Hymns & Spirituals

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Minstrels & Musicals

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Audio Clips

"Hard Times Come Again No More"
McGarrigle, Kate and Anna. Songs of the Civil War. CK 48607. Columbia, 1991. CD 2854

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Minstrels & Musicals: Hard Times

From today's perspective, the minstrel show raises disturbing questions about racism and entertainment. Nonetheless, the musical form represents America's first indigenous musical theater. Although early minstrelsy relied on existing American and British genres, by the 1820s the American minstrel show had developed a distinctive national character. Performers blackened their faces with cork and, by distorting elements of African-American culture, created stereotypes such as the urban dandy "Zip Coon" and the guileless plantation slave "Jim Crow."

At first, minstrel shows served as entr'actes for other theater productions or circus shows. However, by 1843, the Virginia Minstrels, headed by Daniel Decatur Emmett, composer of "Dixie," performed separately. At this point, the form had evolved into two distinct shows, one featuring Zip Coon and the other Jim Crow. Each play relied on stock humor and clichés. During the 1850s, the minstrel shows integrated more "genteel" entertainment in the form of popular and sentimental ballads of the day. The "walk-around," an ensemble finale, closed the shows on a high note.

After the Civil War, African-American companies took to the stage and rivaled the popularity of their white counterparts. James Bland, composer of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," and Sam Lucas became known as the leading performers of African-American minstrel shows and eventually branched into other forms of musical theater. Professional minstrelsy waned at the turn of the century as troupes turned to vaudeville, burlesque, and the emerging Broadway musical theater.

Grand Ethiopian Concert! [Winchester, VA: 1863].

Mathews, [Charles]. The London Mathews; Containing an Account of This Celebrated Comedian's Trip to America. London: Hodgson, [1824].

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

During a visit to the United States in 1822, the comedian Charles Matthews became fascinated with African-American music and dialect. On his return to England, he began to incorporate his observations into skits, sketches, and songs. In turn, Matthews's own theatrical productions influenced early American minstrelsy.

Photograph of a blackface minstrel. Elk's Lodge, Charlottesville, February 2 and 3, 1925.

Although vaudeville replaced minstrel shows as the most popular form of professional musical theater at the turn of the twentieth century, minstrelsy retained a presence in amateur theatricals until the 1950s. This photograph was taken at a minstrel show at the Elk's Lodge in Charlottesville, held on February 2 and 3, 1925.

Autograph manuscript, signed, of play "Hard Times. An Original Ethiopian Walkround" by Daniel Decatur Emmett. 1855.

Papers of Daniel Decatur Emmett and
the Ankeney Family, 1850-1881.

The first full-length blackface minstrel show was performed at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York in February 1843. Songwriter and banjoist Daniel Decatur Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels put on a program of song and dance to the accompaniment of bone castanets, violin, banjo, and tambourine. One of the most controversial eras of American performance history was launched.

Emmett, D[aniel] D[ecatur]. Songs of the Virginny Banjoist. London: D'Almaine, 1840.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett
Library of American Literature.

Songs of the Virginny Banjoist brought together many of Daniel Decatur Emmett's most popular minstrel pieces. Joel Sweeney, a native of Appomattox, Virginia, popularized the African-inspired banjo, although Emmett favored the instrument in his compositions.

The publisher of Songs originally presented this copy to Napoleon W. Gould, a British musician who played in Emmett's minstrel troupe. Notes on the flyleaf indicate that Gould gave this book to Emmett, who "on his deathbed" returned it to Gould.

Stephen Collins Foster became the first American to make his living solely from the sale of his music. Born on July 4, 1826, he received his early musical training from a German immigrant. At the age of 20, he sold his first songs to a publisher in Cincinnati and four years later embarked on his career as a professional songwriter. Recognizing the commercial potential of the minstrel shows, Foster sent his early "Ethiopian melodies" to Christy's Minstrels and other troupes. These first efforts earned him popular acclaim, but the rampant illegal printing of his songs, such as "Oh! Susannah," resulted in small financial profits. Nonetheless, the "Ethiopian melodies" proved to be only a small fraction of Foster's output. Of his 286 compositions, only twenty-three were written for the minstrel stage.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Foster made a conscious attempt to counter the excesses of blackface minstrelsy, omitting the crude dialect used in earlier songs and refusing to permit his sheet music to display caricatured images of African Americans. "Nelly Was a Lady" and "Old Dog Tray" exemplify this more genteel style. In an effort to distinguish new songs from his earlier offerings, Foster classified his later output as "plantation melodies."

Stephen Foster's reputation has ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of time and changes in social consciousness. Sensitivity to the inherent racism in minstrelsy led many schools to abandon his songs in the 1950s and 1960s, but more recent scholarship has restored their standing in the annals of American song.

[Foster, Stephen Collins]. Old Folks at Home, Ethiopian Melody. New York: Firth, Pond, [1852?]. [Incorrectly attributed to E. P. Christy.]

Portrait of Foster.

Fearing that use of his own name would endanger his reputation as a serious composer, Foster had his first "Ethiopian melodies" published under E. P. Christy's name. In 1935, this song became the state song of Florida.


Foster, Stephen Collins, Walter Kittredge, et al. The Old Plantation Melodies. New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1888.

"Nelly Was a Lady" marks the first song of its type to portray an African-American couple with dignity and compassion. Even the song's title demonstrates its unusual sensitivity by using the term "lady," which at that time was reserved for upper-class white women.


Moore, Thomas. Irish Melodies. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846. In Memory of Mary de Camp Moore.

Thomas Moore, the voice of an oppressed Ireland, used his poems and songs to carry that message to the parlors and concert halls of Europe and America. Irish Melodies tapped into the nationalistic fervor of the time, a passion which in musical circles translated into the folk song revival. Moore's songs exerted a tremendous influence on Stephen Foster and contemporary American composers.

Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No. 7 Banjo, replica.

On loan from Jay Darmstadter.

This reproduction of a ca. 1906 original, owned at the time by Michael I. Holmes, was constructed over a two-week period in 1979 by Jay Darmstadter. The neck is maple and the fingerboard and peghead face are ebony with engraved mother-of-pearl inlays. The body, known as the pot, is from a ca. 1920 lesser model Whyte Laydie modified with purflings (inlaid border on the back edge of the body) and tortoise bindings to resemble the original.

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