January 4, 2018
The Standard-Journal features "Black Manhattan, Volume 3"
‘Black Manhattan, Volume 3,’ by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra features ‘Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,’ and 21 other selections from an American musical era which predates jazz.
‘Black Manhattan, Volume 3,’ by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra features ‘Oh! Dem Golden Slippers,’ and 21 other selections from an American musical era which predates jazz.

Roots of a New Year’s anthem
‘Oh! Dem Golden Slippers’ explained

by Matt Farrand Dec 30, 2017

LEWISBURG — “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” is a tune with legs.

The unofficial anthem of New Year’s Day goes back to the 19th Century, said Rick Benjamin, Paragon Ragtime Orchestra director. It was published in 1879, during the era of minstrel shows.

“Minstrelsy” was America’s first home-grown theatrical entertainment.

“Golden Slippers” was written by James A. Bland, an African-American who wrote it to satirize a traditional spiritual with a similar title performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

“It talks about basically the end of life or revelation when you float up and you get your ‘golden slippers.’ You’re in heaven,” said Benajmin of the pious original. “Somewhere along the line ‘Jim’ Bland saw this and thought it would be a perfect thing to make fun of.”

The lyrics mimic a southern dialect, which could be heard as racially insensitive by the modern ear. That it was written as comedy by an African-American songwriter is largely forgotten.

“Anybody these days who has a controversial feeling about minstrelsy doesn’t know anything about it,” Benjamin said. “They see these old pictures of guys doing stereotypical things. It was a very complex art form.”

Benjamin mused on how “Golden Slippers” got to be associated with New Years Day and the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

“Philadelphia always had a minstrel tradition, and... kept it as an undiluted art form longer than anybody else,” Benajmin said. “Broadway had moved on. They went through variety and vaudeville and they were into musical theater and operetta. Philadelphia still had dedicated minstrel theaters.”

He cited a “Seventh Street Theater” in the city which maintained the minstrel format into the 20th Century. Why its popularity endured in Philadelphia and virtually nowhere else is unclear, Benjamin added.

Bland traveled the world but returned to Philadelphia. Though well-known, Benjamin said the songwriter had trouble with the law and spent time in a New Jersey prison. Benjamin said there is evidence that Bland continued to write music while in his cell and received payment for his work.

“Golden Slippers” is one of 22 tracks featured on “Black Manhattan, Volume 3” by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. It is available on New World Records and features performances by local and nationally known talent.

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