My grandfather, like these men, was a railway worker and a musician - a machinist and a violinist, to be precise. But you won’t find him in this photograph. I suspect that the color bar of the 1920s was much too powerful an obstruction to allow a white musician to play in a black band, let alone the reverse.
And yet I see no sadness in the faces of the porters and musicians in this wonderful Foote photograph. I see only joy, dignity and the same intelligent intensity that I saw on my grandfather’s face, when he held his violin and stared at a camera.
I find myself wondering what tunes this band would have played. "Tiger Rag?" Louis Armstrong's “St James Infirmary?” Maybe "Frankie and Johnny" or the iconic "After You've Gone." Songs that I still love to sing with my family. I also find myself wondering whether or not my grandfather heard these men play at one of their 50 cent matinees or evening concerts at The Dominion Theatre. Did he and his own dance band, like so many other white bands in history, steal songs from the repertoire of these minstrels?
Minstrels. It’s a loaded term when used in this context, and yet it’s original medieval meaning is completely benign – “a singer, musician or poet who traveled from place to place giving performances.” And in that sense, these men and my grandfather were minstrels, traveling performers who, despite the vast divide of racism that separated them, shared at least one thing in common – their love of music.
- Erna Buffie
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An award-winning filmmaker and writer, Erna Buffie lived for twenty years in Montreal, spent seven years in Halifax and returned to her hometown, Winnipeg, in December 2010. Sometimes, when it's -32 in the sun, she asks herself why she returned, but most of the time she's quite happy about it. Her British-born grandfather, George Leach, emigrated to Winnipeg in 1912 and died at the age of 82, when Erna was eleven. She'd give anything to talk to him, even for just a few hours, so she could ask all the questions she had neither the knowledge, nor the inclination to ask, when she was a child. Erna's next documentary, "Smarty Plants: Uncovering the Secret Wolrd of Plant Behaviour" airs Thursday, March 22 on CBC TV's The Nature of Things.