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Minstrel Shows

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The songs, caricatures, skits and comic patter of the minstrel shows were an attempt to reflect a white society’s idealized and stereotypical view of the African-American life on the plantation in the South. Since most minstrel shows were created and performed in the urban centers of the North, perhaps the urge by white society to create a romanticized and sentimentalized version of reality was an attempt to create artistically an alternative world where African-American slaves were completely good-natured and light-hearted, living a happy and satisfying life on the plantation. A portrayal of the reality of the slave’s life, filled with cruelty, anxiety, danger, and death, would have been much too disconcerting to the audiences gathered for an evening at the theatre.

By the 1850s the minstrel show had grown to rival the melodrama as the most popular form of theatre entertainment. While some of the songs and dances were adapted from authentic African-American culture, the increasing demand for new and different music caused minstrel companies and theatres to become the first American stage form to commission music to be written specifically for its performances. Dan Emmitt’s “Dixie” and Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” and “Oh, Susanna!” are examples of composed songs patterned after the authentic sounds of African-American culture in the mid-18th century and used in minstrel shows.

In addition to the songs and dances reflecting perceived African-American culture, the most significant characteristics of the minstrel shows centered on the presentation of stereotypical perceptions of “Negroes” as lazy, conniving, jesting, easy-going, and jocular – all done by white men in burnt cork blackface. As disturbing and offensive as this is today, the costumes, blackface, physical antics and stereotypes were as solidly accepted as the norm for minstrel shows in the antebellum period as the jewelry, clothing and gold teeth and posturing are in the hip-hop era of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Although some white actors in the 1820s were presenting exaggerated antics in blackface as skits in larger works, advertising themselves as “Ethiopian Delineators”, it wasn’t until Thomas Dartmouth Rice created the character “Jim Crow” in 1832 as an inter-act entertainment in dramatic and comic plays that the stereotypic character form for minstrel shows gained popularity. Rice’s blackface Jim Crow with his songs, dances and monologues were supposedly patterned after an elderly, crippled black stablehand Rice had watched while in Louisville, Kentucky. The shuffle dance, the contorted upper-body moves, the happy-go-lucky attitude and slurring dialect became common ingredients for many minstrel show characters. While the term “Jim Crow” is most often used in the past century to refer to laws and practices which discriminates against the African-American, in the 19th century it was perceived to be as innocuous and entertaining as the images of Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson or Buzz Lightyear are today.

While the character of Jim Crow spawned numerous “Ethiopian Delineators” of similar ilk, it wasn’t until 1843 that four blackface actors, under the leadership of Dan Emmett banded together to create the Virginia Minstrels – “a novel, grotesque, original, and surprisingly melodious Ethiopean Band.” The term “minstrel” was borrowed from the highly successful traveling Tyrolese Minstrel Family which had just passed through the area. Although the Virginia Minstrels only lasted less than a year, within a short time many imitators of the minstrel show sprung up such as Bryant’s Minstrels and Leon’s Minstrels. A similar minstrel group called the Ethiopian Serenaders performed at the White House for then President Tyler and his guests.

Without much doubt, the most successful of the minstrel companies of the 19th century was Christy’s Minstrels which during one season earned almost $320,000 charging $0.25 per ticket. The Christy Minstrels traveled to England where their shows created a furor of excitement and several unauthorized imitation companies. At one point, four different Christy Minstrel companies were performing in London, each vowing that they were the original. Edwin Christy was also responsible for commissioning Foster and others to write songs for his shows, which he not only used in the minstrel performances but then sold afterwards to the public as printed sheet music – with his own name listed as song composer.

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Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

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Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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