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:

Sacred vs. Profane

A professor of mine, Dr. Guy Beck, addresses the topic of sacred vs. profane in the context of religion. If you’ve never really thought about it, you should. I’ll probably talk about it again. The distinction is crucial when talking about ethnomusicology. There’s never really a gray area.

It’s crucial because music, whether sacred or profane, gives [part of our] identity to culture. Aside from it, people can share similar or identical religious beliefs while at the same time associating with different cultures and performing music. So we should give some definition to each one:

Sacred means timeless, ineffable, vertical, spiritual, perhaps extraordinary. It harbors depth. It is hard for Western minds (not that I’m Eastern) to grasp the idea of sacred without immediately thinking of the Christian God. It is important to note that the concept of sacred I mean here is not limited to the Christian God, nor any other. It’s definition stays attached to the listed words above.

On the other hand, the concept of profanity has, in contemporary culture, earned a negative stigma. Yet, the term is temporal, prosaic, ordinary, pedestrian, horizontal. Examples of profanity in our context here could include such mundane things such as doing laundry or paying bills.

(Sacred and profane love – Titian, Borghese Gallery, Rome)

The term comes from ‘profanis’, which translates to “outside the gates of the tabernacle”. This references the tabernacle (a place of worship as directed by God in Numbers & Leviticus) containing the Ark of the Covenant. However, no musical instruments or singing were connected with the tabernacle services. Outside of the buildings, the Levites held the position of playing the shofar (ram’s horn) for ceremonious sacrifices).Therefore, profane simply means the opposite of sacred.

It’s important to distinguish between the two when speaking of music in a cultural context. Music is just that – either sacred or profane. Either it is written for the purpose of sanctity or is simply ordinary. Bach certainly knew the difference. This, culturally speaking, is the first distinction we’ll make of cultures and their ‘musicking‘ (a term coined by MENC member and music educator Christopher Small that I use ALL the time so get used to it!)

Classical musicians can relate to these two ideas by thinking of absolute vs. program music, whereas absolute music refers to music that is not explicitly about anything per se, and program music is a form of art music intended to provoke ‘extra-musical’ ideas – religious ones perhaps, or a story being told (think Opera). These terms however, are generally strictly applied to European classical music. Hopefully the correlation makes sacred vs. profane a bit more accessable.

Now some examples:

Sacred Music:
Bach’s Organ Works (Lutheran)
Tibetan Chant
Judaic recitation
Gregorian Chant

Profane Music:
Can you think of any music that is ‘ordinary’?

There are those that would argue that rock and roll is sacred, along with the hip-hop genre and even street music. American pop music for sure (no, not all of it), Sousa marches, aleatoric music…etc etc etc

(For more reading on sacred vs. profane, pick up a copy of “the Sacred and the Profane” by Mercia Eliade [1907-1986], a Romanian scholar.