A History of the Musical
Minstrel Shows
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, Revised 2003)

 

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

"That Shuffalin' Throng"
Dockstaders Minstrels in full productionDockstaders Minstrels in full production, with the 'minstrel line' in front.

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 bred.

Minstrel shows developed in the 1840’s, 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.

 

"Jim Crow"
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 "Daddy" Rice 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 community.
- 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 popular culture.

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), p. 51.

Other sources agree, with one noted jazz historian offering this perspective –

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