Stephen Foster Collage

Blackface Minstrelsy

The minstrel show was "born" about the same time as Foster and quickly became the most popular form of public entertainment in the U.S. The “father of American minstrelsy” was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white performer who by 1831 developed a song-and-dance routine in which he darkened his face and caricatured an old, physically disabled enslaved African American. Throughout the 1830s this character, named Jim Crow, achieved great popularity and inspired many imitators. Although black artists participated in minstrel shows (especially after the Civil War), the entertainment industry was controlled by white businessmen and artists who targeted a white audience. Thus minstrelsy’s representations are a manifestation of the perceptions, fears, and social and political views of white Americans.

In 1842 the New York–based songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett and three companions devised a program of singing and dancing in blackface to the accompaniment of bone castanets, violin, banjo, and tambourine. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they made their first public appearance in February of 1843. The Christy Minstrels, led by actor Edwin P. Christy, appeared around the same time. These two troupes developed the essential features of the minstrel show. The all-male troupes positioned themselves on stage in a semicircle, with an interlocutor at the center and two “endmen”—a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) and a bones player (Mr. Bones)—at each end. Their performances were variety shows that consisted of jokes (especially between the endmen and the interlocutor), skits, and musical numbers. The songs, often referred to as Ethiopian melodies, typically had solo verses and choruses that were sung by the whole troupe in harmony.

During the 1840s the shows were divided into two parts. The first concentrated on stereotypes of the urban black dandy, the second on stereotypes of the southern plantation slave. The caricatures in both sections were demeaning. By the 1850s, however, these elements had been reduced and condensed into the concluding section of a three-part show. Music of the “genteel” tradition now prevailed in the first section, in which popular and sentimental ballads were performed. The middle part consisted of the “olio,” a potpourri of dancing and musical virtuosity, with parodies of Italian operas, stage plays, and visiting European musicians. Shows usually concluded with a “walk-around.” This was an ensemble finale in which members of the troupe in various combinations participated in song, instrumental and choral music and dance.

Minstrelsy was by no means the only form of popular entertainment of the time. Theatrical productions, circuses, concerts, dances, exhibitions, and “museums” (such as P. T. Barnum’s American Museum) all drew large audiences.

For further information on minstrelsy in nineteenth-century America, the Center for American Music recommends following:

Books

  • Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Middletown, CT: Weslyan University Press, 1996.
  • Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working Class. 20th-Anniversary Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Mahar, William John. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Roberts, Brian. Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
  • Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Libguides

Online Resources

Contact Us

Center for American Music
Stephen Foster Memorial
University of Pittsburgh
4301 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Hours

Starting August 24, 2020, the Center for American Music Library and Stephen Foster Museum will be open by appointment only. To request access, please send us a request.

You do not have to be affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh to use the Collection. 

Stephen Foster Memorial Museum and Center for American Music Library - Facebook Page