Music in the Minstrel Shows

"Das wohl eindrucksvollste Erbe der Minstrel Show ist wohl das noch heute verbreitete Liedmaterial, das im Umkreis der Minstrel Show entstand."(1)  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."(2)  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:

  • The rhythm is not the steady marching rhythm but a more complicated, punctuated and syncopated rhythm derived from drum patterns.
  • 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.
  • 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." (3)  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.” (4)

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 (5) 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.

(1) 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.
(2) Blume, Friedrich (Hg.). Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Kassel und Basel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1949, p. 1088.
(3) Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the rise of early Negroe Minstrelsy. University of Oklahoma Press, 1962,p. 261.
(4) Lumer, Robert. "Good ol' Slavery and the Minstrel Show." Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 33 (1985), p. 56.
(5) Toll, Robert C., Blacking Up. The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 50.


  © 2022 by Jochen Scheytt

Jochen Scheytt
is a teacher, pianist, composer, arranger and author. He teaches at the State University of Music and the Performing Arts Stuttgart and at the Schlossgymnasium in Kirchheim unter Teck.