Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song.

Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used for any other text. Some attempted to portray their supposed backwardness by simplifying the melody and harmony. Some attempted to portray their supposed uncouth primitiveness with Scottish rhythms and pentatonic melodies.

In 1822, a successful English actor, Charles Matthews visited New York, where he expected to make more money than he could in London. Matthews had a great ear for dialect, and his most successful acts had been one-person entertainments made up of monologues, jokes, and songs impersonating various characters. America offered not only financial rewards, but a chance to learn new accents and dialects. Fascinated with the speech of blacks, Matthews was the first to pay careful enough attention to reproduce them accurately.

At about the same time, American entertainers darkened their faces with burnt cork. Several achieved great success as blackface entertainers in the 1820s and 30s. Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed the character “Jim Crow,” who not only sang but danced. According to one story, which might actually be true, Rice first performed his act wearing the clothes of a negro beggar in Pittsburgh, who interrupted the act to get his clothes back to catch a steamboat, much to the amusement of the audience.

The music of Rice and others bore no resemblance to authentic slave songs. Blacks had much more musical talent than anyone of the time gave them credit for. Many, such as band leader Francis Johnson, became proficient in performing the music popular among the white population. If Rice heard lower-class blacks singing in the Northern towns he visited, he may have thought his tunes were as authentic as he thought his dialect and dances were.

Up until the end of the 1830s, concerts and evenings at the theater often offered a variety of entertainments. Blackface routines, among other things, often appeared between the acts of a play or opera.

By the 1840s, so-called minstrel shows were widely regarded as a characteristically American form of entertainment. Different from the earlier variety shows, minstrel shows consisted of a group of white musicians in blackface performing for an entire evening. An “ethiopian band” called the Virginia Minstrels presented perhaps the first of these in 1843.

A year later, nearly every city had its own minstrel groups. Many others toured around the country, visiting smaller towns. Christy’s Minstrels dominated the field for decades. Banjoist Dan Emmett, a founding member of the short-lived Virginia Minstrels, also maintained his eminence.

Musically, the earliest minstrel songs typically greatly resembled other American popular songs in the English/Irish/Scottish vein, with occasional elements of Italian opera. In the late 1840s and 50s, their harmonies and structure took on greater sophistication and irregularity. Gone was any attempt to use childishly simple tunes to portray backwardness. Since composers intended these new “plantation songs” for performance on stage, many of them required a soloist on the verses,  joined by a chorus on the refrain.

The emotional content of the words likewise underwent an evolution from demeaning stereotypes played for cheap laughs to plantation songs, still in dialect, but expressing the same emotional range from tenderness to love to grief  as any other song of the time. In fact, in humanizing the experiences of slaves, some of these songs may have given some emotional support to the abolitionist movement. Others maintained a strongly pro-slavery viewpoint. As the country became more divided over the issue, the song texts became more strident.

This post describes minstrel songs only about up to the American Civil War. They did not peak in popularity until the 1880s. Blackface entertainers lasted into the twentieth century. Even before the Civil War, the innovations (both musical and textual) that led to the plantation song began to effect other popular songs that had nothing to do with dialect or plantation life.

By the 1840s American song had evolved from styles indistinguishable from what was popular in England to something distinctive. One more element, German song, deserves attention before this series turns to surveying individual American composers and their songs.


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