Minstrel Shows: Disgrace or America’s Progenitive Entertainment Form?

Minstrel Shows: Disgrace or America’s Progenitive Entertainment Form?

Well, of course they were a disgrace—what else can one call music performed by slave masters which mockingly imitates their enslaved charges? (How many people reading this already know that minstrel shows were originally written and performed only by whites in blackface, and then, not until decades later, by blacks…also in blackface?) When I was researching the early antecedents of Broadway musicals for my book, I was fascinated to learn that one can trace the lineage of both musical comedy and most genres of American pop in almost a straight line backwards to the minstrel show of the 1830s. But I was nauseated, too, to learn that “Jim Crow” was originally the name of a stock character in American minstrelsy much beloved in ante- and postbellum America (stock characters in minstrel shows were much like those of the commedia dell’arte). Minstrel shows enacted by whites brought to the world many great Stephen Foster songs (as well as the tune “Dixie”) much the way radio “Top 40” hit parades popularized tunes from pop and rock in the 20th century. The minstrel show was the great-grand-daddy of modern American show business: the variety aspect of vaudeville, the dance steps of tap, and even the setup and punchlines lines of stand-up comedy, all grew directly out of this cultural rape of a people.

Furthermore, the circa-1840s minstrel show band was the original template for American pop’s rhythm section-based band. Minstrel show music typically consisted of violin, banjo, tambourine, and bones, but the music played always was based on what we would, in modern parlance, call a groove. All our pop music formats since—the jazz band, the dance and swing band, the rock band—are its direct descendants. (Of course, many world cultures have a vernacular music rhythm-band instrumentation, from Klezmer to Irish trad to Romany et al., and some scholars argue that most of the earliest American minstrel show music was based on Appalachian Anglo-Celtic rhythms faux-Africanized.)

Minstrel shows are also responsible for the fact that for a long, long time (and still today) the typical American musical entertainment (vaudeville, theater, and comedy) was built on ethnic stereotypes, not infrequently performed by the very ethnic groups that were its targets: “Dutch” comedy spoofed the Germans, the Irish spoofed the Irish (Harrigan and Hart), the Jews spoofed the Jews (Fanny Brice), even the sophisticated black comedians spoofed the blacks (Bert Williams). Notwithstanding all this, there is a wholesale cultural appropriation uniquely visited on African-American music. African-American ragtime was appropriated and acculturated by Irving Berlin and other songwriters; early jazz, by Paul Whiteman and swing bands; rhythm and blues and race records by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others; rap by white rappers, etc. The vernacular music of African-Americans has always cut the leading edge for a development that whites then participate in. And despite the great fame of jazz musicians like Armstrong and Ellington, there is a group of African-American transitional figures still on history’s fringes—important arranger-composers like Will Vodery, Harry Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, and James Reese Europe—who had a direct effect on mainstream music. Except to knowledgeable scholars, they are still largely under the radar.

Believe it or not, in the civil rights era of the 1960s the New York City Opera, no less, produced a modern version of the classic minstrel show. In 1955, after the succes d’estime of the musical The Golden Apple, producer Roger L. Stevens commissioned Apple’s composer Jerome Moross to write, with lyricist/librettist Edward Eager, a musical about the Civil War presented in the form of a minstrel show. Titled Gentlemen, Be Seated!—the title was the proverbial first line of dialogue spoken in a minstrel show—and designed as a musical with copious music, the project failed to find backing for many years until finally the Ford Foundation coughed up some money for three NYCO performances in October 1963. Moross—a superb composer of symphony, ballet, and theater, perhaps today most famous for his music to the movie The Big Country—told the New York Times before the premiere that “the minstrel show is the only indigenous theatrical form created in America.” Critic Harold Schonberg agreed, writing a long history and appreciation of the form in an article the Times published separately from his sympathetic yet highly equivocal review of Gentlemen, Be Seated!. Schonberg faulted the production primarily for not pursuing the minstrel show premise and devolving into mediocre musical comedy. But it did open with the four traditional characters: Mister Interlocutor, Mister Tambo, Mister Banjo, and Mister Bones. Avon Long, who played Mister Tambo, was actually an officer of the NAACP at the time and tried to defuse the PR problem. It would be very interesting to see a revival of this piece today (it certainly wasn’t an opera and shouldn’t have been presented in an opera house).

The minstrel show is America’s version of the Gordian Knot binding anathema politics to art that has plagued other countries, from Wagner and anti-Semitism to the fascist alliances of Pfitzner and Mascagni. Of course, the Nazis had slave labor, too, but they didn’t model a lasting popular art form on the Jewish victims they killed at Auschwitz. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and assimilation and acculturation are inevitable concomitants of benign artistic evolutions all over the globe. Even Busoni borrowed musical materials from the American Indian. But where do you draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural violation?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

18 thoughts on “Minstrel Shows: Disgrace or America’s Progenitive Entertainment Form?

  1. Chris Becker

    “All our pop music formats since—the jazz band, the dance and swing band, the rock band—are its direct descendants.”

    But I think you have to take into account the profound influence of the church (U.S., Southern, pre and post Civil war) on the harmonies, melodies and rhythms – even lyrics – in we now recognize as “pop” music. The church and its influences (and before it the spiritual, religious and ritualistic practices of peoples taken from all over Africa and later Ireland) were around in the U.S. long before the minstrel shows. The influence of the church is I believe far more pervasive and consistent on so-called “popular” music than the minstrel paradigm.

    “It would be very interesting to see a revival of this piece (The Golden Apple) today…”

    Sorry – I hope this doesn’t come across as argumentative, but wouldn’t it be more “interesting” and enjoyable to see and hear the many underperformed operatic works by our country’s African American composers?

  2. Chris Becker

    “But where do you draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural violation?”

    It’s important to establish a genuine empathetic relationship with a culture and not base your creative reactions to stereotypes. I think that may be a pretty accurate description of the minstrel paradigm – a creative culture birthed out of misunderstanding, fear and self-loathing. With such empathy, your work then isn’t about “appropriation” but instead about a dialog.

    A certain level of self-awareness is crucial. Many – well, ALL of the musicians I currently collaborate with work with other artists well outside their immediate formative ranges of experience (i.e. a friend raised in the midwest with middle eastern background comfortably and creatively works with Colombian and Brazilian musicians). You know who you are and that you are unique. And in turn, you recognize that same level of confidence and profundity in people who happened to grow up a continent (or a few blocks) away.

    I bring up “self awareness” as my own work (Saints & Devils) is “loaded” with iconography that can set off a range of emotional responses depending upon the person listening to it. Someone who has served time and cut cane in Angola is going to react very differently to my track “Wake Up Dead Man” than I do. Is that piece literally about being on a chain gang? Well, no. But the history is there and it’s being very blatantly referenced. Why I feel compelled to go in such directions as a composer is a complicated question.

    Vocalist composer Helga Davis (who performed with me this past weekend) tells me that when she hears Bernice Johnson Reagon sing blues or spirituals she can hear what Bernice has “seen” whereas Helga’s interpretation of the same material isn’t infused with that historical perspective. You can hear a difference. I bring this up too – what’s the saying? “If you don’t live it it won’t come out of your horn?” But Helga has seen other things and brings those experiences to the fore when she is singing Bernice’s works.

    Saints & Devils will be featured on John Schaeffer’s WNYC show “New Sounds” tomorrow evening by the way.

    Okay, someone else talk…

  3. rtanaka

    George Lewis has said that nowadays not one ethnic group can really “claim ownership” for a certain style. He tends to like to see culture as a social construct rather than an inherent genetic trait, and he’s usually pretty clear about this in the types of terminologies he uses in his writings. I would identify myself as being Japanese-American, but this doesn’t preclude people from using or learning about my culture…people don’t tend to like to admit to this, but sometimes a foreigner can surpass a native’s knowledge in their culture if the interest is there, at least in theoretical terms. (People just take it for granted, in a lot of cases.) In terms of experience, however, unless you’re willing to go all the way and assimilate, some things may never click. But you can sort of try to get an incomplete picture by listening very closely to the anecdotes of the people growing up in the area. (Trying to make a connection between theory and practice is one of the basics of anthropology, for what its worth.)

    I think whether something is homaging or violating largely has to do with authenticity, intent, and sensitivity to the context in which it’s derived — all of which probably becomes obvious the moment the work is presented. You can use “borrowed” material in a superficial way, or in a way which displays an understanding of where it came from and what it represents. The world music program at CalArts, for example, is probably one of the best in the nation — the majority of players are white, but they learn from the masters of their trade and do intensive coursework throughout the year and the results are usually pretty impressive. It has a sense of authenticity that you can’t quite explain but you know its there.

    What seems to happen in the long run, however, is that the individual musicians sort of try to find a balance between the things they’ve learned during those sessions and the Western sensibilities that they grew up with. (Including native musicians who have been exposed to Western music, usually the younger ones.) So in the end you sort of have a middle-ground that’s representative of a form of cultural diplomacy. I think that these types of musics provide something important for the world, and should be encouraged.

    It’s a complex subject, though — Kevin Volans based his works on the sensibilities of African musics, and tried to use his works to bring attention to the arpathid that was happening at South Africa at the time. He did quite well on the Kronos record and made a lot of money, but did the original musicians see a dime of it? There’s probably no good answer to whether he did the “right thing” or not — probably better than nothing, though.

  4. Chris Becker

    …judging by powerful pieces like “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain” my guess is there’s more to Oh Dem Watermelons than its title..?

  5. Chris Becker

    “He did quite well on the Kronos record and made a lot of money, but did the original musicians see a dime of it?”

    Ryan, what do you mean by “the original musicians”? If you’re talking about the Volans pieces I remember those compositions not being directly lifted or transcribed from preexisting compositions – they were more his hybridization of a variety of African rhythms and timbres. But I could be wrong – I haven’t looked at the CD for quite awhile.

    And the additional musicians on Pieces Of Africa – again, if I remember correctly – included some already internationally known stars. Some very cosmopolitan artists, right?

    That was an interesting time for popular music – I remember Paul Simon and David Byrne catching a LOT of sh*t for their respective ventures into African, Brazilian and Latin music. Musicians I knew at the time were also divided in their reactions to those recordings and performances.

  6. rtanaka

    I meant the musicians he uplifted the sonorities from — from the native musics of South Africa. This is a case where Volans has “borrowed” material from a foreign culture and made it part of his own aesthetic — but, being white and having spent the majority of his life outside of South Africa, its safe to say that the music is largely a Western configuration of the music, even if he may have utilized African compositional techniques. So, did any of the proceeds of White Man Sleeps go to help remedy the apartheid or did he use the success largely to further his own career? Was it an act of benevolence in bringing the issue to light, or an act of exploitation of behalf of the composer?

    There aren’t any clear answers to these types of questions, but it doesn’t make the work any less valid, interesting, or significant either. (Maybe its the tension between the two thigns that make it interesting?) Volans eventually turned away from using African forms, which may or may not be a sign that he became aware of this, I have no idea. And well, you could say the same thing about a lot of other composers too, like Mahler, Dvorak, Bartok, and anybody who’s ever used folk musics in their works, so its not as if this is a new thing.

    It’s a very complex subject and can be a touchy subject depending on who you talk to. It’s particularly prevailent in those working in ethnomusicology…maybe the only thing we can really do is try to be honest and open about the whole process in general.

  7. William Osborne

    In his blog, Mark asks; “But where do you draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural violation?”

    Well, the Vienna Philharmonic claims that they create central European ethnic music. They thus exclude all people who are visibly non-Caucasian, because it would destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian purity.

    After the Second World War the Philharmonic instituted blind auditions, but they were soon eliminated. In his memoirs, Otto Strasser, a former Chairman of the Philharmonic, described the problems blind auditions caused:

    “I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. […] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement, was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the ‘Pizzicato-Polka’ of the New Year’s Concert.”
    [Otto Strasser, Und dafuer wird man noch bezahlt: Mein Leben mit den
    Wiener Phiharmonikern
    (Wien: Paul Neff Verlag, 1974)]

    The orchestra feels “that to the artist also belongs the person”, and that the individual’s accomplishment, and marketability, are determined by race and gender. They thus changed their auditions procedures so that the applicant could be seen for the final round. They also require a photo with the job application.

    The orchestra still lacks a visibly non-Caucasian member. The policy is directed specifically toward Asian musicians, since many have studied in Vienna and have reached the highest professional standards. The Chairman of the orchestra, Clemens Hellsberg, denies that a racial policy still exists, and claims there has never been an Asian good enough to get into the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic is thus the only major orchestra in the world without an Asian member.

    The Vienna Philharmonic presents three concerts in Carnegie Hall every year. (In fact, the three concerts are this weekend, February 29-March 2.) The New York classical music world looks right past this racism. It is not reported or discussed in the press. It is one of classical music’s dirty secrets.

    Over a quarter of New York City’s population is African-American, about 2 million people, and yet one hardly ever sees an African-American at a classical music event, much less on the stage. One does not have to look back at minstrel shows to see disgrace.

    For anyone who might be interested, there is much more about the Vienna Philharmonic’s employment practices on my website.

    William Osborne

  8. William Osborne

    Cultural identity is always something of a construct, a kind of mask of ourselves we gaze upon in search for self-knowledge. Through these masks, we create a kind of cultural persona.

    Through minstrel shows we had whites in blackface, and blacks in blackface, but do we also have whites in whiteface? Are programs like Hee Haw whites in whiteface? Where does satire end and mockery begin? Is Rush Limbaugh a white in whiteface?

    I’ve also been wondering how this might affect the political arena. What does it mean if there is a prominent African-American politician who disassociates himself from large parts of his community, such as those around Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, because it might damage his popularity among whites? What if, for the sake of political strategy, he seldom address issues that deeply affect the African-American community, like its massive poverty, the squalor and degradation of our urban ghettos, or that an African-American man is more likely to go to prison than college?

    Is that silence something like a black in a carefully constructed blackface? Or even worse, black in a carefully constructed whiteface? Is the minstrel mentality still with us, even if practiced more discretely? Is it something forced on any African-American politician who would like to be a major figure in national politics? What do these practices of affectation do to our cultural authenticity, and our cultural persona, as a nation?

    William Osborne

  9. William Osborne

    I just read in the Times that the NY Phil traveled to North Korea with a contingent of 400 people. These included patrons who paid $100,000 a couple to go along. Don’t we have far more urgent cultural needs for the hundreds of thousands spent by these patrons?

    The Harlem Boys Choir, for example, was evicted from its building in 2006, after a series of scandals and mismanagement.

    Does this say something about the top-heavy way culture is funded and managed in a cultural plutocracy like the United States? The rich come first, and the poor come last, in the off chance their culture is funded at all. Harlem should be one of the great cultural centers of the world, and the destination for millions of tourists. Compare that to the neglect and destruction Harlem has faced since its golden years during the 20s.

    How ironic that so many American pundits have criticized the Phil’s trip to North Korea because it would serve the interests of an elite neglecting its people.

    William Osborne


  10. philmusic

    “..Minstrel shows are also responsible for the fact that for a long, long time (and still today) the typical American musical entertainment (vaudeville, theater, and comedy) was built on ethnic stereotypes,..”

    Well, hmmm? Ethnic stereotypes have been with us a whole lot longer than that, at least in art,Literature, and theater. The fact that they continue is a shame. For some stereotype busting from an “outside” perspective see the plays of Genet.

    Phil Fried

  11. Chris Becker

    Phil, you’re talking about Genet’s The Blacks right? I haven’t read that play.

    Last year I came across a great book by Mark Kemp called Dixie Lullaby that is sort of an autobiographical account of a Southern kid growing up during the post Civil Rights era while witnessing the birth of Southern rock music that – whether intentionally or not – broke down in its music and musician make-up (ie. bands including both black and white musicians) stereotypes of white Southerners. He describes a combination of shame and enjoyment at watching shows like The Andy Griffith Show or Hee Haw and puts his own personal experiences into a non-musical historical context. The book is mainly about rock music though – so it might not appeal to many NMBx listeners, but I found it fascinating. It got me listening to the Allman Brothers…And Mark is a great guy as well.

  12. Chris Becker

    “What does it mean if there is a prominent African-American politician who disassociates himself from large parts of his community, such as those around Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, because it might damage his popularity among whites? What if, for the sake of political strategy, he seldom address issues that deeply affect the African-American community, like its massive poverty, the squalor and degradation of our urban ghettos, or that an African-American man is more likely to go to prison than college?”

    William, if you are specifically talking about Barack Obama, he in fact addresses these concerns you describe in several speeches I’ve seen online. He also addressed these issues with concrete action (and results) much earlier in Chicago as a community organizer as described in his book Dreams From My Father.

  13. Chris Becker

    Also – I appreciate the digressions – but Mark’s topic is fascinating – and I’d like to hear some other people chime in with reactions even if they don’t have a specific point to make.

    The Vienna issue has been brought up many times on this site – and it’s important – but I think some readers might be turned off by the repeated posts repeating some of the same ground we’ve covered earlier?

    And now I promise to shut up. Let’s let someone else beside me and William eat up this thread..?

  14. philmusic

    “..Phil, you’re talking about Genet’s The Blacks right? I haven’t read that play. ..”

    Yes, Chris. That work of his, and others, had a important effect on me and on my stage work. My opera The dungeon of Esmeralda is a similar type of work, in a very different context.

    (and please forgive the shameless self-promotion)

    Phil Fried

  15. William Osborne

    The topic here is to discuss concepts of cultural appropriation and violation. As I attempted to illustrate with my posts, concepts of cultural identity are usually very nebulous – and in some cases ethnocentric and possibly even racist. There are no clear definitions of appropriation and violation. Notions of some sort of ownership or entitlement through birthright are difficult to define, and usually more limiting than helpful. My posts were an attempt to outline some ground in this area, along with concrete examples of some of the ethical issues involved.

    The worst bowlderizations of ethnic culture often come from artists utilizing, or even exploiting, their own cultural identity. An example might be some of the popular Native American flute players. They are like the Kenny Gs of Native American music. But who is to define what appropriation and violation are? Why not let people create whatever they want and let the public decide what they like and what they don’t? Aside from basic issues like plagiarism, I have little sympathy for those who tell people they have no right to use cultural materials that are in the common domain.

    The conversation here will hardly progress until these concepts and terms are defined, and most likely through the discussion of some specific examples of how cultural appropriation and violation are defined, and how they are practiced.

    Chris, I also think the topic is interesting, but it seems these discussions work best when they have a sort of sonata allegro form. A principal theme is stated by the blogger; someone adds a couple repetitions along with episodic material; a series of B themes are included; the ideas are widely developed; and there is a return in the recapitulation to the main themes seen with new insights.

    I’ve noticed repeatedly than when attempts are made to limit the spectrum of conversation, it often doesn’t develop at all. If one focuses the converstion solely on Minstrel music, for example, I doubt there will be many comments at all, since it is not a widely-known music, especially among composers.

    I find that the most serious problem is that about 80% of the words posted come from about 5 people. It is not that the posts are bad, but that the pool of ideas and perspectives is too small for rich discussion. The vast majority of genuinely dedicated composers never participate at all. I’m not sure what the solution would be. There is a similar problem at S21. (As far as my posts go, I can’t participate for the next month anyway, so my propensity to over-extend themes won’t be a problem. Sadly, this will be my last exchange. I will miss the discussion. I have probably wasted my time, but at least it was fun.)

    William Osborne

  16. Colin Holter

    I find that the most serious problem is that about 80% of the words posted come from about 5 people.

    Almost 80% of the words come from you. Which is fine–you have many weighty ponderables to lay on us, and your right to do so is constitutionally protected. But when the dialog veers inevitably toward the same couple of topics, my eyes glaze rapidly over. I wonder what your opinions are about, you know, other things, besides the Vienna Phil’s reprehensible policies–food, fave places to hang out, current events.

    Sadly, this will be my last exchange.

    I think you’ve said this at least once before. I hope it’s not true, but in any case, I’m not worried that it is.


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