Minstrel Show FAQs
Everything you always wanted to know about blackface minstrel shows but were afraid to ask

By Scott Miller

When Was the Minstrel Era?
The period from 1843 to 1900 is generally recognized as The American Minstrel Era. If we include the amateur period, then the epoch spanned well over 100 years.

Minstrel shows were all the rage from 1843 until the rise of vaudeville in the 1870s. The first minstrel show was an overnight success. It inspired hundreds of similar troupes which launched a period of minstrel mania. This initial craze ran more than twenty years.

By the end of the Civil War the minstrel era reached its peak and the shows began to fall into decline. But they remained popular enough to survive an additional forty-some years. The last professionally staged minstrel show was produced in the 1910s.

With the end of professional productions, amateur minstrel shows began to flourish. These were often fund-raising events performed by clubs and civic organizations at schools and local theaters until the 1950s.

When Was the First Minstrel Show?
Most scholars agree that the minstrel era began with the premier performance (advertised in the New York Herald) of the Virginia Minstrels at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City on the evening of February 6, 1843.

The Virginia Minstrels
Appearing in a semicircle at that first performance were: Frank Brower, bones; Dan Emmett, fiddle; Billy Whitlock, banjo; Dick Pelham, tambourine.

Why Did the First Minstrel Show Become an Overnight Success?
The Virginia Minstrels were a group of four virtuoso musicians. And the style of their music was new and different. Never before did an audience witness a band composed of fiddle, banjo (the electric guitar of its day), bones, and tambourine. Minstrelsy scholar Hans Nathan characterizes the impact of their music as "a new medium - the jazz band of the nineteenth century."

The music they played was entirely new and exciting. Besides being gifted musicians, the group members were experienced singers and dancers. But that is not all. They also excelled as comedic stage actors, a skill they mastered years earlier touring with the circus. This unique group mixed exhuberant comedy routines throughout their program and within their tunes. The combination of exhilarating new music flavored with a saucy outlook and wild stage antics set the audience - and middle-class America - into a minstrel frenzy.

Why Were Minstrel Shows So Popular?
The performances introduced new tunes in a way that appealed to the sensibilities of working-class folks. These were literally song and dance shows - with attitude. Not much different from Saturday Night Live and MTV. The nation's first pop tune was Old Dan Tucker. It became a hit from coast-to-coast as a result of that first minstrel show in 1843.

What Were Minstrel Shows Like?
The binding theme throughout virtually all minstrel shows was a romanticized view of southern plantation slave life. Few northern (or even southern) working class folks ever stepped foot on a plantation, so they were fascinated by the portrayals. With few exceptions the tune lyrics were sung from the viewpoint of an African-American. And while many tunes (notably those of Steven Foster) did sympathize with the plight of African-Americans - and although pro-abolition tunes and the minstrel troupes that sang them were banished from the South - they certainly did not celebrate African culture.

Why Were Minstrels Shows Performed in Blackface?
A popular form of entertainment at circuses and other venues was the art of delineation (i.e. impersonating African-Americans). The practice came into national prominence in the 1830s with the Jump Jim Crow song and dance routine created by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. The Virginia Minstrels merely adopted this already commercially successful form of entertainment into their act.

Did African-American Minstrels Perform in Blackface Too?
Yes. Notable African-American minstrels who performed in blackface include champion dancer William Henry Lane "Juba" (1840s), Haverly's United Mastodon Minstrels (1877-1890s), and the famed duo, Walker and Williams (1890s). Performing in blackface is like performing behind a mask. And there is a definite mystique about performing behind a mask that actors relish. It does not matter what kind of mask or whether the color is red, black, blue or green. Like the rock group Kiss or the Blue Man Group, minstrel performers were empowered by the mask of blackface to create intriguing characters that were larger than life.

Did African-American Composers Write Tunes for Blacface Minstrel Shows?
Yes. The most notable African-American minstrel composer is James Bland. He composed over 700 songs including "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "In The Evening By The Moonlight." He was often called "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man." One source reports that he was the highest paid minstrel man of the era.

Was the Famous Blackface "Mammy" Singer Al Jolson a Racist?
Absolutely not. The modern portrayal of Al Jolson as a racist is a travesty. Jolson had many black personal friends including Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and blues great Eubie Blake. Jolson was a leading crusader in the fight for African-American equality in the entertainment industry and was beloved by the black community. The president of the Negro Actors' Guild accompanied by a crowd of black actors honored Jolson at his funeral, and a black architect was commissioned to design Jolson's mausoleum. Jolson might have been a jerk in his personal life, but he was anything but a racist.

Minstrel Shows Are Racist, Aren't They?
Like any form of entertainment, minstrel shows reflect the cultural norm of their audience. Yes, the shows expressed bigotry. But whether the performers were white or black, the emotion they conveyed was typically corn, not hate. In plain English, minstrel shows made fun of black folks. Along similar lines, the old TV show Hee-Haw made fun of country folks.

Yes, minstrel shows ridiculed African-Americans. But to be fair, they also ridiculed whatever cultural group, social issue and political topic was handy at the time. And for all their faults, minstrel shows developed into a national entertainment industry that opened the door to African-American and other minority entertainers and patrons.

Who Were Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo?
The two endmen, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, were comedians - and stars of the show! They usually represented the age-old characters of the country bumpkin and urban dandy. They could also sing and dance.

During the heyday of the minstrel era a professional Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo were also virtuoso musicians. It would be fair to say that few bone players today can play at the level of a professional Mr. Bones, and no one alive today can play a tambourine like a professional Mr. Tambo.

When was the Last Minstrel Show?
The very last professionally performed public blackface minstrel act (not a minstrel show, per se) was probably in the early 1960s featuring the notable recording artist, Emmett Miller.

Are Minstrel Shows Important?
Yes, if you are a fan of pop music and its culture. After all, the foundation of our modern entertainment industry is the American minstrel show. And whether we like it or not, Mickey Mouse is patterned after a minstrel performer.