The minstrel show, which crystallized in the early 1840's, was arguably the first distinct American music-theatre genre. Created by white Americans, antebellum minstrelsy relied on blackface and caricatures of African Americans to amuse audiences that were predominantly white. These variety shows, with their stock characters, stand-up comedians, tall tales, and songs and dances, reflected the white man's idea of black music and made liberal use of crude, even offensive dialect and grotesque stereotypes. By 1849 they had become such raucous entertainment that Stephen Foster, whose early songs in this genre established his fame, would vow to do away with the trashy and really offensive words of the dialect songs. He refused to permit his sheet music to carry any of the cartoon depictions of African Americans as creatures of ridicule, and went on to create songs like “Nelly Was a Lady” and “Old Dog Tray,” in which African Americans were depicted with increasing dignity and compassion.
Yet before and after Foster's attempts at reform, the minstrel tradition retained its popularity for almost 30 years. After Daddy Rice, the most famous of the early blackface entertainers, introduced his song-dance routine “Jim Crow” in 1832, blackface became a craze. Before long minstrel troupes were organized, the earliest of these the Virginia Minstrels (to whom Dan Emmett belonged for a time) and the Christy Minstrels, whose overwhelming success paved the way for hundreds of other companies, among them the Sable Minstrels, the Virginia Harmonists, the Harmoneons, and the Ethiopian Operatic Brothers.
In the two decades before the Civil War, the notion of touring troubadours had become so popular that singing groups who did not perform in blackface began to achieve popularity as well. Walt Whitman's favorite of these practitioners of heart singing, as he called it, were the Hutchinsons, who regaled their audiences with a mixture of folk and art song, performing Anglo-American ballads, slave and plantation songs, and sentimental concert songs. But the idiom in which the Hutchinsons excelled was the protest song, and they took their message of Abolition and social reform throughout the land, performing at Union rallies after the war broke out and going on to champion universal suffrage and women's rights after its close.
Also after the war's end, black performers took to the minstrel stage for the first time. African-American entertainers such as Charles Hicks, Sam Lucas, and the Georgia Minstrels rivaled their blackface imitators in popularity. While the distasteful form and content of the minstrel show changed very little, it did afford a transition for black performers who won, for the first time, acceptance in front of white audiences. Before the minstrel show gradually gave way to vaudeville in the waning decade of the 19th century, it also produced the first successful African-American songwriter, James Bland, whose “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” showed the influence of Foster's plantation music.
While blackface minstrelsy of the pre-Civil war era probably had more to do with Anglo-Celtic melodies than it did with authentic black music, Reconstruction gradually ushered in a climate where African-American culture began to find its voice. In the 1860's and 1870's that voice was carried far and wide by the performances of two all-black singing troupes, The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Singers, who acted as ambassadors (and fund-raisers) for their newly formed colleges. Bolstered by the successes of black performers in the minstrel venue, and eager to supplant that genre with more serious programs, these singers offered a diverse repertoire of African-American spirituals and slave songs; Stephen Foster melodies; sacred music; and popular ballads. Still active organizations today, these chorales can be credited not only with preserving the popular 19th-century concert song, but also with influencing and disseminating gospel, blues, and jazz – the full flowerings of the African-American musical imagination.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: "The Traveling Minstrel," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID cph 3a46920