Lewis Hallam was probably the first actor to perform in blackface when he did an impression of a drunken black man in the play The Padlock in 1769. His performance proved popular, and similar acts began appearing in other plays and in circuses. Meanwhile, other performers were playing what they claimed to be "Negro music" in the streets of major cities on so-called black instruments such as the banjo. Performers added this music and dance as a central part of their blackface acts, and the public and press dubbed them "minstrels". Many popular entertainers got into the act, including George Washington Dixon and Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice.
The minstrel show as a complete evening's entertainment was invented when Dan Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels gave their first performance at the New York Bowery Amphitheatre in 1843. Shortly thereafter, E.P. Christy founded the Christy Minstrels , who would establish the template into which minstrel shows would fall for the next few decades. These two groups dominated the scene until the Civil War, touring the same circuits as opera companies, circuses, and European itinerate entertainers.
The rise of the minstrel show coincided with the growing abolitionist movement in the North. Northerners were concerned for the oppressed blacks of the South, but most of them had no idea how these slaves lived day-to-day. The minstrels provided the North with a kind of knowledge of the blacks, albeit a greatly romanticized and exaggerated one. Slaves were shown as happy, cheerful simpletons, always ready to sing and dance and to please their master. The message to Northern audiences was clear: don't worry about the slaves; they are happy with their lot in life.
The blackface also served as a sort of fool's mask, allowing the performers to lampoon virtually anything without offending the audience. This social criticism became more and more prevalent in the minstrel shows during the Civil War in the 1860s. Gradually, social commentary began to replace traditional elements of the minstrel show. Minstrels took on a much more decidedly abolitionist stance, and performers such as The Fighting Hutchinson Family became popular advocates of abolition, women's rights, and the temperance movement.
During the Civil War, black performers began to perform in minstrel shows. However, in keeping with convention, they still corked their faces just as the white performers did. All-black troupes such as Callender's Georgia Minstrels toured the North throughout the war, and white managers at war's end signed contracts with many of these troupes. The black troupes often featured woman performers, as well. One of the few things the minstrel shows did to help the lot of blacks in the United States was to give them their first legitimate opportunity to enter show business.
After the Civil War, minstrel troupes grew bigger and bigger as each troupe tried to outdo the others (J.H. Haverly's United Mastodon Minstrels had over 100 cast members, for example). Many troupes began touring Europe, and scenery often grew lavish and expensive. These changes made many minstrel shows unprofitable, and traditional troupes complained loudly about them. Many original themes of the show had been lost in the Civil War social commentary, and audiences began to dwindle. Finally, new entertainments such as vaudeville appeared in the 1890s. The minstrel show had all but disappeared by 1900.
The Christy Minstrels established the basic structure of the minstrel show in the 1840s. The show was divided into three major sections. During the first part, the entire troupe sang and danced onto stage, arranging themselves in a semi-circle and sitting after being instructed by the Interlocutor, a sort of host for the show. Various stock characters always sat in the same positions: the Interlocutor sat in the middle, flanked by Tambo and Bones who served as the endmen or cornermen. The Interlocutor and the endmen would then exchange jokes and perform a variety of humorous or maudlin songs. Finally, each member of the company would perform a solo dance or other act in the center of the semicircle during a section called the walk-around, cakewalk, or hoedown.
The second portion of the show, called the olio, had more of a variety show structure. Performers would dance, play instruments, do acrobatics, and demonstrate other amusing talents. Parodies of European-style entertainments were offered. Sometimes, European performance troupes would actually perform themselves. Blackface actors would often deliver stump speeches during the olio. These were long orations, often about society and politics, during which the dim-witted character tried to speak eloquently, only to deliver an endless string of malapropisms, jokes, and unintentional puns. Nevertheless, these stump speeches often delivered biting social criticism.
After the olio, the afterpiece was performed. In the early days of the minstrel show, this was often a skit set on a Southern plantation that usually included a number of musical and dance numbers. In later years, performers began to perform burlesque renditions of other plays; both Shakespeare and contemporary playwrights were common targets. The afterpiece allowed the minstrels to introduce new characters, some of whom became quite popular and spread from troupe to troupe.
The minstrel show relied on a few stock characters, each representing a stereotype of a particular kind of black person. The actors portraying these characters spoke in an exaggerated form of Black English Vernacular.
Thomas "Daddy" Rice invented the earliest of these stereotyped characters when he began to perform the Jump Jim Crow dance. He claimed to have learned the dance by watching an old, limping black man who worked as a stable hand. The man was dancing and singing the lyrics "Wheel about and turn about and do jus' so/Eb'ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow." The dance became extremely popular, and Rice toured the country performing it in blackface. Other early minstrel performers quickly adopted Rice's Jim Crow, and the character would later give his name to the racial segregation laws of the 1870s.
Jim Crow continued to feature in some minstrel shows, but he was eventually replaced by two characters named for the instruments they played: Tambo (for the tambourine) and Bones (for the bones , a rhythm instrument similar to castanets). These two characters served as the endmen and were shown to be simple-minded and unsophisticated by playing them off the Interlocutor, a white man who spoke in upper-class English and who used a much larger vocabulary than his fellow performers. The humor of these exchanges came from the misunderstandings on the part of the black characters when talking to the white Interlocutor. A typical exchange went something like this:
Interlocutor: "He must have been a doctor of some standing."
Bones: "No, he wasn't standing. He was sitting on a three-legged stool."
Another stock character was the wench , performed by a male performer in female clothes.
Zip Coon was a common character in the afterpiece. He was a Northern urban black man trying to live above his station by mimicking white, upper-class speech and dress, usually to no good effect.
The minstrel show's most enduring legacy is its music. Many songs still sung today had their origins in the minstrel show, a fact that only underscores the importance of music to the minstrel show as a whole. Troupes often marketed sheet music of the songs featured in the show so that viewers could enjoy them at home.
The minstrels always billed themselves and their music as being authentically black. The songs were called "plantation melodies" or "Ethiopian choruses", among other names. The music was, in fact, based on the European tradition with distinct Irish and Scottish folk music influences being prevalent. The only real elements of black music adopted by the performers were the instruments they played – the banjo, bones, fiddle, and tambourine.
The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. The minstrels had to please their audience, predominantly white Northerners, by playing music the spectators would find familiar and pleasant. By using the black caricatures and black music, the minstrels added a touch of the unknown to the performance, which was enough to fool audiences into accepting the whole performance as authentic. Furthermore, the white minstrel performers had little ready access to authentic black music, anyway. They could not have learned and played it without traveling to the South and finding a slave owner who would allow his slaves to play their own music in the first place. That said, some scholars argue that some of the earliest minstrels did travel to the South to observe slave music. The inauthenticity of the minstrel music and the Irish and Scottish elements in it are explained by the fact that slaves were rarely allowed to play native African music and therefore had to adopt and adapt the folk songs of Europe. The minstrels' dance styles, on the other hand, were much more true to their alleged source. Dances like the Turkey Trot , the Buzzard Lope , and the Juba Dance all had their origins on the plantations of the South.
The music of the minstrels portrayed a romanticized version of the South and plantation life. Slaves were always shown to be cheerful and singing. Songs about slaves yearning to return to their masters were plentiful, and some of these are still popular today, such as "Dixie", "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny ", and "My Old Kentucky Home".
Even as the minstrel show was dying out, blackface performers became common acts on vaudeville stages. These performers kept the familiar songs, dances, and pseudo-black dialect. The most famous of these performers is probably Al Jolson, who took the minstrel performance to the big screen in the 1920s in films such as The Jazz Singer (1927).
Popular entertainment would perpetuate the minstrel-show stereotype of the uneducated, ever-cheerful, and highly musical black well into the 1950s. The character Buckwheat from the Our Gang series of films is one example. Likewise, when the sound era of cartoons began in the late 1920s, early sound-era animators such as Walt Disney and Rudolf Ising gave their characters Mickey Mouse and Bosko (who already resembled blackface performers) a minstrel show personality as well, constantly singing and dancing and smiling. Radio shows also got into the act, a fact perhaps best exemplified by the popular Amos & Andy program. As recently as the mid - 1970s the BBC was screening The Black and White Minstrel Show, starring the George Mitchell Minstrels. Even today, the minstrel stereotypes persists to some extent. The 2000 Spike Lee movie Bamboozled alleges that modern black entertainment is nothing more than an outgrowth of the minstrel shows of a century past, for example.
Many minstrel songs are still popular folk songs sung today. Most have been expunged of the exaggerated black dialect and the overt references to blacks. "Dixie", for example, was adopted by the Confederacy as its national anthem and remains popular today, and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" was sanitized and made the state song of Virginia. The instruments of the minstrel show were also largely kept on, especially in the South. Minstrel performers from the last days of the shows, such as Uncle Dave Macon , helped popularize instruments such as the banjo and fiddle in modern Country-Western music.