Minstrel shows (1843-1950s) were one of the main forms of entertainment in America in the middle 1800s. White men (and later black men too) would paint their faces black – called blackface – and then sing and dance and make whites laugh at black people. At the time whites considered it to be wholesome family entertainment.
Most songs that Americans know from the 1800s come from either church or the minstrel show. Songs such as “Dixie”, “Camptown Races”, “Oh Susannah”, “Old Folks Home” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” started out as songs in minstrel shows.
The minstrel show started in 1843. In a land without television, minstrel acts travelled America, and even England, going from town to town. They also played on Broadway. In the 1860s New York had 20 separate minstrel shows going at the same time! (The more I find out about the past the worse it gets.)
In the 1880s vaudeville grew out of the middle, singing part of the minstrel show. Vaudeville killed off its parent. By the 1920s minstrel shows no longer made money, but amateur ones lasted into the 1950s.
The radio show “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and Al Jolson’s blackface character in “The Jazz Singer” (1927), the first full-length film with sound, grew out of the old minstrel shows.
Al Jolson, a Jew who came to America from Russia, was perhaps one of the greatest American performers of all time. He got his start in minstrel shows. He was better in blackface than in his own face. He said blackface made him freer.
Blackface is older than the minstrel show. By the 1790s there were travelling shows in America that had blackface characters. Jim Crow, who would later become one of the main characters in the minstrel shows, started in 1828. But it was not till 1843 that whole shows were based on blackface. White people could not get enough of it.
Blackface is still with us in 2008, by the way. Look at Shirley Q. Liquor.
In the late 1800s blacks started performing in minstrel shows. They wore blackface too: their own skin was not black enough. In those days it was about the only way for blacks to make a living as a performer. One of them wrote a huge hit song of the 1890s: “All Coons Look Alike To Me”.
This came at a huge cost: the laughable images of blacks that minstrel shows spread lived on in the minds of white people for years.
Minstrel shows painted blacks as a people who sang and danced and laughed their troubles away. They did not mind being slaves or being poor.
The minstrel show is dead but something very much like it has arisen since the late 1990s: hip hop songs and music videos that picture blacks as violent and oversexed. Most of the people who watch and listen to them are not black but white. Those images will live on in the minds of white people for years.