Minstrel Music/Blackface Minstrelsy

Updated: March 01, 2011

Flourishing during the mid-nineteenth century, the minstrel show initially consisted of white male musicians performing broad caricatures of African Americans through wearing blackface (using burnt cork or a black substance known as mantan as makeup to give the performer the appearance of being an African American minstrel).

Flourishing during the mid-nineteenth century, the minstrel show initially consisted of white male musicians performing broad caricatures of African Americans through wearing blackface (using burnt cork or a black substance known as mantan as makeup to give the performer the appearance of being an African American minstrel). Later nineteenth-century minstrel shows also included black per- formers and, sometimes, female performers. Traveling minstrel shows were common in Appalachia, and their influence on Appalachian music continues long after the genre itself faded from popularity.

Minstrelsy influenced Appalachian music in several ways. First, minstrel shows introduced the banjo to many Appalachians and also influenced the instrument’s evolution. Second, the minstrel repertoire became popular in Appalachia; many minstrel songs and tunes continue to be played by contemporary old-time and bluegrass musicians within the region. Third, minstrel show performance styles were incorporated into country music and formed the basis of such country music barn dances as the Grand Ole Opry, National Barn Dance, WWVA Jamboree, and Hee Haw. The personae and performance styles of many early country music per- formers, including Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff, owed much to minstrelsy, since those musicians started their per- forming careers in medicine shows, a form of entertainment strongly influenced by the minstrel show tradition.

Early minstrel performances featured short comedy skits and song-and-dance pieces and were usually featured as parts of circuses or of other traveling shows. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice and Joel Walker Sweeney were two important performers from this early minstrel era. Appomattox, Virginia, native Sweeney has been widely credited with the invention of the five-string banjo. Although his modification of the originally African instrument was the addition of a melody string and not the short drone string, as long believed, Sweeney played a significant role in popularizing the banjo among white people. The first full minstrel show was staged by the Virginia Minstrels in February 1843 in New York City. Blackface minstrel shows during this phase featured dancing and songs with banjo, fiddle, tambourine, bones, and, occasionally, accordion accompaniment. The Virginia Minstrels’ organizer, Daniel Decatur Emmett (born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, near the northwest margin of Appalachia), is credited with composing such minstrel songs as “Old Dan Tucker” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” (though recent scholarship has questioned Emmett’s author- ship of the latter song, better known as “Dixie,” suggesting that an African American songwriter may have contributed to its composition). The Virginia Minstrels’ banjo player, Billy Whitlock, who studied with Sweeney, helped popularize the banjo in the British Isles, where the group traveled.

A typical minstrel show by the 1850s was divided into three principal parts. In the first part the performers were seated in a semicircle. All the members of the “company” were similarly attired, with the exception of the comically clad “end- men,” who played bones and tambourine and were respectively named Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, or Pat and Mike in the event that the Irish were the target of the humor. The endmen cracked jokes and hurled insults at the central performer—the “straight man,” or the interlocutor—who performed in “white- face” (without wearing the burnt cork makeup). The comic endmen were derived from the popular blackface characters Jim Crow (the unrefined plantation slave) and Zip Coon (the urban dandy), whose names derived from the titles of songs by Daddy Rice and George Washington Dixon (c. early 1820s), respectively, whose blackface acts were forerunners of the full-fledged minstrel show.

While early minstrel shows were often featured as part of circus or theater shows and focused on material mocking African American dialects and dances, by the 1850s songs from a more “genteel” tradition had entered the genre, and black elements were downplayed. The songs in the first part of a minstrel show were evenly distributed between up-tempo pieces, such as Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” and sentimental ballads, such as “Lorena.” A minstrel show’s second part, the olio, was performed on the proscenium to allow for the changing of the set. The olio consisted of a varied mix of short skits and song-and-dance routines presented by a solo performer or in varying duo combinations, much like latter- day vaudeville acts or modern stand-up comedians. The third part—the afterpiece and a finale known as the walk-around— usually involved the entire cast, with members of the troupe participating in song, instrumental and choral music, and dance, in various combinations. The walk-around was generally accompanied by a musical composition such as Sam Lucas’s “Hannah Boil Dat Cabbage Down.”

Many minstrel songs and tunes entered oral traditions across Appalachia and continue to be performed. Tunes popular among contemporary old-time musicians that started as minstrel songs include “Old Joe Clark” and “Get Along Home, Cindy.” Several songs from the American Civil War period—Henry Clay Work’s “Grandfather Clock”; George Frederick Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”; and James Bland’s “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”—originated in minstrel shows and remain standards in the Appalachian song repertoire.

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Minstrel Music/Blackface Minstrelsy," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 24 Aug 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=155>

APA Style

"Minstrel Music/Blackface Minstrelsy." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved August 24, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=155

Blackface Minstrelsy