American Minstrel Music

Thomas Riis

in Music

ISBN: 9780199757824
Published online April 2017 | | DOI:
American Minstrel Music

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  • Ethnomusicology
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The American minstrel show began as a distinct category of theatrical entertainment in the northern and western parts of the United States during the early 19th century when first individual white male performers and later small groups took the stage in tatterdemalion costumes, their faces covered in burnt-cork make-up. With clownish garb and festive attitudes, they sang, danced, and played original music on vernacular oral-culture instruments (such as bone castanets, tambourines, fiddles, and banjos) combining rhythmic tunes with pseudo-dialect verses to accompany dancing and general merrymaking. Providing interludes within a larger theater piece or in short comic circus plays, minstrel entertainers incorporated new material to suit changing tastes over time. At least a decade before the institutional establishment of the “minstrel show” in 1840s America, several individual performers—most famously Thomas D. Rice—introduced blackface acts at home and abroad, trying out their latest songs and skits with fellow actors on both sides of the Atlantic to great popular acclaim. No specific set of musical traits defines all “American minstrel music,” since the collective term has to do explicitly with function. Music for use in a minstrel show varied stylistically over time, although a core repertory of sorts lasted over several decades. The longevity of the minstrel show as a major entertainment form—from 1850 to 1880 most large American towns had at least one and frequently several theaters devoted exclusively to minstrelsy—is owed partly to the ease by which the music for any given minstrel show could be swapped out as the need arose. New tunes might gain popularity rapidly by being added into a single prominent company’s repertory, which could in turn be imitated by other professionals as well as amateurs. The minstrel show’s first creators placed a premium on audience accessibility and making visible the actors’ energy, which also urged that the music be geared to mass taste and instant appreciation. The formulaic nature of minstrel shows increased as they grew in number in the 1850s and enticed a larger middle-class audience, a development that also enhanced their appeal for amateur white thespians then and later; the post–Civil War era saw the entry of large numbers of African-American men, who also used blackface make-up, into the professional ranks of minstrels, a somewhat startling development given the strongly racialized character of much minstrel material.

Article.  13174 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy

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