Minstrel shows were a type of American 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 (though there was the occasional troupe of authentically black performers that popped up every now and then), 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, named for the percussion instruments they traditionally played: a tambourine and a pair of animal ribs. 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 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.
Although minstrel shows no longer exist, they have had an enormous impact on American pop culture, with minstrel songs such as Camptown Races and Oh! Susanna becoming highly familiar tunes, and many modern listeners being unaware of their minstrel origins. Many people in modern times might also be unaware that the popular joke "Why did the chicken cross the road?" is connected to minstrel shows as well. Some people such as film director Spike Lee have argued that modern American entertainment media starring black people is rooted in the legacy of minstrel shows.
Definitely not to be confused with Wandering Minstrel.
- 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 cartoons of the time.
- Bert Williams, the famous comedian signed by Florenz Ziegfeld for the Ziegfeld Follies was from the West Indies, yet performed in blackface.
- The 1936 film version of Show Boat includes an in-story minstrel show performance of the song "Gallivantin' Aroun'", with Irene Dunne 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 Thank You, Jeeves. Bertie Wooster also smears on some shoe polish as part of a Zany Scheme to blend in with a visiting minstrel troop and escape a Shotgun Wedding.
- As part of its satire of American race relations, the music video for "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson features the pair parodying minstrel shows by donning identical makeup (which doesn't involve blackface but still alludes to it) and performing a vaudeville act.
- The music video for Grace Jones' "Living My Life" depicts Jones trapped in an abstract interpretation of a minstrel show, surrounded by mocking ballerinas in caricatured blackface masks. The ballerinas, a curt reference to the Delusions of Eloquence trope's prevalence in minstrelsy, are contrasted by Jones' defiant performance as part of her commentary on the relationship between black performers like herself and the entertainment industry.
- Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled is about a black TV producer who creates a modern-day minstrel show. The producer pitches it in an attempt to get fired from his network (and especially his Pretty Fly for a White Guy boss), but to his horror, it becomes popular.
- In the All in the Family episode "Birth of the Baby", Archie's lodge puts on a minstrel 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 in 1942, has a minstrel show sequence that includes 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.
- In Utopia, Limited, the king of the ambiguously brown Utopians convenes a cabinet meeting with his white English advisersnote and asks how such meetings are handled in England, for the Utopians desire to be like the English in all ways.Why? The meeting proceeds in the style of a Christy Minstrel act. The scene's song, "Society has quite forsaken all her wicked courses" uses a minstrel show tune with original lyrics. The advisers do not wear blackface, if only because doing so for just the one scene would be logistically impractical in a stage play, but many productions put the Utopians in brownface or simply cast actors of appropriate ethnicities if such are available.
King Paramount: We take your word for it that this is all right. You are not making fun of us? This is in accordance with the practice at the Court of St. James?noteMr. Dramaleigh: Well, it is in accordance with the practice at the Court of St. James' Hall.noteKing: Oh! It seems odd, but never mind.
- Looney Tunes:
- At the end of Fresh Hare, when the firing squad prepares to execute Bugs, Elmer tells him that he can make one last wish. Bugs suddenly sings "Dixie" and the scene then, in a Non Sequitur, transitions into a minstrel show, where Elmer, Bugs and the firing squad, now all in blackface, perform the chorus of "Camptown Races".
- A variant in Mississippi Hare: Right after the Exploding Cigar fiasco in which he gets an Ash Face, a banjo is put in Colonel Shuffle's hands while Bugs sings "Camptown Races" besides him.
- Tom and Jerry: The short Casanova Cat contains a scene where Tom blackens Jerry's face with cigar smoke and then forces Jerry to tap-dance for his girlfriend Toodles by lighting up the metal plate Jerry was standing on, like it was a little minstrel show.
- Screen Songs: The 1948 short Camptown Races is about a minstrel show performed by Funny Animals.
- The Buster Keaton short The Playhouse features a scene where Keaton plays all nine members of a minstrel show. (And all the orchestra members and everybody in the audience, and a stagehand.)
Tropes associated with Minstrel Shows:
- Bowdlerise: Many songs that were written for minstrel shows remain popular today, notably the works of Stephen Foster, but are generally described as "early American songs" and are treated as children's songs without reference to their minstrel origins. Most of the racist language is quietly Bowdlerized.
- Blackface: The standard attire for minstrel shows, in case the racist elements weren't apparent enough already.
- Chicken Joke: Robin Bernstein's 2011 book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights pinpoints the origin of this trope to minstrel show endmen, who used it and similar Anti-Humor jokes as part of the overarching theme surrounding black people trying and failing to assimilate into white society.
- The Coconut Effect: Actual black performers often had to use blackface makeup to accentuate their lips in order to look more like a white actor in blackface.
- Condemned by History: Minstrel shows were some of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, being viewed as good, clean, light comedy, and were very culturally significant as one of the first uniquely American forms of artistic expression. As times changed, however, the nasty racial undertones that lay at the core of the genre fundamentally discredited it after World War II. Nowadays, minstrels shows are viewed as a reminder of a racist past.
- Dead Horse Trope: While it would be a stretch to say that racism is completely extinct, the more overt displays of it are certainly no longer generally acceptable. The elements that do remain in present-day society are sanitized to remove the original anti-black overtones.
- Delusions of Eloquence: A common source of comedy in minstrel shows was portraying stupid and oafish black characters with delusions of sophistication, particularly through dandy characters and in "stump speeches".
- Fair for Its Day: Firstly, as stated above this was one of the few ways that actual black performers could be seen by a large audience. Secondly, all the black characters were deliberately dressed in the most dapper clothes possible specifically to curtail the stereotype of black people as uncultured barbaric savages. Thirdly, we must remember that there was a time when just having a black character in the first place was enough to piss off the Klan.
- 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:
- As mentioned in The Black and White Minstrel Show example, it was first broadcast in 1957 but continued to air until 1978 and did live performances until 1989, long after minstrel shows were considered unacceptable in most media.
- Similarly, the trend of cartoon characters wearing white gloves (e.g. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny) originated in minstrel shows, but there's been no real push to drop them from character designs.
- Happiness in Slavery: Many Minstrel Show songs had lyrics in which the narrators looked back nostalgically on the good times they allegedly had on the "old plantation."
- 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.
- Old Shame: To American culture as a whole.
- Spiritual Successor: Vaudeville and Recorded and Stand-Up Comedy followed many of the standards established by the Minstrel Show format (with the latter specifically taking after Stump Speeches), though abandoning most of the racial overtones. The racist elements, meanwhile, evolved into Modern Minstrelsy and Uncle Tomfoolery.
- 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.
- 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. Even then, they were still romanticized for years and were regularly and affectionately referenced in pop culture until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement similarly shed light on the evils of segregation and wider black disenfranchisement. Following this, it's pretty much impossible to look at any Minstrel Show media without cringing at the blatant racism.