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Reich in Blackface: Oh Dem Watermelons and Radical Minstrelsy in the 1960s


This essay undertakes an examination of Steve Reich's music for Robert Nelson's film Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), which was originally conceived as part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's controversial production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel of the same year. Reich's long-neglected soundtrack deserves reconsideration for its formative role in the development of the composer's musical style and quasi-liberationist aesthetic at the time, for its participation within what I term the “minstrel avant-garde” in the Bay Area during the mid-1960s and the postmodern revival of blackface minstrelsy more generally, and as a reference point in reflecting upon Reich's professional and political trajectory since its composition.

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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
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