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The Structure of the Minstrel Show

The structure of the minstrel show, the first great indigenous American musical theatre art form, was broken into three parts or acts.

Minstrel Show, The First Part, 1878

Part One of the show featured the minstrel performers seated in a semi-circle onstage facing the audience. At either end of the performers, dressed in long blue coats, striped shirts and white trousers were two characters called Mr. Tambo (because of his instrument, the tambourine) and Mr. Bones (with his percussive rattlestick or bones). In the middle of the row of between four and 18 performers was Mr. Interlocutor, the Master of Ceremonies and brunt of many of the end men’s jokes, stories and good-natured sparring. The other members were singers or equipped with instruments to provide solos, duets, choruses or dances between the actions of the three main characters. Each element – skit, song, dance, or story – was completely independent of anything else. The performer strove to create in that moment, the highlight of the show. There was no plot, no connective theme or idea, but an eclectic smattering of humorous or entertaining moments.

Some of the oldest jokes in American culture were first aired in Part One to minstrel audiences: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?” Double entendres also assured 1850 audiences that the performers were in authentic blackface. “Why am I like a young widow” asks Mr. Tambo. Mr. Bones repeats the question before Mr. Tambo answers “Because I do not stay long in black!”

A typical interaction between straight-man (Interlocutor) and end man might sound like this:

INTERLOCUTOR: I saw you walking with a young lady yesterday.

END-MAN: Yes, and she saw you.

I: I know she did – she smiled at me. What do you think of that? She was with him and she smiled at me.

E: Smiled at you? That’s nothing. The first time I ever looked at you I laughed my head off.

I: Who is that young lady?

E: She’s an oculist in Horn and Hardart’s kitchen.

I: An oculist?

E: Yes. She takes the eyes out of the potatoes (pause for laughs). She’s related to the Burst family. Do you know John Burst?

I: Very well indeed.

E: He’s got three children.

I: What are their names?

E: Alice May Burst, James Wood Burst, and Henry Will Burst. (Laughter). They must be full of hot air and gas!

The finale of Act One (although sometimes delayed until the end of Act Three) was a “walk around” dance where the ensemble would sing and playing instruments while circling the stage – each member of the group taking a few moments at the center of the stage to preen, strut, caricature and perform for the audience’s approval. By the latter part of the 19th century, this walk-around had been given another name – “cakewalk” copying the term from the challenge-dances performed on southern plantations where black dancers would strut, high-step and jaunt in imitation of white folks at the fancy balls and gatherings. The couple that best entertained with their antic dance would win the coveted prize of a cake. The prize for the cakewalk at the end of the first part of the minstrel show was the audience’s acclaim and applause.

Act Two, called the Olio, was similar to Act One, minus the interlocutor and the end men, but often had extended monologues and stories, female impersonators (no women allowed in minstrel companies). A typical monologue was called a “stump speech,” where one actor would expound minstrel wisdom on subjects as varied as the power of music on women, the study of “Freenology” (Phrenology) or the afterlife awaiting. One stump speech, printed in Turner’s Comic Almanac (1851) scoffed at the guitar, or as it was titled – “Mozart – or De White Banjo”:

“Ya! ya! ya! dey calls dis yar instrument a gittar, but it’s only a white banjo, or de banjo ob de white folks. Ya, ya, ya! wid de addition ob a neck an shouldas to institute a thorax to put de lungs in, but lor bress me, de banjo doesn’t want any lungs, jist provide it wid a natural amount ob de bowels ob de puss, an de vibration darof will walk clar into de catacombs ob de subterraneous globe, an dessusitate de mummies ob de pyramids. Ya, ya! I’se Mosc-art, an I knows de art; de fust, an de last, an de best am “de black art.” Dis art has used up Bell-ina, Pagan-ninny, Aunty-ninny, an all de ober ninnies.”

Act Three was a complete break in type from the first two acts: an extended play or series of scenes reflecting the simple scenes of the imagined idyllic life on the plantation. A complete change in the nature of this final act took place when George Christy began including a “burlesqued” parody of a familiar play or current event. The melodrama Uncle Tom’s Cabin was lampooned to become Aunt Dinah’s Cabin or Happy Uncle Tom a story where the plot is twisted to fit a more amenable outcome for the black characters. The standards of theatrical repertoire weren’t considered sacrosanct: Shakespeare’s masterpiece MacBeth became a minstrel play titled Bad Breath.

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Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

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Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

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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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