Corn Meal

Conr Meal and Cart

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.

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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”.

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The True American Aug 23, 1838

(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.

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The Picayune May 13, 1837

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”. Β He continued with revivals of this show until his last performance on 13 June 1840.

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The Picayune May 12, 1837

Corn Meal for the last time!

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The Picayune June 13, 1840
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The Picayune Dec 18, 1839

Even on the streets, he was triumphant.

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The Picayune Jan 30, 1841

Corn Meal died on Friday 20 May 1842, and was memorialized in verse in the Picayune.

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The Picayune May 22, 1842

His widow died penniless on 2 Jan 1843, and was buried at the city’s expense.

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The Picayune Jan 3, 1843

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.

 

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