Minstrel Shows: Disgrace or America’s Progenitive Entertainment Form?
Well, of course they were a disgrace—what else can one call music performed by slave masters which mockingly imitates their enslaved charges? (How many people reading this already know that minstrel shows were originally written and performed only by whites in blackface, and then, not until decades later, by blacks…also in blackface?) When I was researching the early antecedents of Broadway musicals for my book, I was fascinated to learn that one can trace the lineage of both musical comedy and most genres of American pop in almost a straight line backwards to the minstrel show of the 1830s. But I was nauseated, too, to learn that “Jim Crow” was originally the name of a stock character in American minstrelsy much beloved in ante- and postbellum America (stock characters in minstrel shows were much like those of the commedia dell’arte). Minstrel shows enacted by whites brought to the world many great Stephen Foster songs (as well as the tune “Dixie”) much the way radio “Top 40″ hit parades popularized tunes from pop and rock in the 20th century. The minstrel show was the great-grand-daddy of modern American show business: the variety aspect of vaudeville, the dance steps of tap, and even the setup and punchlines lines of stand-up comedy, all grew directly out of this cultural rape of a people.
Furthermore, the circa-1840s minstrel show band was the original template for American pop’s rhythm section-based band. Minstrel show music typically consisted of violin, banjo, tambourine, and bones, but the music played always was based on what we would, in modern parlance, call a groove. All our pop music formats since—the jazz band, the dance and swing band, the rock band—are its direct descendants. (Of course, many world cultures have a vernacular music rhythm-band instrumentation, from Klezmer to Irish trad to Romany et al., and some scholars argue that most of the earliest American minstrel show music was based on Appalachian Anglo-Celtic rhythms faux-Africanized.)
Minstrel shows are also responsible for the fact that for a long, long time (and still today) the typical American musical entertainment (vaudeville, theater, and comedy) was built on ethnic stereotypes, not infrequently performed by the very ethnic groups that were its targets: “Dutch” comedy spoofed the Germans, the Irish spoofed the Irish (Harrigan and Hart), the Jews spoofed the Jews (Fanny Brice), even the sophisticated black comedians spoofed the blacks (Bert Williams). Notwithstanding all this, there is a wholesale cultural appropriation uniquely visited on African-American music. African-American ragtime was appropriated and acculturated by Irving Berlin and other songwriters; early jazz, by Paul Whiteman and swing bands; rhythm and blues and race records by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others; rap by white rappers, etc. The vernacular music of African-Americans has always cut the leading edge for a development that whites then participate in. And despite the great fame of jazz musicians like Armstrong and Ellington, there is a group of African-American transitional figures still on history’s fringes—important arranger-composers like Will Vodery, Harry Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, and James Reese Europe—who had a direct effect on mainstream music. Except to knowledgeable scholars, they are still largely under the radar.
Believe it or not, in the civil rights era of the 1960s the New York City Opera, no less, produced a modern version of the classic minstrel show. In 1955, after the succes d’estime of the musical The Golden Apple, producer Roger L. Stevens commissioned Apple’s composer Jerome Moross to write, with lyricist/librettist Edward Eager, a musical about the Civil War presented in the form of a minstrel show. Titled Gentlemen, Be Seated!—the title was the proverbial first line of dialogue spoken in a minstrel show—and designed as a musical with copious music, the project failed to find backing for many years until finally the Ford Foundation coughed up some money for three NYCO performances in October 1963. Moross—a superb composer of symphony, ballet, and theater, perhaps today most famous for his music to the movie The Big Country—told the New York Times before the premiere that “the minstrel show is the only indigenous theatrical form created in America.” Critic Harold Schonberg agreed, writing a long history and appreciation of the form in an article the Times published separately from his sympathetic yet highly equivocal review of Gentlemen, Be Seated!. Schonberg faulted the production primarily for not pursuing the minstrel show premise and devolving into mediocre musical comedy. But it did open with the four traditional characters: Mister Interlocutor, Mister Tambo, Mister Banjo, and Mister Bones. Avon Long, who played Mister Tambo, was actually an officer of the NAACP at the time and tried to defuse the PR problem. It would be very interesting to see a revival of this piece today (it certainly wasn’t an opera and shouldn’t have been presented in an opera house).
The minstrel show is America’s version of the Gordian Knot binding anathema politics to art that has plagued other countries, from Wagner and anti-Semitism to the fascist alliances of Pfitzner and Mascagni. Of course, the Nazis had slave labor, too, but they didn’t model a lasting popular art form on the Jewish victims they killed at Auschwitz. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and assimilation and acculturation are inevitable concomitants of benign artistic evolutions all over the globe. Even Busoni borrowed musical materials from the American Indian. But where do you draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural violation?