[Ads-l] =?Windows-1252?Q?=93down_to_the_brass=94=3B_?=Billy Birch, Burch; tacks
goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Dec 31 08:58:30 EST 2020
The three items in the subject may be related, though (a) is rarely considered (given searching at some usual suspects, Peter’s blog, etc.), (b) is obscure, and the (c) lacks consensus. Together, possibly, they may become a bit clearer.
a) Previously on ads-l  I mentioned three uses of a phrase possibly related to “down to brass tacks,” and here I add an antedating:
1856 “Suppose we come right down to the brass and admit….” Weekly Wisconsin Patriot [Madison; AmHistN] Sept. 13, 1856, 1/3.
1858 “…we have talked all around the question, and he thought it was time to come right down to the brass.”
1861 “If Jo Bows came down to the brass of the matter, he would say, they were more so.”
1867 “To come right down to the brass of the matter….”
Now, all four of these texts in context, it can at least be argued, relate to money. So, maybe, though not yet certainly, brass here meant money. In any case reference to the concrete not theoretical.
b) A 1862 book, Billy Birch’s Ethiopian Melodist (NY) has a silly mocking minstrel poem. The book is available in full , should anyone care to sample its texts in hope of clarifying the weird poem’s setting. Billy Birch is apparently (?) the stage name of William R. Garrison (1831-1897), but it is often also spelled “Billy Burch.”
On page 33—I don’t even want to type out the so-called “Plantation Song and Dance”:
“…and den come down wid de brass tacks.”
1862 (b) so far is earlier than item (c); and item (a) is so far also earlier than item (c).
But wait, there’s more. In San Francisco Evening Bulletin of October 1, 1859 [AHN] 1/8 “Billy Birch’s Minstrels under the management of Billy Birch” offer a “Budget of Comicalities,” one of which is “Brass Tacks.”
c) 1863, as far as I know, is the earliest cited (reportedly by Fred Shapiro, though the archive search seems hit or miss) of many uses of “come down to the brass tacks’ (and variants).
Among the remaining questions: why did some in effect apologize for using what they considered a low register phrase? And did Billy Birch/Burch present his act in Texas?
 Since the URL did not copy properly, at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/
search title “Ethiopian Melodist”
Stephen Goranson's Home Page - Duke University<http://people.duke.edu/~goranson/>
Stephen Goranson. goranson "at" duke "dot" edu. Jannaeus.pdf. My paper on the history of Alexander Jannaeus as the Qumran- and Essene-view "Wicked Priest" and Judah the Essene as the "Teacher of Righteousness" (3 August 2005 [revised 12 January 2006]; 34 pages), "Jannaeus, His Brother Absalom, and Judah the Essene ". Dura-Europos.pdf "7 vs. 8: The Battle Over the Holy Day at Dura-Europos"
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
More information about the Ads-l