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.  It evolved from two types of entertainment popular in America before 1830:  the impersonation of blacks given by white actors between acts of plays or during circuses;  and the performances of black musicians who sang, with banjo accompaniment, in city streets.  The "father of American minstrelsy" was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, who, between 1828 and 1831, developed a song-and-dance routine in which he impersonated an old, crippled black slave, dubbed Jim Crow. This routine achieved immediate popularity, and throughout the 1830s Rice had many imitators.

In 1842, in New York City, the 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 1843.  The Christy Minstrels, headed by actor Edwin P. Christy, began appearing a few years later and originated many essential features of the minstrel show, including the seating of the entertainers in a semicircle on the stage, with a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) at one end and a castanet player (Mr. Bones) at the other;  the singing of songs, often referred to as Ethiopian melodies, with harmonized choruses;  the exchange of jokes between the endmen and the performer in the center seat (Mr. Interlocutor).

During the 1840s the show was divided into two parts--the first concentrated largely upon the urban black dandy, the second on the southern plantation slave.  Both featured stereotyped caricatures rather than genuine depictions of blacks, and were usually demeaning. By the 1850s, however,black elements had been reduced and moved to the concluding section of a three part show.  Music of the "genteel" tradition now prevailed in the first section, where popular and sentimental ballads of the day and polished minstrel songs, including those of Foster, supplanted the older and cruder dialect tunes.  The middle part consisted of the "olio," a potpourri of dancing and musical virtuosity, with parodies of Italian operas, stage plays, and visiting European singing groups.  The high point of the show was the concluding section, the "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, concerts, dances, exhibitions, including Barnum-style "museums" all drew large audiences.

For further information on minstrelsy in 19th-century America, consult the following books and websites:

  • Bean, Annemarie, ed. Inside the Minstrel Mask:  Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy.  Weslyan University Press, 1996.

  • Cockrell, Dale.  Demons of Disorder : Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. (Cambridge Studies in America Theatre and Drama , No 8), 1997.

  • Lott, Eric.  Love and Theft:  Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.  Oxford University Press, 1993.

  • Nathan, Hans.  Dan Emmett and Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

  • Toll, Robert C.  Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, 1974.


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Last updated November 19, 2010