What was Minstrelsy?

September 6, 2016

swaneeBy Lee Evans

The book JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins (W.W. Norton) provides a succinct, clear explanation, insights, and an overall picture of minstrelsy, or the minstrel show. Anyone who has ever taken a course in jazz history has come across this fascinating topic, along with dance music referred to as “cakewalk.” But I am of the impression that the general public hasn’t the vaguest idea of that dismal mid-1800s period in American history when minstrelsy emerged, especially shortly after the Civil War.

The only paying audiences for music being created by blacks at that time were well-heeled whites, since blacks, in the main, were so poor that they couldn’t afford to hire black musicians to play for them. As DeVeaux and Giddins put it, “black people realized that they could perform their ‘blackness’ for money,” so they began dancing and singing and doing comedy skits in the streets for whatever coins might be thrown in their direction. White performers closely observed these black performers and, accompanying themselves on banjo, began imitating them.

In New York in 1843, a group of white musicians known as the Virginia Minstrels began putting on shows that purported, “to depict the culture of plantation slaves.” To more effectively achieve that goal, these musicians wore blackface makeup that exaggerated facial characteristics they believed were typically those of black people, such as large mouths and eyes. (To get a clear picture of what that may have looked like, one need only rent the 1939 Al Jolson film “Swanee River,” in which singer Jolson wears blackface makeup. The movie itself is a fictional biography of early American composer Stephen Foster.) Another popular 1840s minstrel group, The Christy Minstrels, have been credited with establishing the typical song/dance/slapstick minstrel show format.

Jim Crow

According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Michigan’s Ferris State University, a white minstrel show actor named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808-1860) performed solo skits based on a stereotypical black character named Jim Crow. Rice’s highly exaggerated performance manner was, mostly, based on showing blacks as lazy “darkies” and as natural-born musical talents whose behavior was nonetheless childlike and buffoonish. The name Jim Crow eventually became the catchword for the entire system of segregation that was pervasive in the South at that time. Depicting blacks as natural-born musical talents did at the same time, of course, demean them as individuals whose musical accomplishments, rather than being earned through assiduous and extensive practice, were inherited through some sort of mysterious “black gene.”

A Double Deception

As unbelievable as it may sound, after Emancipation, many black performers also wore blackface makeup as a kind of double deception in the context of imitating whites who were imitating blacks.

The Image of the ‘Happy Slave’

Incidentally, the “cakewalk” dance mentioned earlier in this article was a dance performed by black plantation slaves who were mimicking whites dancing at their plantation parties; the best black performers in this dance contest winning a cake as a reward for their humorous expertise at mimicry.

When minstrelsy finally died out after the first decade of the 1900s, vaudeville shows emerged – variety shows that featured singing, dancing, comedy, juggling, acrobatics, et cetera – which continued to depict blacks in a stereotypical manner, and featured such outstanding black performers as comedian Bert Williams and the amazing tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, among others. Also, movies depicted stereotypical black culture with such well-known white stars as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby performing while wearing blackface makeup, as well as Al Jolson in blackface singing the song “Mammy” in the 1927 film, “The Jazz Singer.”  Radio also presented black stereotypes, characters who employed pseudo-black dialect, in the highly popular show “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Regrettably, these depictions were the principal mechanisms through which white America viewed black culture. An article in Wikipedia says it quite well in the following: “The minstrel show played a powerful role in shaping assumptions about blacks. However, unlike vehemently anti-black propaganda from the time, minstrelsy made this attitude palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of well-intentioned paternalism.”

At the time, however, nobody seemed to care or even notice that these stereotypical depictions of blacks in effect constituted racial slurs. Even trumpeter Louis Armstrong, by consensus the most important creative figure in the entire history of jazz, presented blacks in a negative image in a short-subject film with his singing of the racially stereotypical song “Shine” while covered in soap bubbles and wearing a leopard skin. Some, however, including authors DeVeaux and Giddins, viewed Armstrong’s performance as “undermining from within.” In their book JAZZ,  they say: “This may strike us as outrageous, but blacks of the time thoroughly enjoyed Armstrong’s inventive humor, knowing that the sound of his trumpet and the witty authority of his vocal delivery dispelled racist absurdity, turning it into something approaching an act of defiance. If stereotypes could not be exploded, they could be undermined from within.”

All I know, however, is that when I show the extremely informative biopic videotape, “Satchmo,” to my jazz history class every semester at NYC’s Pace University, I cringe when that particular scene comes on the screen; and I can only hope that my students are able, during that scene, to view Armstrong and his unique musical genius and gifts from the more positive angle of “undermining from within,” rather than his merely having succumbed to the realities of the movie-making business at that moment in time when this film was produced; a time when blacks, if they appeared in movies at all,  did so exclusively in subservient roles.

Musical Precursors of Jazz

Next, historically speaking, there emerged a social-dancing craze among the white population of America; featuring, for example, dances such as the Charleston. Syncopated songs for these dances, as well as the music of ragtime, were unquestionably of African American origin, and were significant precursors of the art and practice of improvised jazz. My article on The African Origins of Jazz in the March 2012 issue of JAZZed discussed this important aspect of jazz history in considerable detail.

Lee Evans

Lee Evans

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent books are the solo-piano Classics With A Touch Of Jazz (Hal Leonard), consisting of twenty-seven famous classical repertoire pieces to which Dr. Evans has applied subtle jazz touches, and the acclaimed foundation theory/performance workbook, Crash Course In Chords (Hal Leonard). Dr. Evans’s next book, due to be published early Fall 2016, is Starter Classics (Stipes Publishing.) For additional information, visit www.leeevansjazz.com.

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