Document Type


Publication Title

Popular Culture Association National Conference

Publication Date



African Americans, bandleaders, musicians, circus, circus bands, sideshows, metadata, digital collections


Everyone knows P. G. Lowery, broadcaster of African-American music. Less known are those whose sideshow leadership predates that of Lowery. The pioneering entrepreneurial-entertainment legacy of bandleaders like Solomon P. White, J. 0. McNutt, and James Wolfscale set the stage for Lowery's phenomenal success. This presentation investigates their personal histories in the context of mainstream and circus cultures; their indispensable contribution to the success of the circus and the popularization of African-American music; and their role as the sinew of African-American communities through newspaper distribution and correspondence.

Black sideshow bands-first documented in 1881 within Milner Library's Circus Route Books Digital Collection, were relegated to the circus annex, constrained by compounding layers of liminality. Sideshows housed those performers labeled as "exotic," and musicians were expected to perform as such. This presentation details how Black musicians responded to their forced otherness, highlighting their agency within a confined stage. Through ingenious spectacles, they deployed the marketing of exoticism onto the audience's desire for the novel and the authentic. Possessing both musical and managerial skills, they utilized their market share to transform themselves from employees to autonomous business owners.

This research was conducted for the digital humanities exhibit, Agency through Otherness: Portraits of Performers in Circus Route Books 1875-1925. The exhibit is the final segment of the Council on Library and Information Resources grant project, Step Right Up: Digitizing Over 100 Years of Circus Route Books with collaborating institutions the Circus World Museum and The Ringling Archives.

Funding Source

Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)


The presentation was given at the Popular Culture Association 2021 National Conference.



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