A History of the Musical
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Edwin P. Christy's Minstrels may not have invented minstrelsy, but they eventually perfected the three part format that became the standard for all minstrel shows. All three parts would echo into the future development of the American musical theatre
The Cohan and Harris' Minstrels (1909) was the last minstrel show to play Broadway, but minstrel traditions remained in use for decades. The offensive content of minstrelsy lived on too. The long-running radio series Amos n' Andy featured two white actors impersonating contemporary black characters that were direct descendants of "Zip Coon" and "Jim Crow." Some blacks protested such stereotyping, but listeners made it a top series for more than a decade. When Amos n' Andy moved to TV in the 1950s, black actors were used but the spectacle of blacks demeaning themselves had become unsettling, and the show was cancelled in 1953
Most of the hit songs of the 1800s come from minstrelsy. Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," "O Susanna" and "Old Folks at Home" were all popularized in minstrel shows. Minstrel star Dan Emmett composed several popular tunes including the unofficial Southern anthem "Dixie." In the years following the Civil War, James Bland became America's first popular black composer with such minstrel hits as "O, Dem Golden Slippers" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." Bland was such a brilliant improvisational performer that he never bothered to write down more than three dozen of his 600-plus compositions. Like Foster, this composer of plantation songs was a Northerner with no direct experience of Southern life.
Many minstrel songs helped to perpetuate demeaning stereotypes. In 1890, black performer Ernest Hogan wrote a syncopated song that told of a young "dusky maiden" unable to choose between two suitors. "All Coons Look Alike to Me" became a nationwide sensation, inspiring a mania for "coon songs" ragtime numbers with lyrics that reflected stereotyped notions of African American culture. In reality, most just paraded the social ignorance of their white composers and lyricists, offering cartoonish images of gambling men and high-falutin' women, all with razors at the ready to cut down opponents. But the genre remained popular with white and black audiences well into the 20th Century, including songs by such respected composers as George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. A racist nation from its inception, America has never fully expunged racism from its cultural mindset. (In fairness, most every nation on earth has a skeleton of bigotry in its historic closet but America was the only place where such hatred gave birth to a form of song and dance entertainment.)
The most famous graduate of minstrelsy was Al Jolson. He toured with Dockstader's Minstrels before achieving lasting stardom in vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. Jolson immortalized blackface in several films, including the talking landmark The Jazz Singer (1928).
Jolson was not a racist. A Russian-born Jew, he openly befriended black performers at a time when it was unpopular to do so. In Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (Oxford Univ. Press, NY, 1988, p. 171), historian Herbert Goldman tells of a night when the black song writing team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were refused service in a Hartford restaurant. Jolson heard about it, and the next night treated them to a meal and a private performance. Jolson and Blake remained friends from then onwards.
Jolson said that blackface gave him the emotional freedom he needed to take risks as a performer. As Goldman explains
Considered one of the greatest entertainers of his time, Jolson's films are often dismissed as embarrassments today. Whatever his intentions were, the sight of a white man covered with burnt cork singing "Mammy" has become an unsettling reminder of the racial/cultural mindset that minstrelsy embodied. You can find much more on this remarkable performer in our special sub-site Al Jolson 101.
It was perhaps inevitable that someone would eclipse minstrelsy with a classier version of variety. This new form would provide America's future musicals with their comic soul. It was born in New York City, and in time they would call it vaudeville.