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Thursday, 2 June 2016

Minstrel show

The first uniquely American show business form, the minstrel show, began in the 1840s. These minstrels were white men who painted their faces black and performed songs in crude, often racist, imitations of black musicians.

The popularity of the blacked-up characters dates from about 1828, when English actor Charles Matthew, performed a show A Trip to America,  as a black faced minstrel. His act evolved from the "Ethiopian delineators" of the 1820s - the early name for black-faced white entertainers.

George Dixon (1808-61) was one of the first performers to act out skits and songs in blackface and is credited with creating the first "black play", Love in a Cloud (1829). His performances in New York in the early 1830s first raised interest in minstrel shows.

In 1830 Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice created his archetypal slave character Jim Crow. Appearing on stage in Blackface, he introduced a song called "Jump Jim Crow." The lyrics were inspired by the antics of a young African American boy that Rice saw near the stage door, while taking a fresh air break from the show.


At first a solo act, minstrels grew to four performers of violin, banjo, bones and tambourine with the Virginia Minstrels, founded by Dan Emmett.

The first show in America by a group of minstrels, The Original Virginia Minstrels, opened at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City on February 6, 1843. Despite the burnt cork, the Virginia Minstrels' repertoire drew heavily on traditional English choral singing and melancholy parlor ballads.

Detail from cover of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843

The first American to make a career of writing songs was Stephen Foster, who began by composing for minstrel shows. In contrast to the typically crude minstrel songs, Foster specialized in sweet, sentimental pieces.

Edwin Pearce Christy (November 28, 1815 – May 21, 1862), the founder of the Christy Minstrels show, started singing with two assistants in public houses in Buffalo, New York, in 1842. He enlarged his troop of black-faced minstrels, and from March 1847 they ran for a seven-year stint at New York City's Mechanics' Hall.

E.P. Christy

Christy is credited with creating many of the features of the classic minstrel show - the white-faced Mr. Interlocutor, the end men, Tambo and Bones, and the semi-circle of black face musicians.

The Christy Minstrels specialized in performances of Stephen Foster's works. The troupe's commercial success was huge: Christy paid Foster $15,000 for the exclusive rights to his song "Old Folks At Home."

1844 sheet music cover for a collection of songs by the Christy's Minstrels. George Christy appears in the circle at top.

By 1850, blackface minstrel shows were the national American artform, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. However, by the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show had been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. Amateur performances continued until the 1960s, but as the civil rights movement gained acceptance, minstrels lost their remaining popularity.

Sources Comptons Encyclopedia , Europress Encyclopedia

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