Journal of the Society for American Music

Research Article

Reich in Blackface: Oh Dem Watermelons and Radical Minstrelsy in the 1960s




This essay undertakes an examination of Steve Reich's music for Robert Nelson's film Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), which was originally conceived as part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe's controversial production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel of the same year. Reich's long-neglected soundtrack deserves reconsideration for its formative role in the development of the composer's musical style and quasi-liberationist aesthetic at the time, for its participation within what I term the “minstrel avant-garde” in the Bay Area during the mid-1960s and the postmodern revival of blackface minstrelsy more generally, and as a reference point in reflecting upon Reich's professional and political trajectory since its composition.

(Online publication April 14 2011)

Sumanth Gopinath is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Minnesota. He is currently working on two book projects, one on the politics of race and ethnicity in the music of Steve Reich, and another on the global ringtone industry. He is also editing, with Jason Stanyek, a volume provisionally titled The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies.


Thanks to the following people and institutions for their help with this essay: Patrick Burke, Michael Cherlin, Ron Davis, Michael Denning, Mark DeVoto, Andy Ditzler, Eric Drott, Robert Fink, Beth Hartman, Matt Katz, Dave Kemp, Michael Klein, Sonja Kuftinec, Danielle Kuntz, Patrick McCreless, Matthew McDonald, Jason McGrath, Robert Nelson, Alexander Rehding, Steve Reich, G. S. Sahota, Martin Scherzinger, Dean Sorenson, Jason Stanyek, Ryan Stokes, Mark Toscano, Jason Treuting, Michael Veal, Barbara White, John Samuel Wright, the Mannes Institute on Musical Aesthetics, and the Oral History of American Music, as well as the anonymous reviewers for this journal. A related essay bearing a similar title was presented at the American Musicological Society–New England chapter meeting on 10 April 2004, at Boston University.