In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Minstrel Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General References for Black Dance and Theater
  • Origins of the Minstrel Show
  • Nineteenth-Century Surveys and References
  • Anthologies
  • Musical Instruments of Minstrelsy
  • Source Studies
  • Minstrel Music and Related Musical Genres
  • Cultural Histories and Critiques of Minstrelsy
  • Stephen Foster, Minstrel Composer
  • Scholarly Biographies of Minstrel Performers
  • Autobiographies and Reminiscences of Minstrel Performers
  • Blackface Minstrelsy Outside the United States
  • African-American Theater after Minstrelsy
  • Sound Recordings
  • Additional Resources

Music American Minstrel Music
Thomas Riis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0213


The American minstrel show began as a distinct category of theatrical entertainment in the northern and western parts of the United States during the early 19th century when first individual white male performers and later small groups took the stage in tatterdemalion costumes, their faces covered in burnt-cork make-up. With clownish garb and festive attitudes, they sang, danced, and played original music on vernacular oral-culture instruments (such as bone castanets, tambourines, fiddles, and banjos) combining rhythmic tunes with pseudo-dialect verses to accompany dancing and general merrymaking. Providing interludes within a larger theater piece or in short comic circus plays, minstrel entertainers incorporated new material to suit changing tastes over time. At least a decade before the institutional establishment of the “minstrel show” in 1840s America, several individual performers—most famously Thomas D. Rice—introduced blackface acts at home and abroad, trying out their latest songs and skits with fellow actors on both sides of the Atlantic to great popular acclaim. No specific set of musical traits defines all “American minstrel music,” since the collective term has to do explicitly with function. Music for use in a minstrel show varied stylistically over time, although a core repertory of sorts lasted over several decades. The longevity of the minstrel show as a major entertainment form—from 1850 to 1880 most large American towns had at least one and frequently several theaters devoted exclusively to minstrelsy—is owed partly to the ease by which the music for any given minstrel show could be swapped out as the need arose. New tunes might gain popularity rapidly by being added into a single prominent company’s repertory, which could in turn be imitated by other professionals as well as amateurs. The minstrel show’s first creators placed a premium on audience accessibility and making visible the actors’ energy, which also urged that the music be geared to mass taste and instant appreciation. The formulaic nature of minstrel shows increased as they grew in number in the 1850s and enticed a larger middle-class audience, a development that also enhanced their appeal for amateur white thespians then and later; the post–Civil War era saw the entry of large numbers of African-American men, who also used blackface make-up, into the professional ranks of minstrels, a somewhat startling development given the strongly racialized character of much minstrel material.

General Overviews

Almost all historical surveys of American music name and identify the minstrel repertory as an influential and attractive body of American popular song, part of the creative stream contributing to both contemporary popular music and musical theater up to the present. The authors in this section typically discuss minstrel songs as integral to their full theatrical presentation within minstrel shows, rather than analyzing tunes, lyrics, and stage gestures apart from each other. The writers’ perspectives vary with their time and worldview. Generalists Goldberg 1930 and Ewen 1957 place the minstrel song within the larger context of American popular music across the board. They recognize a distinction between genuine songs of the black community (such as spirituals or blues) and those stage songs that were performed most often by the white actors who blacked-up to sing them. They also view minstrel song lyrics as eccentric, peculiar, or nonsensical—and markedly different in character from the sacred songs of the Negro folk—but harmless and charming for all that. Goldberg (with a preface by George Gershwin) stresses the positive nature of black influence but is less concerned about the language of racial stereotyping, words that denigrate African Americans on account of their color, than more recent histories. Scholarly books aimed at a general readership, Chase 1966, Hamm 1979, and Finson 1994, examine the social and performative context of the songs and tacitly accept the idea that the songs’ pseudo-racial dialect lyrics are objectionable prima facie to modern audiences despite the music’s perennial appeal. Most scholars writing prior to the 1990s understand all minstrel shows from 1843 on to have been shaped in a fixed tripartite format, to have included four or five singer/player/comedians performing in a semicircle downstage. Scholars writing after 1990, especially since the publications of Cockrell 1997 (cited under Anthologies and Origins of the Minstrel Show) and Mahar 1999 (cited under Source Studies) recognize that a strict three-part structure (opening dialogue/olio of contrasting acts/playlet plus dance) was not normative until well after 1865. Southern 1997 is a overview history of black music in America from the colonial era to the present and devotes about twenty of its six hundred pages to African-American participation in minstrelsy; Southern stresses the black sources for the white performer T. D. Rice (the originator of “Jump Jim Crow”) in antebellum shows and the key black creative figures in the post–Civil War period: manager Charles “Barney” Hicks, singer/banjoist/composer James Bland, singer/actor Sam Lucas, songwriter Gussy Davis, and banjo virtuoso Horace Weston.

  • Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music from the Pilgrims to the Present. 2d rev. ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

    Usable as a survey textbook; the chapter on minstrelsy is titled “The Ethiopian Business,” a contemporary descriptor. Tells the story of the 1843 New York debut of the Virginia Minstrels team (Billy Whitlock, Frank Brower, Dick Pelham, and Dan Emmett, the composer of “Dixie”) and a few other songs that “merit special attention” owing to their early origin. Discussion of Stephen Foster’s life and minstrel music follows in a separate chapter.

  • Ewen, David. Panorama of American Popular Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957.

    A history aimed at a general audience. Chapter 4, “Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones: The Minstrel Show and Its Songs,” stresses the biographies and the agency of “Daddy” Rice, Dan Emmett, Ed [sic] Christy, Stephen Foster, and James Bland.

  • Finson, John. The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Eighty (of 314) text pages in two chapters are devoted to minstrel songs: “Antebellum Minstrelsy and the Carnivalesque” and “Postbellum Blackface Song: Authenticity and the Minstrel Demon.” Thirty-three in-text musical examples and several lyrics are quoted. Complete song title and name index included.

  • Goldberg, Isaac. Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of the American Popular Song Racket. New York: John Day, 1930.

    Chapter 3 cites the most prominent pre-1840s songs, “The pearls” (“Coal Black Rose,” “Zip Coon,” “Clare De Kitchen,” “Jim Crow,” and “Jim Along Josey”), names solo performers and companies through the century, and quotes a few lyrics; lists published songs of Foster and his late 19th-century “followers” (e.g., George F. Root) stressing the latter’s anachronistic hypersentimentality for a 1930s audience. No musical excerpts.

  • Hamm, Charles. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America. New York: Norton, 1979.

    A thirty-page chapter contains a musical analysis of the early minstrels show music, explaining “its relationship to earlier and later popular song in America” (p. 110). Six illustrated sheet music covers, fifteen notated music examples, and twelve odd lyric stanzas. A separate chapter (pp. 201–227) devoted to Stephen Foster compares his minstrel songs with others.

  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: Norton, 1997.

    Developed for use as a textbook, this authoritative, comprehensive history of all types of African-American music (e.g., classical, religious, popular, and traditional genres for both voices and instruments); devotes a few pages to the most significant African-American minstrels performers and songwriters.

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