Old Uncle Ned’s Songster: Addressing Difficult Winterthur Objects

Please be aware – this post contains offensive imagery

Image: Detail of the Statue of Stephen Foster and Old Uncle Ned in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Image shows close-up of a hand and a page of sheet music displaying the name “Uncle Ned.” There have been multiple calls for the removal of this statue. Photo courtesy of Pennlive.com.

For Dr. Jennifer van Horn’s fall semester class on the Material and Visual Culture of Slavery, we were tasked with choosing an object in the Winterthur collection that possesses an association with enslaved people to create a short narrative video that explores its problematic past. These videos will be presented to the public both online and on the ground at Winterthur as part of a larger exhibit. While my classmates chose objects that vary in their immediate visible connection to the institution of slavery, the association with my object could not be any more apparent.

Image 2: Old Uncle Ned’s Songster depicting a racially stereotyped image of Uncle Ned. Photo Courtesy Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Printed Ephemera.

The printed images, text, and songs found inside are deeply troubling. I had to ask myself; as a young museum professional and as a white woman, how can I best tell the stories surrounding this songster and contextualize it in the timeline of racism in the United States? What does one DO with an object that is so immediately offensive, and what is the best way to present this to a diverse audience?

Released on the brink of the Civil War, the Old Uncle Ned’s Songster made a last-ditch effort to perpetuate and enforce a positive narrative of enslavement. Once providing hours of musical entertainment, this songster now sits in silence within the Winterthur Library’s Collection of Rare Books. Containing printed lyrics of popular songs but no sheet music, songsters were affordable and concise collections of tunes –readily accessible to a wide consumer base. This songster was published in 1857 by Abraham Fisher & Brother of Philadelphia, just one of the firm’s many inexpensive offerings. Usually tied to a theme, mid-nineteenth century songsters like Uncle Ned’s were often permeated by racist humor. These anthologies, though small and ephemeral, represented widespread notions underlining the morality of keeping the institution of slavery alive under the looming threat of termination.

Image 3: Front cover of the sheet music for Old Uncle Ned by Stephen Collins Foster. Image courtesy of The Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

Conceptualized by American composer Stephen Foster with his 1848 eponymous song, the character of Uncle Ned illustrated on the front cover embodies a set of romanticized racist ideals. In addition to Foster’s work, forty other tunes fill the songster’s pages. While only lyrics are present in the songster, these words are tied inextricably to the songs themselves – the text and the music. The words were intended to come alive with a tune – and to only analyze the words from outside of their musical context is irresponsible, as the pleasant and sentimental melodies of nineteenth century popular song contrast harshly with such painful and oppressive subject matters.

However, this complicates the songster further, because it is impossible to authentically interpret the object without reference to the extremely racist songs within. In treating songs as ephemeral objects, what is our responsibility in the presentation of offensive aural material?

Image 4: A page of sheet music of Old Uncle Ned by Stephen Collins Foster with both musical notation and lyrics. Image courtesy of The Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

While a wide range of objects in the Winterthur collection can be tied to the institution of slavery, few are as overtly racist as the songsters within the Rare Books collection. Other objects make it possible for people to overlook these associations – paying attention to aesthetic aspects or other connections that may be present. However, this songster does not allow for complicit forgetfulness. It is an object of pain and appropriation, but it provides an opportunity to open discussion about America’s checkered past and the widespread complacency of racial humor through time. Moving an object such as this into view at Winterthur will ideally change how our audiences today talk and think about race – serving as a reminder of how far we have to go.



By: Allie Cade, WPAMC Class of 2018


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *