The Birth of Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of Stephen Foster

Posted by on Sep 24th, 2011 | 8 Comments
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Warning! These recordings are historical artifacts reflecting the beliefs of Stephen Foster as he wrote them in the nineteenth century and recording artists who performed his work during the Jim Crow Era. The caricatured language and content may be offensive to contemporary listeners and viewers. They are for educational purposes only.

In 1828, T.D. “Big Daddy” Rice, a struggling white actor, made his New York stage debut. With a single dialectical song performed in blackface, his routine radically transformed the cultural landscape of North America. In 1855, a theater columnist for the New York Tribune would recall that cataclysmic performance as an unparalleled moment in American entertainment as “never was there such an excitement in the musical or dramatic world; nothing was talked of, nothing written of, nothing dreamed of, but ‘Jim Crow.’” Although his name is not known today, T.D. Rice was a major star in Antebellum America. He is considered one of the primary artistic architects of what was called the “minstrel show” or “blackface minstrelsy.” Although blackface is now considered a major cultural transgression and taboo (explaining why few college students have been exposed to it), minstrel shows were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War.  Although the shows were housed in New York saloons (often sporting 6-10 shows per week) during the summer, the actors went on national tours exposing the rest of the country to the art form. T.D. Rice claimed his iconic routine was inspired by an interracial encounter with a crippled stableman in the Ohio River Valley named Jim Crow who performed a jig for Rice. Rice claims he paid Jim Crow for his tattered clothing and learned the unusual dance, incorporating it into his act, singing: “Weel ‘bout, and turn about/And do jis so; Eb’ry time I weel about/ I jump Jim Crow.” The incredible impact of this highly racist character can be seen in the fact that the institution of segregation would be known as the “Jim Crow System” or “Jim Crow Era.”

Iconic blackface popularized by Rice was a theatrical makeup technique used by actors in the ninteenth century who burned bottle corks mixed with grease paint or shoe polish to achieve a black shine when applied to their faces that reflected in the calcium lights used in antebellum stage production. To conceal any hint of whiteness, actors wore wooly three-cone pointed wigs and black gloves. These costume decisions physically hid their white skin while radically exaggerating African American appearances in a  caricatured way that crowds in New York city found hilarious. From The Great Emancipator, President Abraham Lincoln, who held blackface performances inside the White House, to California gold rushers, Jim Crow swept the nation in a burnt cork craze. In Frank Norris’ preeminent novel Mc Teague, the main character treats his fiancé to a variety show in San Francisco and is elated to see “‘musical marvels,’ two men extravagantly made up as negro minstrels with immense shoes and plaid vests.” Believing they were lifelike, he whispered, “Think of that! Art could go no farther!” Norris thereby articulated the hypnotic obsession of nineteenth-century audiences with blackface caricature, which they often believed replicated authentically black life.

Two years after Rice’s performance, New York actor George Washington Dixon created the blackface character Zip Coon, the conniving, flashy, urban Dandy costumed in mismatching suits, who mocked the assimilation attempts of liberated and freeborn black men in urban centers such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York City. Zip Coon served as a character foil to Rice’s Jim Crow, the bumbling and happy-go-lucky slave. Unlike Zip Coon, portrayed as a foolish and ill-informed political junky amidst the developing cityscape, Jim Crow was submissive, with a constant joyful song while sauntering through the highly romanticized South. Variations of these two black minstrel characters would dominate racial representation for well over a century. Although blackface routines were on the rise, they were solo acts within a larger revolving carousel of disconnected American folklore. Jim Crow and Zip Coon added “the Negro to the cast of folk characters in American popular culture,” such as Brother Jonathan, the New York Yankee, and the tall-tale-telling Frontiersman who evolved into Davy Crockett.

It was not until 1842 that the tripartite antebellum minstrel show comprising a full night of blackface entertainment featuring black political mimicry, exaggerated African inspired plantation dances, and dialect songs was established. The first blackface minstrel troupe under the direction of Dan Emmett was the The Virginia Minstrels (also frequently billed as the Virginia Serenaders). Under this new full-fledged antebellum minstrel show was born “a new verbal humor that in effect educated patrons about the subtleties of the language and the foolishness of taking words literally.” This group format doled out blackface-derived humor from wordplay and crass lyrics in rapid-fire succession between the white master of ceremonies, the Interlocutor (a theatrical extension of the circus ringmaster) and black-faced comedians known as endmen. The Interlocutor known for his caustic wit and regal outfits would plant a “conundrum” to the audience: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The blackface endmen would whimsically respond in bubbling “darkey dialect” (a stark juxtaposition to the articulate Interlocutor), “Ta git tada odder side!”  This formula reiterated the rigid color divide instilled by the show’s structure. By exalting the eloquent Interlocutor (with whom the audience identified) the Interlocutor role argued that the civilized, well-dressed, white man who dictated the show’s progression, was paternalistically responsible for controlling the actions of the incoherent blackface endmen, who, left to their own devices, could become destructive, yet provided a constant source of entertainment.

Below is an advertisement for the Al G. Fields Minstrels, one of the major blackface troupes in the nineteenth century that rivaled the Virginia Minstrels and a portrait of Stephen Foster, one of the most prolific songwriters in American history who concentrated on writing blackface dialect songs.

Although no footage from minstrel shows performed in antebellum America exists, scripts were recreated during the Jim Crow Era. One of the features of minstrel shows was the “Stump Speech” which intentionally made fun of black politicians and abolitionists. Not only were they portrayed in blackface and dialect, but the scripts relayed the idea that they were completely uneducated by misunderstanding words in their own speech.

In 1848, Stephen Foster’s minstrel song about black families being separated during the internal slave trade entitled, “Oh! Susanna,” became a smash hit with displaced forty-niners mining for gold out in the California Gold Rush. Below is a film of James Taylor performing a rendition of Foster’s hit song on the Johnny Cash Show.

In the summer of 1851, Foster’s Southern praise, “Old Folks at Home,” sold for fifteen dollars to E.P. Christy of the famed Christy Minstrels, the Virginia Minstrel’s rival troupe that caused blackface minstrel shows to peak in the 1850s. Foster was a conflicted lyricist. He enjoyed writing songs for blackface yet found minstrel show songs “disreputable saloon music that was totally unfit for ladies and proper society.” The contradictory view of minstrelsy’s prize writer reflects the larger challenge blackface performers had to conquer after the Civil War to maintain profitability: to prove the minstrel show’s respectability, not because of its inherently racist nature, but due to its impure ties to saloon culture and prostitution.

Blackface minstrel shows before and during the Civil War were masculine affairs where newly immigrated Irish men (especially after the wave of migration in the 1840s with the potato famine) tried to assert their whiteness and virility. As a result, performances, as historian Robert Toll observes, “seemed more wild, an uninhibited party than a professional show, which projected Negroes as impulsive, and uncontrolled.” Housed in concert-saloons in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, minstrel shows double billed with staged war battles, train wrecks, girlie-shows, and medical curiosities, developed into a focal feature of the Bowery B’hoy and G’hal subculture. Men drank heavily, demanding scatological and highly sexual content. Scantily clad “waiter girls” in short skirts served drinks and doubled as paid dates or prostitutes in the theaters’ “Third Tier,” where they gave sexual favors in exchange for money, food, or treating; a major appeal to the common man. Waiter girls were regarded as tainted women due to their employment within concert-saloons. James Dabney McCabe Jr. described them as “a collection of poor wretches who have gone down almost to the end of their fatal career…They are beastly, foul-mouthed brutal wretches,” but that did not seem to deter male audiences. The New York Evening Post in 1862 described the clientele of the Broadway Music Hall as “crowded by male visitors…[who] wear their hats and caps at pleasure, smoke cigars and pipes, and conduct themselves generally in accordance with the popular song of ‘We’ll be free and easy still.’” Due to this highly masculine, sexualized, and rowdy concert-saloon experience, refined women found minstrelsy repugnant. Newspaper advertisements and playbills show minstrelsy constantly mocked and ridiculed Republican political figures that supported abolitionism and featured entire sketches that mimicked speeches given by free black men in favor of ending slavery. The height of professional blackface minstrel shows took place during the decades in which many Americans believed race and the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery posed a legitimate threat to the country’s existence as a Union. Perhaps more detrimental, however, was the message conveyed in minstrel show lyrics and caricature: slaves not only needed to be subordinate to white masters due to their childish inability to take care of themselves, due to their lazy and carefree nature, they preferred to have their clothing, food, and housing provided for them. Therefore, minstrel shows counteracted abolitionists by arguing in favor of slavery’s supposed nurturing attributes, making slavery appear benevolent to the working-class men who flooded the Bowery district in New York City and who had little or no protection from the abuse and usurpations of factory labor. ((Images:
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-ds-00886.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-USZC4-6815.

Historic American Sheet Music, “Oh! Let Him Rest. 1864,” Music B-2078, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Citations:
1) New York Tribune, 30 June 1855.
2) For more on antebellum minstrel show structure please see Robert Toll’s On With the Show.
3) President Abraham Lincoln openly enjoyed multiple minstrel shows throughout his political career. For more information on his attendance of minstrel shows while in Chicago, see Jesse William Weik, The Real Lincoln: A Portrait, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923), 75, 85-86; Robert C. Toll, On With the Show, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 81.
4) Frank Norris and Donald Pizer, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco: an Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism (New York: Norton, 1977), 101.
5) The third prominent minstrel character that would emerge was the female mulatto wench, always portrayed in drag.
6) Robert C. Toll, On With the Show, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 82.
7)Ibid, 83.
8 )Ibid, 95.
9) Robert C. Toll, On With the Show, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 90.
10) Ibid, 86.
11) Brooks McNamara, The New York Concert Saloon: The Devil’s Own Nights, (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xvii.
12) The third tier was a portion of theaters and concert-saloons reserved for the solicitation of sex. For more information on the third tier and the use of prostitution in theaters and concert-saloons, see Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986), 174.
13) James Dabney McCabe, Jr., Lights and Shadows of New York Life (Philadelphia, 1872), 596.
14) “The New York Concert Saloons,” New York Evening Post, (2 Jan 1862). Vaudeville and Variety file, Envelope #1, Theatre Collection, Harvard Library.))


Recordings of Stephen Foster’s famous songwriting for blackface minstrelsy:


Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Old Folks At Home Performed by Felix Arndt (1914)


Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.

Suwanee River performed by Walter B. Rogers (1904)


Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress. Inclusion of the recording in the National Jukebox, courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment.
Trivia Tip: The famous Steam Boat Willie song or Turkey in the Straw which plays on nearly every ice cream truck in America is actually Zip Coon’s minstrel song, popularized in the nineteenth century for blackface shows.

Below, Greil Marcus discusses the history of blackface as it began to extend into the twentieth century at a guest lecture at UC Berkeley.

For more information:

Comments

  1. Thank you; I am grateful to have discovered your web site. I was preparing a slide show about cosmetics for my students, greasepaint and modern makeup. But, I’ve diverged from my original and rather banal focus, to include makeup for black and yellow face. I am forwarding this article to my students.

    Thank you again.

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