New Orleans is famed for its street musicians, but who was the first to gain a name?
How do you buy corn meal? Do you drive to the grocery store and buy a 4lb bag of Martha White? Are you old enough to remember the milkman? I’ll bet you’re not old enough to remember the corn meal man.
In the late 1830s, a figure made his appearance on the New Orleans streets and in the pages of the Picayune.
An old black man drove through the streets in his horse-drawn cart, selling corn meal door-to-door, and singing as he drove. He had a peculiar range of bass and falsetto, and a repertoire of songs, including “Old Rosin the Bow”, “Coal Black Rose” and “Sitch a Gittin Up Stairs”.
(The original “Jim Crow” was American actor Thomas Darmouth Rice, who had a hit with his blackface act in London in 1836.)
The Picayune said that every man, woman and child, white, black and colored, knew Corn Meal, at a time when New Orleans had a population of about 100,000.
Corn Meal (and his horse) made his first appearance on-stage at the St Charles Theater on 13 May 1837, starring as himself and singing his songs in the melodrama “Life In New Orleans”. He continued with revivals of this show until his last performance on 13 June 1840.
Corn Meal for the last time!
Even on the streets, he was triumphant.
Corn Meal died on Friday 20 May 1842, and was memorialized in verse in the Picayune.
His widow died penniless on 2 Jan 1843, and was buried at the city’s expense.
So who was Corn Meal? The only clue is from the Picayune of Dec 11, 1839, which identifies his son-in-law as Peter Palmer, free person of color (FPC). The US Census of 1840 for New Orleans shows that Peter Palmer was a Free Colored Person aged 24-35, with a wife (also a Free Colored Person) aged 24-35, and that he owned 1 female slave aged 24-35. There is no further trace of Peter, nor of Corn Meal, and so he vanishes into the unknown.