THE MINSTREL SHOW’S
CONTRIBUTION TO FOLK MUSIC
By Tom Faigin
Although Americans like William Billings wrote revolutionary war songs and hymns, most Americans during the early 1800’s tended to copy British and European styles in music as well as clothing and literature. However, after the War of 1812, the American frontier acted as a magnet to Americans seeking land and freedom. This, in turn, helped create a new culture based on new experiences and problems. For example, religious restrictions against dancing helped develop the play party song. When the dancers sang the songs as they danced, they were not considered sinful, and as a result, hundreds of new songs such as "Skip to My Lou" and "Buffalo Gals" were created on the frontier as young people flirted and courted each other to the music.
New itinerant songwriters appeared between 1830—1850, composing new tunes based on existing folk melodies. Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work, Daniel Emmett and Thomas Daddy Rice, all professional songwriters, traveled throughout the South by steamship and river boat, observing and notating song ideas from plantation slaves. The slaves, having learned many of their songs and dances from traveling Irish musicians, modified and played jigs and reels on homemade fiddles and banjos. The banjo itself was a slave invention, but the music became more rhythmic and syncopated as the slaves added African musical techniques. Plantation lore also made rich use of farm and wild animals that the slaves observed and imitated in their daily lives. The juba dance, the cakewalk, the turkey trot and the buzzard lope all had their origin in plantation life.
Thomas Daddy Rice was the first to create the idea of the comical plantation Negro when he observed a black stable groom in Louisville, Kentucky. He was old and bent over as he sang and danced a little song:
Wheel about and turn about and do just so,
Every time I wheeled about 1 jump Jim Crow.
Rice blackened his face with burnt cork, sang songs in a Southern Negro dialect and became a star overnight. In 1843 the Virginia Minstrels created a sensation at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York with their snappy songs, dances and comedy routines. This group was followed by many others, all attempting to cash in on a perfect formula for the new art form.
At first there was no set pattern to the minstrel show, but gradually it developed into four sections, consisting of solos as well as ensemble performances. Solos were sung in Negro dialect and they usually poked fun of the ragged, black plantation slave. Sometimes the slave was portrayed as a trickster who outsmarted authority or else he became the butt of other peoples’ jokes. He was usually poorly dressed, but often he appeared on stage as a highly—spirited city dandy in Long—tailed blue dress coat and was variously called Old Zip Coon, Dandy Jim or just Jim Crow. Although many minstrel songs derided the Negro, other songs poked inn of the arty, the pretentious and even opera and classical music. The following minstrel verse pokes fun of the great violinists Ole Bull and Paganini:
Loud de banjo talked away
And Ole Bull from Norway
We'll take the shine from Paganini;
We're the boys from Ole Virginny.
Some minstrel performers were active in political and social causes around the time of the Civil War. The Fighting Hutchinson Family, the most famous minstrel family, performed during the 1840’s and ‘50’s, sang against slavery and supported women in their struggle to vote. Also against the use of alcohol, they sang songs like "Temperance and Liberty," "Young Man Shun That Cup" and "Father’s a Drunkard and Mother’s Dead."
Oddly enough, the Southern anthem "Dixie" was written by Dan Emmett, a Northern minstrel composer. He wrote it over a weekend in 1859 for a new show he was putting together, but it became an enormous hit and Southerners began singing it as a patriotic hymn. When the tune became a Confederate marching song, Emmett was attacked by abolitionist newspapers and his group, Bryant’s Minstrels, was banned from performing in Northern cities during the Civil War.
Although the minstrel show perpetuated Negro stereotypes, it also helped blacks enter the field of show business after the Civil War. Early black minstrel troupes such as Mahara’s Minstrels and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels corked their faces as custom demanded and performed in a self—mocking manner that degraded their race. However, this was the beginning of their entry into professional show business and blacks continued to call themselves minstrels up to the start of World War I. James Bland (1854—1911), a black composer, was the only notable minstrel song writer of the late nineteenth century. Of the 200 songs he wrote, his most famous were "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" and "In the Evening by the Moonlight."
Although the minstrel show became extremely popular in Northern cities, its vitality and folk quality came from its humble Southern folk origins —— the plantations, the frontier and the rivers used for navigation and transportation. Early hillbilly music is filled with many examples of early minstrel songs and even the five—string banjo remained popular in the white rural South long after its demise in the black community.
Uncle Dave Macon, a great banjo player and entertainer, served as a link between nineteenth century minstrel music and modern country music. Born in McMinnville, Tennessee in 1870, Uncle Dave was very early influenced by minstrel entertainers when his parents opened a theatrical boarding house in Nashville. He picked up banjo techniques and comedy routines from the minstrel men, as well as many songs that he later performed on his recordings and personal appearances. The early hillbilly string bands of the 1920’s such as the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers often featured fiddle and banjo versions of old minstrel songs.
All in all, even though the minstrel show created racial stereotypes, it gave professional composers a vehicle for their new material and fed newly—composed songs
into an ever—expanding folk tradition. While it gave blacks their first crack at professional show business, it also enriched the repertory of Southern country music. Like the Negro spiritual, the minstrel show was a uniquely American art form.
Tom Faigin is a guitar and banjo teacher in the San Fernando Valley since 1960 and is on staff at many schools, colleges and
music organizations. He lectured on American Folk Music front 1982 1985 at Cal. State Los Angeles.