In a 1962 article published in The Journal of American Folklore, Henry Kmen tells the story of an early nineteenth-century street musician from New Orleans known as “Old Corn Meal.” He was a street vendor who, according to the English traveler Francis C. Sheridan, “got his name from the article he sells.” “He rides about New Orleans in an old cart drawn by an older horse, & pulling up in front of the Exchanges — generally a little before dinner time when the rooms begin to fill, he commences his performances.”

 

In 1837, “Old Corn Meal” was included in a performance at the recently opened St. Charles theatre in a “melodrama” called “Life in New Orleans.” The newspaper accounts of the performance make clear, Kmen argues, that as a musician he was widely known — he was described in one article as “the celebrated sable satelite,” and another mentioned “the popular song Fresh Corn Meal” that he sings. The performance, which featured Old Corn Meal performing on stage the way he did in the street — from his horse-drawn vendor’s cart — was such a success that another was organized, though during the second performance his horse fell on stage and was killed.

 

Kmen describes this as “the first appearance of a Negro on the white stage in New Orleans, indeed perhaps in the United States,” though at least the latter claim is inaccurate. But his research shows clearly that Old Corn Meal was a much discussed figure, coming up repeatedly in articles in the Picayune during the late 1830s. When he died in 1842, his passing was noted in several newspapers. The Bee declared: “Poor old Corn Meal . . . is gone. never again shall we listen to his double toned voice — never again shall his corn meal melodies, now grumbled in a bass — now squeaked in a treble, vibrate on the ear. He was a public-spirited a character as any we ever met with, and was as thoroughly known as a popular politician.”