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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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André Breton . Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Kiene Brillenburg Wurth . Musically Sublime: Indeterminacy, Infinity, Irresolvability. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.

Joy Calico . Brecht at the Opera. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Sumanth Gopinath . “The Problem of the Political in Steve Reich's Come Out.” In Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties, ed. Robert Adlington , 121–44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fredric Jameson . “Cognitive Mapping.” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg , 347–57. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Susan Vaneta Mason , ed. The San Francisco Mime Troupe Reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Peter Nicholls . Modernisms: A Literary Guide. 2nd ed.London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Theodore Shank . Beyond the Boundaries: American Alternative Theater, new ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

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Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music
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