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The Minstrel Show: Academic Histories of Blackface Minstrelsy
March 13, 2002 1:57 PM   Subscribe

The Minstrel Show The Minstrel Show presents us with a strange, fascinating and awful phenomenon. Minstrel shows emerged from preindustrial European traditions of masking and carnival. But in the US they began in the 1830s, with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms. By the Civil War the minstrel show had become world famous and respectable. Late in his life Mark Twain fondly remembered the "old time nigger show" with its colorful comic darkies and its rousing songs and dances. By the 1840s, the minstrel show had become one of the central events in the culture of the Democratic party.. The image of white men in blackface, miming black song, dance and speech is considered the last word in racist bigotry for some. And yet, standing at the crossroads of race, class and high and low culture, blackface minstrelsy is one fascinating topic in academic circles. It’s history is intertwined with the rise of abolitionism, the works of Mark Twain and the histories of vaudeville, American vernacular music, radio, television, movies, in fact all of what is called popular culture. Details within.
posted by y2karl (26 comments total)

 
Emmett Miller is the epitome here. A proud devotee and practitioner of the blackface tradition, his records and minstrel show performances of now standards like I Ain’t Got Nobody, You’re The Cream In My Coffee, Right Or Wrong or Lovesick Blues were influences to people like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and Hank Williams. Where Dead Voices Gather was written from a life long fascination Nick Tosches had for Miller. On the more academic tip, there are works like Inside the Minstrel Mask - Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, a collection of historical literature on minstrelsy, edited by Annemarie Bean, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, for one, William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask - Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture is another and Dale Cockerell’s Demons of Disorder. Early Blackface Minstrels and their World is yet still one more. Bob Dylan himself appropriated an album title from Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
There are so many good black minstrelsy histories online that I can not include them all. From the film Stephen Foster, broadcast by PBS’s American Experience, here is an excellent history excerpted from interviews with some of the writers mentioned above. Also from PBS in the site for Ken Burns’ JAZZ, here is one and from I Hear America Singing, yet another about Daniel Decatur Emmet & the American Minstrel. (Emmet was the namesake for Emmett Miller and the man who wrote Dixie, by the way.) More minstrelsy can be found via the University of Virginia with two enormous sites devoted to Harriet Beecher Stowes’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin--and minstrels--and Mark Twain and his Times, with yet more on blackface minstrels.
Social criticisms of minstrels began with Frederick Douglass’s scathing comment on blackface minstrels as the "filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens," excerpted from the excellent review of Inside The Minstrel Mask to be found at the Old Time Herald. A personal narrative comes to us from Kenneth Warren while Manthia Diawara and Nkenge Maideyi Zenzele provide two more. An aficionado of the Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade—there’s a post worthy topic all on its own—reflects on blackface comics in the context of that cultural festival. Another more academic review comes via Maya Gibson.
It’s a complex topic, you see, which has lead me to explorations of "What is This `Black' in Black Popular Culture?" or Whiteness Studies, Wiggers and the folks at Race Traitor. And somewhere in this bowl of intellectual spaghetti lies as yet unexplained the whole dynamic of the Push Me-Pull You two headed billy goat teeter totter of the cultural dynamic between white and black in this country.

All of our history and culture is a story of miscegenation and, obviously, hybrid vigor. Complex, ironic and entrancing as the topic is, my comment in brief: Is this a great country or what?

PS. Pardon the self-link-by-extension here, but you are two clicks away from two link laden vintage blues programs more or less devoted to the topic above.
posted by y2karl at 1:58 PM on March 13, 2002 [1 favorite]


Where am I ? kuro5hin ;-)
posted by zeoslap at 2:12 PM on March 13, 2002


Great bah-geezus! I think I've got TRAUMATIC POST stress syndrome.
posted by blackholebrain at 2:26 PM on March 13, 2002


Speaking of minstrels, did any see Wynton Marsalis call rap the "modern-day minstrel show?" I don't think he meant it in the nice, influential way that y2karl has exhaustively reported about here.
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:42 PM on March 13, 2002


y2karl: You need a weblog.
posted by Brilliantcrank at 3:01 PM on March 13, 2002


I'm just guessing, but it looks suspiciously like my co-cosmopolitican is doing a bit of research for... what, masters degree? Seriously tho, that'a a mess o' research.

I tried to write a post shorter thank Y2Karls, but it didn't work. Here are the highlights.

It's interest that a country who 'set the slaves free' less than 150 years ago, and legally endorsed them for more than half it's history (longer, if you look back) simultaneously acquires so much of it's musical culture from the very folks it enslaved.

It seems to me that we, as a culture, still derive much of our tastes from black culture, I remember hearing that even Punk had it's roots in ska. Think back a bit about country, pop (Elvis, was a hero to most), jazz... seems like you'll see black culture involved.

Oh, and nice vocab (gots to have vocab) Y2Karl.
posted by daver at 3:34 PM on March 13, 2002


y2karl--you have done yeoman's work here and I plan to pillage for my blog, but I will give you proper credit. Where or where is Al Jolson, the first name for me that springs to mind when I think of the topic, though of course as you indicate hardly the most important.
In passing: a letter in the recent NY Times book section noted that in not one spot in Huck Finn is Jim called Nigger Jim, though he is referred to once as Jim the nigger. The name so often used was given by an early Twain biolgra[pher and has stuck with the novel ever since.
And How many folks have not heard of Uncle Tom's Cabin and have actually read the book. Better than you might think it to be. Again, thanks for the great job.
posted by Postroad at 3:38 PM on March 13, 2002


Looks like he's already got a blog, by the way. Well, sort of.
posted by daver at 3:39 PM on March 13, 2002


Just an addition to the bibliography here:Blackface, White Noise; Jewish Immigrants In The Hollywood Melting Pot, by Michael Rogin.
posted by Rebis at 3:42 PM on March 13, 2002


I haven't had time to check out all the links yet, but I appreciate a thread worth bookmarking. Thanks, y2karl.
posted by liam at 3:59 PM on March 13, 2002


All of our history and culture is a story of miscegenation and, obviously, hybrid vigor. Complex, ironic and entrancing as the topic is, my comment in brief: Is this a great country or what?

Amen, y2karl. First of all excellent topic.
As sad as the origins of the whole phenomenon of minstrelsy might be, it was how many caucasian performers first discovered the African-American cultural goldmine, at least early in this century. Frank Hutchison and "Dock" Boggs both also performed in minstrel shows-but they also performed blues-inflected material with a passion that could only have been informed by a deep and abiding love for the form.
It may have taken a few generations for that love to blossom into respecting and embracing the culture and people that formed it, and of course we're still not all the way there yet. But music, theatre and other artforms are of immense importance in breaking down prejudices.

As Dave Marsh says in The Heart of Rock and Soul of his first time hearing the Miracles' "You Really Got a Hold on Me":

"....caught up in the magic of a sound that revealed to me -don't ask me just how because I will never fully grasp the mechanism- the falsity of the racism within which I'd been raised. Maybe it was just hearing the humanity in Smokey Robinson's voice and finally putting it together with the knowledge that he was a black man"

The point about cultural miscegenation is extremely important as well. Our best musical moments, to a large degree come about when different groups cop ideas from eachother, simply beacuse the best of them can't help adding something of themselves to what they're emulating.
As Sinatra was influenced by Ethel Waters, Sinatra then influenced Sam Cooke. As Hendrix influenced Frank Zappa, Zappa influenced George Clinton. The beauty of this is that the influences via the mass media are avilable to anyone with ears and the willingness to use them. At it's best the music will encourage you to embrace the people who make it, which will bring you and the world infinite rewards.
posted by jonmc at 4:14 PM on March 13, 2002


Fantastic thread, and I've only scratched at the surface of it. I bow to you Karl and your choice to let this sucker loose on the rest of us.

{OT: Somebody find Spoon and let him know that this is yet another example of a well researched multilink behemoth of a thread. no dis to Spoon intended, he just asked this question in MeTa a while back.}
posted by eyeballkid at 4:29 PM on March 13, 2002


Geez, with a post like this just sitting there, how do you expect me to get ANY WORK DONE???

Thanks for taking the time, y2karl. Great stuff.
posted by groundhog at 6:08 PM on March 13, 2002


Anybody a fan of experimental theatre and have a take on what the Wooster Group is doing when they do blackface?
posted by milkman at 6:12 PM on March 13, 2002


daver: You don't really believe that horse*** about Elvis being racist, do you? Yikes. Read Last Train to Memphis. You want to read a terribly insightful, yet also hysterically funny take on the black influence on country, though, and country music in general (also not condescending)? Try Nick Tosches's Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll (formerly subtitled "the biggest music in America," with a back cover that would probably now get Tosches banned in at least eight states, even if his heart's in the right place. Hope there's still the pic of Roy Rogers with Diana Ross, though, right after a shot of a an underground, racist country record by one "Johnny Rebel.") Nick's kinda branched out since then, with the mafia and Sonny Liston and Vegas in the rat pack years and all, but these are his roots too. Fabulous!!!
posted by raysmj at 6:37 PM on March 13, 2002


Ray- I've actually been reading that Sonny Liston book for the past couple of days. It's really good, which sort of reinforces my take that Tosches is better when he's writing about non-music subjects.
His basic theme, that country and blues/R&B are intimately entertwined with eachother musically, thematically and politically is explored along with many other things to far better effect in Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America. Marcus does tend to wander off into the ether on occasion, but the best parts(his mini-bio of "Dock" Boggs, and a chapter-length thesis on "Ode to Billie Joe") are truly remarkable.
posted by jonmc at 6:50 PM on March 13, 2002


Greil gets far too pretentious for me at times, too into connecting point A to point D, missing point B, the real destination, by an exit or two. Which is not to say I don't like him. Far from it, actually. Nick, though, to me went straight for the jugular in writing about what's so often a rough-and-tumble, straightforward sort of music, in the country book. I liked that. Maybe I needed to read it at the time (about five years ago), I can't say.
posted by raysmj at 7:05 PM on March 13, 2002


Y2karl - I was planning on listening to the show while reading a few links but the Real Player had a seizure. Would you please tell me the URL so I can type it into the Tuner? Thanks for the beautiful post. I specially like the way it reads through so well, even discounting all the links.
The only helpful comment I can think of is how in Brazil they solved the blackface problem by ensuring almost everyone was light brown. And the music is all the more wonderful because of it. Is mulatto a bad word nowadays? Not in Portuguese, although moreno is much cooler

Heh heh, I guess now you can't go back to those easy one-linkers of yesteryear... Good!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:15 PM on March 13, 2002


Actually, Brazil's casting policies changed due to the uproar caused by casting a white actor in blackface as Uncle Tom, in a late '60s soap opera version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"! (Apparently, it wasn't cast that way to make a point, but just out of institutionalised racism.)

I believe Duke Ellington's clarinet player, Barney Bigard, had to perform in blackface when filmed.
posted by liam at 9:13 PM on March 13, 2002


Race/Music: Corrine Corrina, Bo Chatmon, and the Excluded Middle is one I meant to work in the post, too--and I'm looking for this cool timeline I found, so stay tuned...
posted by y2karl at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2002


Hooray for y2karl! This is a great country, and wisdom about it begins with a keen study and (even) appreciation for the totally wacky phenomenon of blackface minstrelry. It's at the heart of all that followed.
posted by Faze at 7:06 AM on March 14, 2002


raysmj -- couldn't say too much about Elvis's personal beliefs, but I do think he popularized (and profited from) a bunch of music that was basically created by black artists. I could be wrong tho, I'll take a look at the book you mentioned...
posted by daver at 10:09 AM on March 14, 2002


raysmj -- couldn't say too much about Elvis's personal beliefs, but I do think he popularized (and profited from) a bunch of music that was basically created by black artists. I could be wrong tho, I'll take a look at the book you mentioned... Under the circumstances, it's not hard to imagine that those who created the music might feel a bit slighted...
posted by daver at 10:09 AM on March 14, 2002


daver - Elvis was strongly influenced by black music, as just about any poor white kid living in 1950's Memphis would be. He was also influenced by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Dean Martin. He also gave props to his black inspirations and got plenty of white folks listening to black artists as well.

To quote Little Richard-"I thank God for Elvis Presley."
posted by jonmc at 11:39 AM on March 14, 2002


nice linking y2karl!

i saw this show on pbs called art21 and one of the segments showcased the work of michael ray charles, which is influenced by blackface minstrelsy. i thought this interview with him was really interesting. he touches on the connection between minstrel performances and advertising.

also on display at the site are two pieces he did, after black & before black (to see or not to see) and (liberty bros. permanent daily circus) blue period. and he has a google directory :)
posted by kliuless at 2:46 PM on March 14, 2002


Well, Snopes.com has two Urban Legend pages on Elvis’s alleged racism. It’s interesting to find out that one began with a sentence in a V.S. Naipaul novel. The subject comes up in Race, Rock And Culture (another review here) and 'Strange Things Happening Everyday': Race, Class and the Music of Elvis Presley: Memphis 1948-1955. And Hmmm, Elvis Culture… Interesting to note, too, that William Henry Lane aka Master Juba, the father of tapdance was a minstrel show performer, and, that there are still minstrel show fans today.As for that timeline, well, I’m still trying to find it… this will do for now.
posted by y2karl at 3:35 PM on March 14, 2002


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