The beginnings of American Pop: Minstrelsy

This reproduction of a 1900 minstrel show post...

Image via Wikipedia

Currently, I’m TA’ing a course called Modern Popular Music. The PhD student running the show gave a fantastic lecture the other day on Minstrelsy in the U.S., and I wanted to share a few online resources. Yes, we’re starting at the beginning of American Pop.

What is Minstrelsy?

When I think of minstrel shows, images of staged variety acts come to mind. The shows were comic skits performed by white people in blackface as staged caricatures, or often they were black people in blackface.  They spread racial stereotypes, although toward the beginning of the movement it was treated much like a Saturday Night Live skit would be today. As time went by, they became increasingly racist and eventually got out of hand.

The shows began in the early 1800’s with mostly white performers, however by the time of the Civil War, black people were joining the troupes as well. Often it was a way to make quite a bit of money and served to be quite a popular entertainment venture.

The immediate response to these shows tends to be that they are blatantly racist and therefore taboo, however the fact that black people often performed in them as well (giving themselves blackface also) gives validity to its initial humorous footing (at least early on). Likewise, the racial tables turned (as you can see in the video below). Black people would frequently ‘make fun’ of high-society whites during minstrel shows.

Thank you to the Library of Congress for posting this video for our educational use – it’s only a few seconds long, and it’s a silent film (consider the recording techniques of the time), but it shows blacks making fun of high society whites:

Minstrelsy lost its popularity as civil rights gained prominence – the unique absurdity of the minstrel show lost its grounding once the skits became increasingly racist.

Minstrelsy led to America’s very first popular (and extremely racist) music hit, “Jim Crow”, by Thomas Dartmouth Rice.  As its popularity gained among whites in the U.S., the tune led to name the infamous Jim Crow laws.

1950 Blackface Performance:

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One comment

  1. If you do a search on YouTube for “Black and White Minstrels” you will come up with clips from a BBC television show which ran for years in the 1960s and 1970s, and even ran for a long time in a West End Theatre. Here’s an example from the time when even the TV was “black and white”:

    Although this clip includes Stephen Foster songs and “Dixie” (which, it is now thought, was co-written by an African-American from Ohio (?)), their repertoire included a long list of “standards” – I even remember hearing them doing “Kalinka” and “Polyushke Polye”, and Country ‘n’ Western numbers.

    The clip showcases the solo singing of Dai Francis, John Boulter, and Tony Mercer (I can’t remember which is which, but one is the soft baritone, one is the Jolson sound-alike, and one is the clear tenor).

    This was one of the BBC’s most popular shows. The production and showmanship were excellent. What is more, looking back it all seems so innocent. I think we all made the connection back to the blackface minstrels of the US and to Al Jolson, but let me put it a different way…

    I had a gollywog dolly when I was little, but we were a family who loved cricket, and so I never confused my dolly (little, black, fancily dressed) with a West Indian (tall, brown, dressed in white and carrying a bat) and I didn’t grow up racist.

    The day came when a different set of sensibilities came to the fore in Britain and, for good enough reasons, the B&WMS’s day was over.

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