History Of Music: Minstrelsy & Blackface

Slavery played a major roll in the development of modern pop music. Musicianers (Slaves that played music) would go on to create a musical culture that influenced African’s and European’s alike. One of the major things that emerged after slavery was new genres of music. Jazz and the Blues would go on to influence almost every genre of music that we listen to today!

A Quartet of Musicianers

But before we talk about the Blues and Jazz we need to discuss minstrelsy. Minstrelsy was when white performers would dress up in black face and go around performing. Most of the time this was meant in a way to mock and hate on former slaves and popular black performers. Minstrelsy was actually the first form of performing art to originate in America and it was one of the direct styles that lead to the development of the Blues.

In the late 18th century what was originally called “Negro Songs”  were being performed in black face by white performers in New York’s theatres usually between acts in operas and plays.

Thomas “Daddy” Rice is considered the “father” of minstrelsy in America. Rice created a popular character called Jim Crow, who was a disabled black stable hand who would shuffle when moving, this character was the inspiration for the name for the racist post-slavery laws from the south.
The songs that were sung by Rice belonged to the traditions of slaves, he would “parody” or change the words of the songs so that they would disparage or degrade the “black man and his lifestyle”. Another popular character was “Coon” who was a black city slicker who tried and failed to imitate the whites who surrounded him in his daily life, this character also brought to life a racist term used against blacks, coon.

Thomas “Daddy” Rice 
 A Poster of “The Original Jim Crow”

Minstrelsy reached its peak between 1820 and 1850 and started to decline around the turn of the century.In the 1830’s the minstrelsy shows went from being just songs to full on variety shows that featured many different acts making fun of blacks. The popularity of minstrelsy was enormous and it started to cause problems at high-class venues; the working class would arrive at venues and throw things at performers who were performing anything that was considered too “posh”.The instruments used in minstrelsy shows were similar to the ones used by slaves and associated with life on the plantations such as banjo, fiddle, tambourines, etc. However, there is some debate on the origin of the music used by minstrels. Composers of the music would claim that the songs were based on songs sung on the plantations, but by the time that the songs would reach the Northern US, there would be many changes that were clearly influenced by Scottish, Irish and other European cultures.

There were also many black performers involved in minstrelsy as well. Because of the popularly of minstrelsy, many people became interested in the music and culture of African Americans. This interest gave an opportunity to black performers to start performing in front of larger crowds. The first two major black acts were William Henry Lane and Thomas Dilward who started between 1840 and 1850, and shortly after around the year 1855 black troupes started to emerge. These all black troupes used the colour of their skin to their advantage and marketed themselves as the only true performers of black song and dance.

Around the first world war minstrel shows started to lose their popularity. The popular music of the time was shifting to more patriotic and inspirational music to try and get people involved in the war effort. But also master promoters, like BT Barnum, were starting to promote Vaudeville, variety shows and other less controversial forms of entertainment in the Northern US so the minstrel shows started to migrate further and further south, and eventually they performed the majority of their shows in the Southern US. The BBC had a show called the Black and White Minstrel Show that was airing as late as 1975.

Al Jolson was a Jewish American performer and was at one point called the greatest performer in the world, and he began his career as a minstrel but used blackface as a way to show the mutual suffering of Jews and African Americans. Jolson’s contributions to Jazz and Blues have had him compared to Elvis and his role in the popularization of Rock. Jolson is considered the “first rock star”. Jolson’s blackface character was named Gus; Gus was a wise cracking servant who was much smarter than his masters and would frequently help get his masters out of sticky situations that they had gotten themselves into. Jolson used Gus as a way to make fun of the idea of “white supremacy”. Whenever Jolson played a character that he thought would disparage blacks, he would perform the role without blackface.

Jolson in Blackface

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