Minstrel shows were a type of entertainment that originated before the American Civil War
and continued to be popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The show consisted of white performers appearing in blackface
, often sitting in a semicircle on the stage and taking turns performing a variety of acts. The shows often had two emcees known as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. The shows were heavily based on mocking and lampooning stereotypical black culture, but the music was also taken seriously for its artistic merit.
The minstrel show is significant for several reasons:
- Minstrel shows were the first uniquely American form of artistic expression. Like Vaudeville and Burlesque, they were were Variety Shows, featuring a mix of song, dance, sketch comedy and stand-up comedy. These forms combined with aspects of Operetta contributed to the development of American Musical Theater.
- The minstrel show was one of the few ways that actual black performers were seen by a large audience. They would also appear in blackface and often disguised the fact that they were actually black. There were, however, several famous black minstrel show performers.
- The musical performance portions were initially white parodies of black music, but the parodies became so popular that they spawned a legitimate genre of African-influenced music.
- In The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson plays a young Jewish man who longs to be a popular singer instead of a religious cantor as his father wants him to be. The songs that Jolson sings, however, are minstrel show tunes sung on blackface. The most popular song is "Mammy," which was often parodied in bizarre Looney Tunes cartoons.
- Bert Williams, the famous comedian signed by Florenz Ziegfeld for the Ziegfeld Follies was from the West Indies, yet performed in blackface.
- In Everybody Sing (1938), Judy Garland breaks into Broadway by way of a minstrel-show production.
- In Babes on Broadway (1941) — third of the Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland "backyard musicals," where the kids in the local high school put on a show — their show is a blackface minstrel show.
- In Swanee River (1940), Al Jolson plays 19th-Century minstrel-man E.P. Christie, introducing the songs of Stephen Foster to America. Watch Jolson in blackface, with a whole minstrel troupe, singing "Oh Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home/Swanee River" — practically every song Foster ever wrote was meant to be sung by white men in blackface, dressed like clowns. (In the case of "Old Folks at Home" one can tell from the lyrics — "Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary." Never in American history did black people typically address each other as "darkies," they used the n-word a lot but never "darkies," that's a word you'll scarcely find outside of minstrel-song lyrics.)
- In Yes Mr. Bones (1951), a young boy finds himself in a home for retired minstrel-show acts, and there are flashbacks to the genre's glory days — perhaps the most recent film where one can see a serious attempt to reconstruct such performances as they once were, played entirely straight for their own sake; and probably the last film made for which any living minstrel-show veterans were available. (The professional minstrel-show troupes died out by 1910, unable to compete with Vaudeville; but, minstrelsy survived for a while in one-act format within Vaudeville shows; and amateur, high-school and college productions of full-length minstrel shows continued well into the 1950s.)
- In the Jazz Age generally, minstrelsy somehow synergized with the Harlem Renaissance to produce forms of minstrelsy apparently intended (by their white performers) as tributes to contemporary African-American art rather than mockery. Eddie Cantor was big on this. In Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), the eponymous Connecticut-Yankee-style time traveler, at the court of Harun al-Rashid, puts on blackface and leads a crowd of actual Africans in performing a big song-and-dance production, "Swing Is Here to Sway."
- Sir Roderick Glossop appears in blackface to entertain his fiancee's young son in one of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels.
- Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled is about a black TV producer who creates a modern-day minstrel show. The producer intends for it to be a satire but, to his horror, it becomes popular.
- In the All in the Family episode "Birth of the Baby", Archie's lodge puts on a ministrel show. When Mike argues that this offends black people, Archie says that it won't, because they are not allowed in anyway.
- The minstrel song "Jump Jim Crow" became so popular that it entered the popular vernacular of its time, mostly as a slur, and ultimately gave its name to the American Jim Crow laws.
- "Dixie," likewise, originally was written (in the 1850s) as a minstrel-show number, and that's a blackface character wishing (for whatever reason) he was in the land of cotton.
- The BBC ran its Black and White Minstrel Show on TV until 1978. It continued as a stage show until 1987. It's now pretty much the standard UK allusion for "embarrassingly racist past pop culture".
- On Mad Men, Roger Sterling performs one at his wedding reception. As the series is set in the early 1960s and therefore on edge of where the such acts began to be commonly viewed as inappropriate, it causes a bit of uneasiness with some audience members.
- White Christmas includes a minstrel show sequence as part of the Show Within a Show. The (white) performers are not in blackface.
- In Holiday Inn, released just a few years earlier in 1942, the comparable minstrel show sequence does include blackface.
- This PSA uses blackface rappers Shuck and Jive (black men wearing blackface) to demonstrate the minstrel-like buffoonery that a great deal of rap and hip-hop music is descending into. Notable in part because it was produced by hip-hop legend Nas (who does the voiceover at the beginning).
- In Little Town on the Prairie, Pa Ingalls and his friends dress in blackface and put on a minstrel show for the town.
- Given an oblique reference in The Hunting of the Snark. When the Banker is driven mad by the Bandersnatch, his face turns black and he 'rattled a couple of bones'. In other words, he is behaving like the Mr Bones character from a minstrel show.
- Blackface: The standard attire for minstrel shows, in case the racist elements weren't apparent enough already.
- Delusions of Eloquence: A common source of comedy in minstrel shows was portraying stupid and oafish black characters with delusions of sophistication.
- Ear Worm: Some of the best-known and catchiest early American music was written for these shows. "Dixie," "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Oh, Susannah," "I Dream Of Jeanie"... The works of Stephen Foster are particularly notable examples.
- Feghoot: The patter often included outrageous and convoluted puns.
- Gospel Choirs Are Just Better: Minstrel shows introduced spirituals (then called "Jubilees") to white audiences in the 1870s, marking (says Wikipedia) "the first undeniably black music to be used in minstrelsy."
- Grandfather Clause: Despite the cringeworthy racism, there's no denying their historical influence on American theater and music.
- Hurricane of Puns: A staple in the "Stump Speech" sequence.
- Mammy: One of the stock characters, who sometimes went by the name "Aunt Jemima". note
- N-Word Privileges: Interestingly, the N-word itself didn't appear much. The epithet of choice was the admittedly not much better "Darkies"— though as noted, it wasn't really ever used outside of the minstrel shows themselves.
- Spiritual Successor: Vaudeville followed many of the standards established by the Minstrel Show format, though abandoning most of the racial overtones. The racist elements, meanwhile, evolved into Modern Minstrelsy and Uncle Tomfoolery.
- Stock Shticks: Many of the stock minstrel jokes have passed into folklore. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "Why does a fireman wear red suspenders?" "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" note
- Uncle Tomfoolery: Basically the entire point was to play black stereotypes for laughs for white audiences, without any hint of the real-world struggles of slavery and segregation, usually giving a romanticized version of slaves happy with plantation life. Taken even more literally when black performers played with the same tropes, although, to be fair, that was the only chance most black performers had to be in front of wealthy white audiences in those days.
- Unfortunate Implications: Oh, man... where to even begin?
- As well as the egregious racism, minstrel routines often included viciously sexist material against black women and suffragettes.
- Values Dissonance: Most audiences of the day would have seen minstrel shows as harmless good fun. Attitudes began to shift around the time of The American Civil War with increasing awareness of the evils of slavery; and by the turn of the twentieth century they had been mostly supplanted by Vaudeville. These days, of course, it's pretty much impossible to look at any Minstrel Show media without cringing at the blatant racism.