Popular music generally reflects the time in which it was produced. Minstrelsy is a term representing a genre of music that arose in the early-to-mid 19th century. During this time period the chains of the civil war were being broken, but the racial tensions were stronger than ever. The music of this genre exaggerated actual black circumstances and strengthened vicious stereotypes (Brundage 35).
Minstrelsy was synonymous with the term blackface. Blackface describes the way in which minstrel entertainers would perform (Brundage 6). As if the word itself didn’t already give it away, the performers would paint their faces black and act out exaggerated skits or dance wildly around the stage. They would also perform songs in which the black stereotypes of the day were reinforced. Since this era lacked the technology of recording, the continuation of the minstrel tradition relied on observation and replication. What we know of minstrel music however, comes from sheet music. One example of minstrel music that is on the more mild side of the spectrum would be Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”.
Link to the sheet music: http://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/catalog/levy:058.101
When viewing the sheet music to “Old Folks at Home” it becomes apparent that Foster is portraying a runaway slave. He even writes the words as if they are being sung in the dialect of a southern slave. Foster writes, “All de world am sad and dreary ebry where I roam”, portraying a slave that longs to be back on the plantation. This song was written before the end of the Civil War in 1851 and most likely served the purpose of entertaining whites and discouraging slaves from running away. “Old Folks at Home” has remained popular throughout history though, as one of the most popular minstrel songs. Here is a link to listen to a version of the song being performed.
Minstrel shows would bring in crowds of middle class white people looking for some good entertainment. They considered this to be exotic as blacks and slavery were merely a distant idea to these pre-civil war northerners. While the acts were dehumanizing as well as inaccurate, this offensive performance did pave the way for black performers to bust onto the scene post-Civil War.
Example of a 1950s Minstrel Show:
1. “Old Folks At Home. Suwanee [sic] River. Route to Florida. A Souvenir. – The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.” Old Folks At Home. Suwanee [sic] River. Route to Florida. A Souvenir. – The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection. Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
2. “Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Minstrel Show Comedy.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
3. “OLD FOLKS AT HOME – Original 1851 Verses – Tom Roush.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
4. “Blackface!Minstrel Shows.” Blackface! N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
5. Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2011. Print.