dancers sometimes credit him with being the "Father of Tap"(Dancing), although that title has also been applied to others. Frank Dumont in an article in the New York Clipper (March 27, 1915—"The Younger Generation in Minstrelsy and Reminiscences of the Past") remembers Fagan as "the greatest dancer and producer of dancing tableaux and novel groupings…He was a genuine ‘find’ to minstrelsy and his methods are copied to this day in all dancing numbers. He was especially attentive to the young element and made great dancers of them.

He was highly revered by the end of his career. On August 31, 1919, a testimonial dinner was given in his honor in Manhattan, attracting the theatrical luminaries of that era, including Irving Berlin. [5]

Barney Fagan died on his 87th birthday, January 12, 1937, in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York.[1]

Chronology of theatrical productions/compositions[edit]

Productions Genre Contribution by Barney Fagan Dates of Productions
Long-Haired Hare[6] Soundtrack for Bugs Bunny Cartoon Song: My Gal Is a High-Born Lady Released June 25, 1949
In Old Sacramento[7] Soundtrack for Hollywood Film Song: My Gal Is a High-Born Lady Released May 31, 1946
Kings Row[8] Soundtrack for Hollywood Film Song: My Gal Is a High-Born Lady Released April 18, 1942
The March of Time [9] Hollywood Film Acted as: Played Himself; Old Timer Sequence 1930 - Aborted Film Project; Never Released
Broadway to Hollywood [10] Hollywood Film Acted as: Vaudeville act -Archival Footage Released September 15, 1933
Sidewalks of New York [11] Original, Musical, Comedy Acted as: Old Timer Oct 3, 1927 - Jan 7, 1928
The Jazz Singer[12] Original, Play, Comedy, Drama Acted as: Eddie Carter Sep 14, 1925 - Jun 1926
Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 [13] Original, Musical, Revue Additional music by Barney Fagan Jun 26, 1911 - Sep 2, 1911
The Man from China[14] Original, Musical, Comedy Directed by Barney Fagan May 2, 1904 - Jun 4, 1904
By the Sad Sea Waves[15] Original, Musical, Comedy, Vaudeville Staged by Barney Fagan; songs by Fagan Feb 28, 1899 - Apr 8, 1899
The Passing Show[16] Original, Musical, Extravaganza, Revue Choreographed by Barney Fagan May 12, 1894 - Nov 1894



  1. ^ a b "Barney Fagan, 87, Ex-Minstrel, Dies. Dancer Was Headliner in the Eighties and Nineties. Producer and Author" (PDF). The New York Times. January 13, 1937. Retrieved 2015-01-27. Barney Fagan, once a leader of minstrelsy and a vaudeville headliner who earned $1,000 a week or more, died yesterday in poverty on his eighty-seventh birthday at the Southside Hospital, Bay Shore, L. I., after a brief illness.
  2. ^ Dance History Archives
  3. ^ Ryan's Mammoth Collection
  4. ^ "My Gal is A High Born Lady, 1896". Archived from the original on 2015-09-30. Retrieved 2008-09-09.
  5. ^ New York Times, September 1, 1919
  6. ^ Internet Movie Database: Long-Haired Hare
  7. ^ Internet Movie Database: In Old Sacramento
  8. ^ Internet Movie Database: Kings Row
  9. ^ Internet Movie Database: The March of Time
  10. ^ Internet Movie Database: Broadway to Hollywood
  11. ^ Internet Broadway Database: Sidewalks of New York
  12. ^ Internet Broadway Database: The Jazz Singer
  13. ^ Internet Broadway Database: Ziegfeld Follies of 1911
  14. ^ Internet Broadway Database: The Man from China
  15. ^ Internet Broadway Database: By the Sad Sea Waves
  16. ^ Internet Broadway Database: The Passing Show

External links[edit]