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"That Shuffalin' Throng"
Minstrels in full production, with the 'minstrel line' in
The American musical has one shameful chapter in its history
minstrel shows. The most popular musical stage
shows of the early and mid 19th Century, minstrelsy embodied racial hatred.
Both white and black performers donned blackface, and
audiences of all colors loved it. Hateful as their content was, minstrel
shows were the first form of musical theatre that was 100% American-born and
Minstrel shows developed in the 1840s,
peaked after the Civil War and remained popular into the early 1900s. Minstrelsy
was a product of its time, the only entertainment form born out of blind bigotry.
In these shows, white men blackened their faces with burnt cork to lampoon Negroes,
performing songs and skits that sentimentalized the nightmare of slave life
on Southern plantations. Blacks were shown as naive buffoons who sang and danced
the days away, gobbling "chitlins," stealing the occasional watermelon,
and expressing their inexplicable love for "ol' massuh."
"Blackface" and "minstrelsy" are not true synonyms. Blackface
performers were around several decades before the first minstrel shows evolved.
America was crazy for blackface. To the
twanging thwang of the banjo, and the clatter of tambo and bones
tambourine and bone castanets white men smeared burnt cork on their
faces to sing, waggle their legs in imitation of blacks dancing, and
tell jokes in "negro" dialect. Between 1750 and 1843,
over 5,000 theater and circus productions included blackface.
- David Carlyon, Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never
Heard Of (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), p. 46.
According to The Encyclopedia of New York City (Kenneth Jackson editor,
Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1995, pp. 763-764) blackface acts were common
features in circuses and traveling shows from the 1790s onwards. All this
moved to a new level in the 1820s when white entertainer Thomas
caused a nationwide sensation by donning burnt cork to perform the song
"Jump Jim Crow" on stage. He first heard it from an old black
street singer who supposedly made up the lyric about his own name
First on de heel tap,
Den on the toe
Every time I wheel about
I jump Jim Crow.
Wheel about and turn about
En do j's so.
And every time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow.
- From 1823 sheet music
"Jim Crow" turned out to be more than a popular song.
It became the name of one of minstrelsy's stock comedy characters, and a
by-word for legalized racial oppression.
In 1828, Jim Crow was born. He began his
strange career as a minstrel caricature of a black man created by a
white man, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, to amuse white audiences. By
the 1880s, Jim Crow had become synonymous with a complex system of
racial laws and customs in the South that enabled white social, legal
and political domination of blacks. Blacks were segregated, deprived of
their right to vote, and subjected to verbal abuse, discrimination, and
violence without redress in the courts or support by the white
- Richard Wormser, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. (New
York: St. Martin's Press, 2003), p. xi.
The First Minstrel Lines
In the early 1840s, a group called the Tyrolese Minstrel Family
toured the United States with a program of traditional mittel-European folk songs.
Four unemployed white actors decided to stage an African-American style
spoof of this group's concerts. Calling themselves
Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, their blackface revue premiered at
New York's Bowery Amphitheatre in February 1843. Emmett, Frank Bower, Frank
Pelham and Billy Whitlock became the first troupe to offer a full evening of
blackface variety entertainment. With their chairs in a simple
semi-circle, the quartet offered a fresh combination of songs, dances and
comic banter, creating cartoonish Negro caricatures. Most
historians mark this production as the beginning of minstrelsy.
The form was so natural, it seemed improvised
and, in fact. much of the evening, because of the talents of the four, was.
But most of all, there was exuberance and excitement. The minstrels, in
their wide-eyed, large-lipped, ragged-costumed absurdity, rolled onto the
stage in a thundercloud of energy which hardly ever dissipated. They
insulted each other, they baited each other, they made mincemeat of the
language, they took the audience into their fun, and, in one night, they
added a new form to show business in America in fact, the world.
- Lee Davis, Scandals and Follies: The Rise and Fall of the Great
Broadway Revue (New York: Limelight Editions, 2000), p. 31.
Over the next few years, the Virginia Minstrels introduced several hit songs
that are still heard today, including "Polly Wolly Doodle" and "Blue
Tail Fly." Similar all-white companies soon toured the United States and Europe.
Although short on production values, minstrel shows became America's most popular
form of stage entertainment. By 1856, New York City had ten full time resident
companies, and twice as many a decade later.
When Bigotry Sang
Minstrelsy's comic characterization of Negroes was often hateful, but
it marked the unintentional beginning of a lasting trend in American
These negative images of blacks did have some
elements of black culture in them, however twisted and distorted the
overall effect was . . . Minstrelsy was the first example of the way
American popular culture would exploit and manipulate Afro-Americans
and their culture to please and benefit white Americans.
-Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth
Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974),
Other sources agree, with one noted jazz historian offering this
Though antebellum (minstrel) troupes were white, the form
developed in a form of racial collaboration, illustrating the axiom that
defines and continues to define American music as it developed over
the next century and a half : African American innovations metamorphose into
American popular culture when white performers learn to mimic black ones.
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years
1903-1940 (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2001), p. 78.
Companies continued to perform in both North and South throughout the Civil War,
with the minstrel tune "Dixie" becoming an unofficial anthem for the
Confederacy. After the war, minstrelsy remained popular, and many skits took a
sentimental view of the lost world of plantation slavery. Although African Americans
were forbidden by law to perform on stage with whites in many states, some companies
secretly included blacks.
As laws changed, several all-black minstrel
companies toured America and Great Britain. Black performers still had to
wear blackface makeup in order to look "dark enough," performing material
that demeaned their own race. Despite such drawbacks, minstrelsy
provided African American performers with their first professional stage outlet.
Minstrelsy remained all-male until 1890, when The Creole Show offered a
female interlocutor and women in the ensemble. After a successful tour, this troupe
settled in at New York’s Standard Theater (an off-Broadway burlesque house) for a
sensational run of five continuous seasons. Women became a common presence on the
minstrel stage, but the form was losing appeal. By the early 1900s, Lew
Dockstader's troupe was the last major minstrel company. Although blackface remained
in use, minstrel shows were no longer commercially viable by 1920.
During the many decades of its popularity, minstrelsy developed a unique format.
For more about minstrel performances, the still-familiar songs that minstrelsy
inspired, and a performer who carried on the legacy of minstrelsy, go on to . . .
Next: Minstrel Show II