Preface

Brief historical survey
Structure
Text samples
Music and lyrics
Social aspects
Evaluation

Appendix
Literature
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The Minstrel Show

4. The music

4.1 The minstrel songs

"Das wohl eindrucksvollste Erbe der Minstrel Show ist wohl das noch heute verbreitete Liedmaterial, das im Umkreis der Minstrel Show entstand."(7)  Unlike the jokes, the stump speeches and the afterpieces, the music is very much alive today. The popularity of many of these minstrel songs even today gives us a hint of the importance of the music in the minstrel shows.

First of all the word minstrel itself comes from the world of music. In the Middle Ages the travelling musicians who sang worldly songs for the common people were called minstrels. Minstrel is a term "...zur Bezeichnung der sozial wenig geltenden Fahrenden. [...] Als "spilläute", "jongleurs", "Minstrels", "skomrah", "igrici", "lekare" und "ménéstriers" u.a. werden sie in den Quellen angeführt."(8)  The word minstrel can be traced back to the French word "menestrel", meaning Diener, Spielmann, and to the Latin word "minister", Diener.

So the first performers appearing on the American stage in blackface were called minstrels because they sang, and that is where the minstrel show originated. Apart from that, two of the main characters, Tambo and Bones, were named for the musical instruments they played - the tambourine and the bones, which were a kind of wooden rhythm clackers, resembling castanets.

Through the growing popularity of the minstrel shows many of the songs were published as sheet music to give the people the opportunity to sing and play the songs at home. These original editions are available today together with their interesting title pages. If we take a look at them we see that many are called plantation melodies, Ethiopian refrain, Ethiopian song and chorus or Ethiopian melody. These expressions imply that this is black music, the way the Negroes in Africa or at least on the Southern plantations sang them. So the question is if the minstrels did really sing authentic black music on the minstrel stage of the last century.

When we try to evaluate the music that the minstrels played we can only rely on these original editions. The minstrel show had already disappeared and the minstrel performers of minstrelsy's golden age were dead when recording was made possible. By analyzing these songs it becomes clear that all musical parameters like harmony, rhythm, melody and the structure are the same as in the European musical tradition. Black music, on the contrary, differs in three major points:

1. The rhythm is not the steady marching rhythm but a more complicated, punctuated and syncopated rhythm derived from drum patterns.

2. The melodic approach is different. The African tonal system was adapted to the European because the European harmonic system was used. After this adaptation process there were still two keys that were not identical with the European scale. They were called blue notes.

3. Black music doesn't know the European verse-chorus-structure of a song. All original forms of black music use the call-and-response scheme, meaning that a musical phrase is always repeated either by the singer himself or a crowd of people.

Most of the minstrel performers of the early years came from the British Isles and from Ireland and so it is not surprising that many elements of Scottish and Irish folk music can be found. In his book Dan Emmett and the rise of early Negroe Minstrelsy Hans Nathan compared the minstrel song "Dixie's Land" to Scottish folk music and found out that "several passages of "Dixie" are variants of Scottish folk tunes."(9)  Black influence can surely be found in the instruments which the minstrels used to accompany themselves - the banjo, the tambourine and the bones. "But this influence had to be as superficial as the rest of the white performers' knowledge of slave culture.”(10)

But there is still the question why the minstrels, who portrayed blacks on stage, did not play black music. The first reason is that the minstrel show was an entertainment program for a northern white audience. It was popular theatre and had to adapt to the tastes of the audience in order to be successful. What the audience wanted was music they could easily understand, music they could feel comfortable with, music they could sing along with. All of the people in the audience were of European origin and so the music the minstrels offered them was principally European, too. What the minstrels did was to add a touch of exotism, they spiced their songs with certain black or pseudo black elements. The second point is that authentic black music was not easily available at that time. No whites really cared for the music of the slaves. Sometimes it was even forbidden for the slaves to perform their own music because the whites in the South feared they could use it to convey secret messages. Blacks in the North were very few. That means that the minstrels would have had to go to the Southern plantations and listen to the Negroes in order to be able to render authentic black music. (That's something that George Gershwin in the 1930s actually did to collect material for his opera Porgy and Bess.) Some minstrels claimed to have listened to blacks(11) and may have included some elements into their performances, but there is no doubt that black influences had a much greater effect on the minstrels' dance styles than on their music. Apart from this it is very doubtful if the minstrels would have had the ability to reproduce the music of the blacks appropriately. But there is still another reason that leads straight into the social context. Minstrels did not at all bother to show a real and authentic image of the Negroes, they rather tried to romanticize them. This can be underlined by many lyrics of sentimental minstrel songs.
 
 

4.2 The lyrics

The song "My Old Kentucky Home" by Stephen Foster begins with the lines

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay,...(12)

Here is an excerpt from the plantation melody "Carry me back to old Virginny":

There's where I labored so hard for old massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn.
No place on earth do I love more sincerely.(13)

In these songs the blacks were portrayed as always happy and singing. They love their slave owners and are totally devoted to them even if they have to work hard for them. The whole life on the Southern plantations is romanticized. A typical stereotype of these lyrics is the wandering Negro who longs to be back where he ‘belongs':

"Old folks at home”:

All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for the old plantation,
And for the old folks at home.(14)

With songs like these and the persisting notion that the blacks like to be slaves, the minstrels gave the white audience a clear conscience and a good excuse not to think about the fate of the oppressed Negroes.

Although in the last decades of the nineteenth century the minstrel show slowly disappeared many of the most famous songs did not. But they gradually were taken out of the minstrel context. During the Civil War some songs that were originally composed for and performed in minstrel shows were given new lyrics and used as ,battle cries' . "Dixie's Land" could be mentioned here; a song that was transformed into the national anthem of the Confederacy. But most of the tunes turned into so-called traditionals, meaning all-American folk songs. During this process the pseudo Negro dialect and allusions to the minstrel context were often replaced by more neutral expressions. Darkie was replaced by fellow, words like massa and mistress were omitted. The spelling was also adjusted to today's standards, like in "Swanee River":

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, far, far away, Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,...(15)
-> Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away, There's where my heart is turning ever,...(16)

As an example of two different versions of a complete song I chose "Carry me back to old Virginny" by James Bland:

Original Version:

1. Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and 'tatoes grow,
There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There's where the old darkey's heart am longed to go.
There's where I labored so hard for old massa
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.
 

2. Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live, till I whither and decay,
Long by the old dismal swamp have I wandered,
There's where the old darkey's life will pass away.
Massa and missis have long gone before me,
Soon will we meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.(17)
 

Arrangement by Cavanough-Stanton:

1. Carry me back to old Virginny.
There's where the cotton and the corn and 'tatoes grow,
There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There's where the old folks are longing to go.
There's where I labored so hard all my lifetime,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.
 

2. Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live till I whither and decay,
Long by the old dismal swamp have I wandered,
There's where this old one's life will pass away.
My friend and my folks have long gone before me,
Soon will we meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.(18)
 

Over the last decades some songs even became official state songs. "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" are two of them. This shows how forgotten their origins are today.


(7) Ostendorf, Berndt. "Vorformen und Nachbarfomen des amerikanischen Theaters: Minstrel Show, Vaudeville, Burlesque, Musical, 1800-1932. " In: Das amerikanische Drama. Ed. Gerhard Hoffmann. Bern: Francke, 1984, p. 24.
(8) Blume, Friedrich (Hg.). Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Kassel und Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1949, p. 1088.
(9) Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the rise of early Negroe Minstrelsy. University of Oklahoma Press, 1962,p. 261.
(10) Lumer, Robert. "Good ol' Slavery and the Minstrel Show." Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 33 (1985), p. 56.
(11) Toll, Robert C., Blacking Up. The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 50.
(12) Jackson, Richard (ed.). Popular Songs of Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976, p.135.
(13) Ibid., p. 45.
(14) Ibid., p. 165.
(15) Ibid., p. 164
(16) Buchner, Gerhard (Hg.). Songs aus Amerika. München, Wien, Hollywood/Florida: Franz Schneider Verlag, 1980, p. 35.
(17) Jackson, pp. 43-46.
(18) Haufrecht, H. (Hg.). FolkSing. New York: Hollis Music Inc. Für Deutschland: Essex Musikvertrieb, Köln, ohne Jahreszahl, p. 69.

 


©2000 by Jochen Scheytt
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