A native Philadelphian, Silas Sexton Steele began his career there in 1835 as an actor but turned to writing when his thespian aspirations were firmly discouraged by a discerning public. His first play, “The Goatheads,” was performed privately in 1836, but eventually the curtain would rise over forty of his plays, many of which were operatic and musical. “The Brazen Drum” (1841), “Stewart’s Capture” (1842), and “The Crock of Gold; or, The Toiler’s Tale” (1845) were the most popular, the last a sentimental domestic drama set in England which displays Steele’s talent for dialect in the comic character of the fisherman Peter Perch. That talent, as well as his interest in nautical themes generally, won the praise of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, particularly for a piece (now lost) entitled “The Lion of the Sea; or, Our Infant Navy.” But although Steele’s many melodramas, farces, burlesques, and comic operas were well received for more than twenty years in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and London, today he bears the unfortunate distinction of belonging to that large group of nineteenth-century American playwrights who are mainly remembered for being quite forgotten.
His “ear” for regional or dialectical speech equipped him for what was then called the “Ethiopian Opera,” and for various minstrel show companies he wrote such operatic trifles as “Black Diabolo, or, The Inn at Terrapina,” “Love and Hominy,” “Aladdin,” and “A Night Down Town; or, De Toe Wins de Hand.” It was also for this medium that he composed “The Rose of Alabama,” both a banjo song and a song about a banjo, which had all the ingredients for success on the burlesque stage. A catchy tune, a Southern setting, a comic tone, a tale in dialect of courtin’ in the moonlight–just the ticket for burnt-corked soloists or nimble combatants in those “Battle of the Banjos” which at that time so excited the devotees of Tambo and Bones.
Although the popularity of such entertainments peaked in the 1850’s, minstrel shows persisted throughout the war years despite the difficulties involved especially for Southern minstrel companies in adjusting their themes and arrangements to the shifting political views of the audience. Naturally, soldiers on the march could little resist the bouncy appeal of these nineteenth-century equivalents of modern show tunes, and so sang “Dixie” or “The Bonnie Blue Flag” as lustily as any Christy Minstrel. From stage to battlefield, “The Rose of Alabama” stepped lively, and continues to do so today.
The Rose of Alabama
Away from Mississippi’s vale, wid my old hat dar for a sail,
I cross’d upon a cotton bale, to Rose of Alabama.
Oh, brown, Rosie, the Rose of Alabama,
A sweet tobacco posey is de Rose of Alabama,
A sweet tobacco posey is de Rose of Alabama.
I landed on de far sand bank, I sat upon a holler plank,
An’ dare I made the banjo twank, for Rose of Alabama. (Chorus)
I said, “Sit down just where you please,” so cross my legs she took her ease.
“It’s good to go upon the knees,” said Rose of Alabama. (Chorus)
De river rolled, de crickets sing, de lightnin’ bug he flash’d his wing,
And like a rope my arms I fling round Rose of Alabama. (Chorus)
I hugged so long I cannot tell; my Rosie seemed to like it well;
My banjo in the river fell, Oh, Rose of Alabama! (Chorus)
Like alligator after prey, I plunged in but it float away;
All the while it seemed to play, –Oh Rose of Alabama! (Chorus)
Now every night in moon or shower, I hunt that banjo for an hour
And meet my sweet tobacco flower, the Rose of Alabama. (Chorus)