Behind The Blackface

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Spurred on by Rice’s phenomenal success, many blackface performers in the 1830’s did primitive fieldwork among black people. Billy Whillock, who toured the South with circuses in the 1830’s, would “steal off to some negro hut to hear the darkies sing and see them dance, taking a jug of whisky to make things merrier.” Ben Cotton, another blackface star, also recalled studying black culture at its source: “I used to sit with them in front of their cabins, and we would start the banjo twanging, and their voices would ring out in the quiet night air in their weird melodies.” Similarly, E. P. Christy, later the leader of the famous Christy Minstrels, was fascinated with the “queer words and simple but expressive melodies” he heard from black dock workers in New Orleans.

In the winter of 1842–43, four Ethiopian delineators—Billy Whitlock, Frank Pelham, Frank Brower, and Dan Emmett—found themselves in New York City “between engagements.” Single bookings were hard to find, so they decided to unite and stage the first entire show of blackface entertainment. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they were an instant sensation. Soon there were minstrel troupes almost everywhere. In 1844 the Ethiopian Serenaders played before President John Tyler at the White House. Eight years later, Buckley’s Serenaders performed in the new state of California. In New York City, a synagogue was converted into Wood’s Minstrel Hall, one of at least ten major minstrel houses in the city in the 1850’s. And when Commodore Perry’s fleet forced its way into Japan, his crew chose to introduce American culture with a minstrel show.

During the next half century, the minstrel show would be the most popular form of entertainment in America, for it was perfectly suited to the tastes of everyday Americans. As the upbeat overture quieted the noisy crowd and the curtain rose, the eight minstrels would burst into action, strutting, singing, waving their arms, banging their tambourines, and prancing around a semicircle of chairs. Finally the dignified man in the middle, the interlocutor, established order by commanding: “Gentlemen, be seated!” “Mr. Bones,” the interlocutor said, enunciating clearly as he turned toward the “end” man, a comedian with grotesque, pop-eyed, grinning make-up, “I understand you went to the ball game yesterday afternoon. You told me you wanted to go to your mother-in-law’s funeral.” “I did want to,” the end man shot back, “but she ain’t dead yet.” More jokes followed before the interlocutor introduced a handsome tenor, who sang “Mother I’ve Come Home to Die,” or some similar sentimental ballad. “These mournful ditties form the staple of the first part,” wrote one fan in 1879. “But there is occasionally a rattling comic song by Brudder Bones. He dances to the tune, he throws open the lapel of his coat, and in a final spasm of delight, he stands upon his head on the chair seat and for a thrilling and evanescent instant extends his nether extremities in the air.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

At the intermission the patrons had another drink while the minstrels changed out of their formal wear in preparation for the olio, a variety show which included “banjoists; men with performing dogs or monkeys; Hottentot overtures;… song and dance men; the water-melon man; persons who play upon penny whistles, combs, Jew’s-harps, bagpipes, quills, their fingers—individuals, in fact, who do every thing by turns, but nothing long.” For part three, the curtain rose on a plantation scene complete with cotton bales, a white-columned house, a smoking steamboat, and blackface “darkies.” A banjo rang out, signaling the beginning of a raucous party that concluded with the entire troupe singing “the wild bars of some plantation tune,” dancing wildly, and doing “any grotesquerie, so long as it is not indecent.” The audience joined in until the theater shook with foot-stomping, hand-clapping, singing, dancing, laughing people.

Minstrelsy produced some of America’s most beloved and enduring popular songs-“Jim Along Josey,” “De Blue Tail Fly,” “Dance, Boatman, Dance,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Dixie”— and it gave America the melodies of Stephen Foster. Born in Pittsburgh in 1826, Foster was exposed in his youth to all types of music. His family taught him the refined, genteel music heard in respectable parlors; the family’s Negro servant took him to her church, where he heard spirituals; and he blacked up to sing songs like “Jump Jim Crow” in a local theater. His genius as a songwriter was that he combined the qualities of black and white folk music in songs that were easy to sing and play. Beginning in 1848, minstrels made many of his songs into national hits, including “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”