It is told that Minstrel shows began in the 1840’s, and then peaked after the Civil War. They
remained popular into the early 1900's. Minstrelsy was a product of its time, the only entertain-
ment form born out of blind bigotry. Like the Medicine shows the minstrel shows, white men
would paint their faces black and do songs and skits that lived out the life of the slaves and
the slave life on the Southern plantations.
Blackface performers were big and their banjo music, clatter of tambo and bones, tambourine,
and dancing was very popular. White men would smear charcoal or burnt cork on their faces
and tell jokes and dance. Many circus performances had these blackface performers.
Burnt cork achieved new levels of popularity in the early 1800's when white entertainer Thomas
Rice caused a nationwide sensation with the song "Jumpin' Jim Crow." Inspired by his solo
efforts, Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels debuted at New York's Bowery Amphitheater in 1843.
The Virginia Minstrels introduced several hit songs that are still heard today, including "Polly
Wolly Doodle" and "Blue Tail Fly." Similar all-white companies soon toured the US and Europe.
Although short on production values, these shows became the most popular form of stage
entertainment in the United States. By 1856, New York City had ten full time resident companies,
and twice that many a decade later.
Minstrelsy were mostly all male and continued to grow in the North and South throughout the
Civil War. The minstrel song "Dixie" was a big hit and became the unofficial anthem of the
Confederacy. Early years blacks were not allowed to perform on stage with whites, with time
the laws changed and more blacks began to perform in the minstrels. The minstrelsy did
provide a place for the blacks to perform and become more professional.
In 1890 The Creole Show had female performers and toured for years and then went to the
New York's Standard theater, which was on off-Broadway burlesque house, and ran there for
over five years. After the turn of the century and by 1910 the minstrel show was no longer a
popular form of entertainment.
Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races," "My Old Kentucky Home," "O Susanna" and "Old Folks
at Home" were all popularized by minstrelsy. Singer-comic Dan Emmett composed several
popular tunes including "Dixie." In the years following the Civil War, James Bland became
America's first popular black composer with such minstrel hits as "O, Dem Golden Slippers"
and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." Much of the music was sheet music that traveled with
the show and was played on the piano. Ernest Hogan wrote "All Coons Look Alike to Me," and
it became a huge hit, and people began to talk of "coon songs" -ragtime songs that reflected
black culture. There were even the racist songs composed by George M. Cohan and Irving
This minstrelsy inspired Al Jolson and he toured with Dockstader's Minstrels before he went
to the vaudeville stage then on to Broadway and Hollywood, where he immortalized his black-
face routines in several films. He also performed in the historic The Jazz Singer in 1927.
The minstrelsy was the roots of the classier version of musical variety entertainment and set
the stage for vaudeville.
to be continued
© 1998-2010 Benford E. Standley. All Rights Reserved.
This can in no way be copied or distributed.
We would love your help continuing this story...if you have any important dates or
information that helps us tell the story of the evolution of the music and
entertainment business send them to us and we will add to KICKIN' UP DUST