Minstrel Shows: Popularity and Demise
While almost all minstrel companies prior to the Civil War were white performers in blackface, in the years following the war minstrel companies consisting of freed slave performers were equally as popularity with audiences as their white counterparts. Intriguingly, the African-American minstrel groups kept much of the minstrel formula, content, and spirit, even so far as donning burnt cork, exaggerated white lips and performing in blackface. To the popular and minstrel songs of white composers like Dan Emmett and Stephen Foster were added one of the first African-American songwriters, James Bland, who penned such 19th century classics as “O Dem Golden Slippers” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (which became the state song of Virginia in 1940). It has been estimated that Bland, born free and one of the first African-Americans in the United States to receive a college education, composed over 600 songs, of which only thirty-eight are known today. He spent much of the decade of the 1880s in Europe where he was able to perform his songs without blacking up his face. When he returned to America in the 1890s the minstrel show had passed in America and with it, his popularity.
At its peak, minstrel shows, performers and companies were followed fanatically by portions of Reconstruction audiences. Newspapers advertised upcoming appearances by companies and published features about well-known performers. Minstrel songs were printed and the sheet music sold to the public. Stump speeches were transcribed complete with the performer’s dialectic pronunciation and sold in comic “almanacs” and collections to the public. All-black minstrel shows and all-female minstrel shows found audiences in the 1870s.
At the beginning of the 1880s minstrel shows were beginning to morph and were being replaced by newer, less stereotypical forms. By the 1890s the slapstick humor, jocular sparring and exaggerated physical movement had been tempered; black minstrel shows were giving way to black musical theatre. It was in these final decades of decline that minstrel shows yielded one final, infamous musical staple: the “coon song.” The derogatory, offensive stereotypes of the uneducated, lazy, “Jim Crow”, the urban dandy “Zip Coon,” and other ignorant and insulting caricatures were the starting points for countless coon songs of the last two decades of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th centuries. Typical of the coon songs of this period was “All Coons Look Alike to Me” by African-American songwriter Ernest Hogan. Ironically, the final breath of the minstrel show form was marked by the performance of a vaudeville show which was the first to be written, directed and performed by black performers; it was titled A Trip to Coontown.
While most welcomed the end of the minstrel era, a few staunch critics eschewed the arrival of the monstrous stage productions being launched. Yearning for the days of simpler theatre, one critic in 1893 wrote an article entitled “Old Time Minstrelsy” where he said:
“However numerous the company, however extensive the programme, however expensive the talent, however elaborate the costumes, however gorgeous the mountings, there is still something lacking in the minstrel shows; what is lacking are the half-dozen versatile entertainers with blackened faces, sharp wits and limber legs.”
As repulsive and distasteful as the minstrel show is to our senses, it played a crucial role in the development of an indigenous musical theatre form in America. Together with the melodrama, the minstrel show broke American theatres free from the British and European ballad and comic opera forms. The essential concepts of minstrel humor: irreverent parody, slapstick, ethnic stereotypes, exaggerated costumes and broad physicality, as well as the “specialities” acts, would later find their way into the burlesque, revue, and vaudeville shows leading into the 20th century.
While the musical theatre forms in 18th century America were almost exclusively patterned after the ballad and comic operas of Europe, beginning early in the 19th century new musical forms were finding their way to the stage.