Antebellum America, 1784-1865

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People

  • P.T. Barnum
  • James Bland
  • Frank Browner
  • Aaron Copland
  • George Washington Dixon
  • Daniel Decatur Emmett
  • Stephen Foster
  • William Henry Lane
  • Charles Matthews
  • Dick Pelham
  • Thomas "Daddy" Rice
  • Billy Whitlock

Chronology

1822: Matthews visits America and is influenced by black culture
1832: Rice introduces his "Jim Crow" routine
1840-1870: classic age of blackface minstrels
1843: Virginia Minstrels perform their first entire show in a new format.
1843: Virginia Minstrels enjoy successful  tour
1843: original Virginia Minstrels disbands
1859: Bryants Minstrels present "Dixie"

Songs

  • "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"
  • "De Boatman Dance"
  • "Dixie"
  • "Gumbo Chaff "
  • "Jim Crow"
  • "My Long Tail Blue"
  • "Nelly Was A Lady"
  • " My Long Tail Blue "
  • "Old Dog Tray"
  • "Possum Up A Gum Tree"

Minstrel Companies

  • Bryants Minstrels
  • Christy Minstrels
  • Ethiopian Serenaders
  • Fisk Jubilee Singers
  • Georgia Minstrels
  • Hampton Singers
  • Virginia Minstrels

Places

  • England
  • New York, New York
  • Barnum Museum (New York)
  • Bowery Amphitheatre (New York)


Updated November 12, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001
mark.canada@uncp.edu

Blackface Minstrelsy

By Jason Dwayne Ivey
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

People who are unfamiliar with popular entertainment of the 19th century probably would not know what blackface minstrelsy is.  Blackface minstrelsy, which derived its name from the white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork, was a popular form of entertainment of the 19th century.  In this form of entertainment, whites masquerading as blacks performed songs, dances, and dialect inspired by the blacks on Southern plantations.  However, it wasn't until later that blacks themselves started participating in the minstrel shows.  Blackface minstrelsy was known not only for its lively songs and dances, but also for its infamous use of outlandish stereotypes and offensive dialect.  Examples of these exaggerated stereotypes include characters such as Jim Crow, who in the eyes of white people appeared as a naive, clumsy, devil-may-care southern plantation slave, who dressed in rags.  Another example that represented the white people's idea of a typical black male was a character named Zip Coon or Dandy Jim, who portrayed the urban black as an absurd man who wore a blue coat with tails.  However, not all people agreed with the misrepresentation of black people.  According to information gathered from author Thomas Hampson's PBS World Wide Web site, called I Hear America Singing, Stephen Foster, who was made famous by early songs in minstrelsy, began to do away with any words that were really offensive or trashy in his dialect songs.  He also refused to allow his sheet music to carry pictures that poked fun of blacks, and finally he created songs that depicted blacks with compassion and dignity. 

Blackface minstrelsy should not only be remembered for its dialect, songs, or over-exaggereated stereotypes but also for its historical importance.  According to author Robert C. Toll, in his book Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, blackface minstrelsy had its origins after the War of 1812, when America underwent many changes including increases in urban population growth and a "culture shock" that many Americans faced from not having their own distinct culture (3-5).  Everything from literature, art, music, and theater was influenced by Europeans, and this led many Americans to search for something to distinguish themselves from their English brethren.  Ironically,  Toll credits an Englshman named Charles Matthews for helping Americans to fill this gap with his characterizations of blacks in his theatrical productions (26).  Toll notes that Matthews, who was captivated by black music and dialect during his visit to the United States, began transcribing sermons, lore, songs, and speeches, collecting anything that was useful about blacks, and also studying the Negro dialect.  Matthews also became one of the first, if not the first, white man to use Negro material in his acts.  Matthews got the idea for the material after he observed the audience at the African Theater Company in New York City. During the black actor's performance of Hamlet's soliloquy, Matthews overheard the audience demanding the actor stop the soliloquy and instead sing "Possum up a Gum Tree."  Matthews later studied and learned the song and used it in his "A Trip to America" act.  According to Clayton W. Henderson, in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, when minstrel shows first began, their main purpose was just as an entr'acte in theaters or circuses (247).  However, as their popularity grew, these minstrelsies started to become more independent from the circuses and theaters.  New York City was the birthplace of the minstrel shows and also the place where these shows enjoyed the greatest popularity until the Civil War ended.  New York contained numerous places for minstrel shows, including ten major minstrel houses that thrived during the 1850's, large theaters such as Bowery and Barnum's Museum, showboats that toured around New York, and newly built theaters known as "Ethiopian Opera Houses."   The New Grove Dictionary of American Music states that the classic age of blackface minstelsy lasted from 1840 until 1870; during this period, individual blackface performers began to join with other blackface performers to form duos, trios, and finally quartets.  These troupes became so popular that they went to the White House, where they entertained such presidents as Polk, Filmore, Tyler, and Pierce. 

Blackface minstrelsy helped to produce many successful troupes, talented performers, and  some very popular songs. One of the most successful early performers of the minstrel show was Thomas D. Rice, who became very popular for the song "Jump Jim Crow," which he learned to dance from an old Negro while on tour in 1828.  Rice also helped to develop the minstrel show by increasing the use of black dialect plantation songs , banjo and fiddle music, virtuoso dancing, and crude humor, and he helped to establish a better sense of organization. In his Web site, Thomas Hampson speaks of another very talented performer of blackface minstrelsy: Daniel Decatur Emmett, a talented fiddler, singer, banjoist, comedian, and author of plays and songs for the minstrel show.  Emmett was also a member of a popular minstrel group called the Virginia Minstrels and the composer of the famous pro- Southern walk-around called "Dixie."  White performers were not the only ones to achieve success from blackface minstrelsy; blacks benefited, as well.  Two of the most famous blacks to emerge from minstrelsy were James Bland and William Henry Lane, or "Master Juba."  Bland became the first successful African-American songwriter; "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" is one of his most famous songs. William Henry Lane, or "Master Juba," was a very talented dancer who was praised by critics such as Charles Dickens for his unique, lively dances that combined a European dance with African tradition to form his own distinctive style. 

Much of the music that was performed by the blackface performers contained melodies that had orignated in Britain. Some examples of  these melodies and their origins include such songs as "Jim Crow," which resembled an Irish fok tune and an English stage song; "My Long Tail Blue," which had a melody similar to a Scottish folk song; and "Gumbo Chaff," which had a melody identical to that of an English song called "Bow Wow Wow."  One of the most popular blackface groups was the Virginia Minstrels, which took on its name to enhance the authenticity of the group.  The quartet--which consisted of Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Bower--was a unique group of individuals who knew how to get the audience involved in their show, whether it was by whistling, stomping their feet, or shouting along.  Clayton Henderson credits the Virginia Minstrels for setting down the foundation for other groups to follow by presenting a new style for the other troupes to adapt to their shows. In this new style the quartet would gather around in a semicircle with the man playing the tambourine sitting across from the man playing the bones, while another person in the group served as both a musician and also as a dancer.  The Virginia Mistrels performed their first show in this new format at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York on Febuary 6, 1843. 

Bibliography

Hampson, Thomas. I Hear America Singing. " Daniel Decatur Emmet & The American Minstrel (1815-1904). http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/icon/emmet.html.
Sampson-Livermore Library Computer Lab. 6/8/99 10:24 P.M. 
This World Wide Web site offers some very useful and interesting information about blackface minstrelsy.  Some of the information it gives includes some of the famous black people, such as James Bland, who became the first famous African-American songwriter.  It also speaks of some famous black minstrel groups, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Singers. There is a really good timeline that provides information on important people and events during that time. While there, you can click on one of the people on the timeline image and see information on them and their careers.  The information on this site is timely, and, since it is associated with PBS, it is credible.
Henderson, Clayton W. " Music." The New Grove Dictionary of American Music.
Volume 3. New York: MacMillan Press Limited London Groves Dictionaries of Music Inc., 1986. 245-247. 
This book provides some very interesting information about blackface minstrelsy from its history to the people who played a significant role in it.  Also useful are the dates it listed, along with the names of important minstrel groups and performers of this period. This book is a great source for anyone who wants to know exactly what "blackface minstrelsy" is. Although this book is a little old, the information about the topic is interesting and very reliable. 
Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 
This is to be the most reliable and useful of the sources listed here.  This book not only tells about the history of blackface minstrelsy, but also describes the people who played a significant role in it.   It explains where the melodies to songs such as "Jim Crow" and  "Gumbo Chaff " originated. Although the book was written 25 years ago, the information is very valuable, and it is clear that the author has done a lot of research into this topic.