Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



An American musical entertainment popular around the world, which began in the 1820s, reached its stride c 1850 and still had its effects well into the 20th century. It was the first massive input of black culture into the mainstream. In the 18th century there were occasional set- pieces requiring the performer to 'black up' with burnt cork; the New York Journal referred to a 'Negro dance, in character' on stage in 1767. There were black minstrels, such as William Henry Lane (c 1825--52, aka Master Juba, one of the few to tour with a white company), but the majority were white until after the Civil War; blacks as well as whites were required to 'black up'. The phenomenon of black culture was widely discussed, as in the Knickerbocker Magazine (1845) on Negro poets: 'Let one of them, in the swamps of Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur, than it is written down, amended (that is, almost spoilt), printed, and then put upon a course of rapid dissemination, to cease only with the utmost bounds of Anglo-Saxondom, perhaps with the world. Meanwhile, the poor author digs away with his hoe, utterly ignorant of his greatness.' Patterns still extant today were established: minstrelsy was essentially black music, while the most successful acts were white; songs and dances of black origin were watered down by white performers, then taken up by the blacks, who ended up imitating their own styles (though the sympathetic have always been able to tell the difference between the real thing and the 'Ethiopian delineation'), and the affectionate, patronizing vision of plantation life was similar to the unrealistic depiction of reality on TV sitcoms of the next century.

By 1832 Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808--60) had become one of the most famous stars of his time with the 'Jim Crow' song and dance, perhaps copied from a stable-hand (Jim Crowe was said to have been a plantation slave, while Zip Coon, in a song by George Washington Dixon, was a city dandy). Rice was a cabinet- maker who seems to have taken a conscious decision to join the demi-monde. Theatres were rough places, where riots could start; a touring British performer who refused to sing 'Yankee Doodle' on request was taking his life in his hands. There was no welfare state and the lives of the working class were precarious; gangs of rowdies (both black and white) would roam the streets in a North American spirit of carnival, or the European seasonal 'misrule' festivals. In Charlestown MA in Aug. 1834 a mob burned down a convent (at a time when arson was punishable by death), but they carefully escorted everybody out of the building first. Such mobs would dress up in garish costumes and black themselves up, becoming the 'other' in order to blow off steam; and they sang the Jim Crow song, which was a political song: there were hundreds of verses, many of them never written down, nearly all dealing with current events. (See Dale Cockrell's paper, 'Jim Crow, Demon of Disorder', American Music Summer 1996.) There was a lot of solidarity and rough democracy among black and white in the working class; it was the middle classes (who published newspapers, and who read them) who were terrified of anarchy, and of miscegenation; over 20 people were killed in the Astor Place Riot of 1849, which began in a theatre, and that was the peak of the violence.

By then Jim Crow had been tamed, organized and moved indoors for good. Until the minstrel show, much of American entertainment had been a pastiche of songs, jokes and bleeding chunks of Shakespeare thrown together like a series of music- hall turns. The full-length minstrel show was a formalized entertainment devised by astonishingly successful quartets: the Virginia Minstrels (1843) incl. Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-- 1904), who wrote 'I Wish I Was In Dixie's Land' for Bryant's Minstrels in 1859; the Christy Minstrels (formed 1844), incl. Edwin P. Christy (aka Christie, 1815--62), who had studied the rhythms in New Orleans's Congo Square, wrote 'Goodnight Ladies' and other songs and toured Europe, and committed suicide by jumping out of a hotel window in NYC, depressed by the outbreak of the Civil War. (Howard L. Sacks and Judith Rose Sacks in their book Way Up North In Dixie told the story of the black musical Snowden family who lived in the Ohio woods that Emmett came from, and speculated that they may have written or contributed to 'Dixie'.) The word 'minstrel' had been applied to entertainers for centuries, but these quartets tied it forever to blackface.

The minstrel show had three parts. For the songs and jokes in the first part the performers stood in a semi-circle, Tambo and Bones as the end men with tambourine and bone clackers respectively; they would register noisy approval of a joke, signalling the audience to laugh (much like the canned laughter on today's sit-coms). The emcee in the centre was the boss, and the jokes were often at his expense, a touch of anti- authoritarianism; and there would also be a singer of sentimental ballads. The second part was comprised of speciality acts and novelties (called the 'olio', a term which survived in vaudeville, probably from the Spanish olla, or 'potpourri'), and the finale was a walk-around, or promenade. (A late invention was the cakewalk, in which members of the audience were invited to invent the most ridiculous strutting march, for which the prize was a cake.) Many songs were sympathetic: 'The Negro Boy' (aka 'I Sold A Guiltless Negro Boy'), 'A Negro Song' (aka 'The Negro's Humanity'), but minstrelsy became more overtly racist after the Civil War: the image of the 'darky' as a comic buffoon insulated whites from having to deal with the reality of free black Americans, and survived in films and TV until well into the 1950s. Minstrelsy eventually became a bloated parody of itself; the finale became a costume melodrama, in one case a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a happy ending.

Minstrel shows were popular among ordinary blacks. Although conditions were terrible for black performers and a full-time first-class black minstrel troupe was not organized until 1865 (Brooker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels), by the 1880s black talent was in demand and a great many performers obtained valuable experience. Much material was copied from songs and dances of slavery, but much was original; Stephen Foster became the most successful songwriter of the 19th century without copying from anyone. The dances (breakdowns, double-shuffles, heel-and-toe, etc) and the 'Ethiopian' instrumentation (especially the banjo) were authentic and profoundly influential, the rhythms leading to ragtime and beyond: many ragtime songs were 'coon songs' (see Ragtime), directly descended from minstrelsy. Lew Dockstader's Minstrels still performed, and George M. Cohan was a partner in a minstrel show, as late as 1908. Black and white performers still 'blacked up' in 20th-century vaudeville; the black Broadway star Bert Williams had to black up all his career. Sophie Tucker gave it up as soon as she could, but Al Jolson milked blackface for sentimentality until he died in 1950. A white blacked-up minstrel show was popular on UK TV in the 1960s.