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Minstrel shows were a type of entertainment that originated before the American Civil War and continued to be popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The show consisted of white performers appearing in Blackface, often sitting in a semicircle on the stage and taking turns performing a variety of acts. The shows often had two emcees known as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. The shows were heavily based on mocking and lampooning stereotypical black culture, but the music was also taken seriously for its artistic merit.

Despite the Values Dissonance of the basic premise, the minstrel show is significant for several reasons:

  • Minstrel shows were the first uniquely American form of artistic expression. Like Vaudeville and Burlesque, they were were Variety Shows, featuring a mix of song, dance, sketch comedy and stand-up comedy. These forms combined with aspects of Operetta contributed to the development of American Musical Theater.
  • The minstrel show was one of the few ways for actual black performers to be seen by a large audience. Sadly, they would also appear in Blackface and often disguised the fact that they were actually black. There were, however, several famous black minstrel show performers.
  • The musical performance portions were initially white parodies of black music, but the parodies became so popular that they spawned a legitimate genre of African-influenced music.

Examples of Minstrel Shows include:

  • In The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson plays a young Jewish man who longs to be a popular singer instead of a religious cantor as his father wants him to be. The songs that Jolson sings, however, are minstrel show tunes sung on Blackface. The most popular song is "Mammy," which was often parodied in bizarre Looney Tunes cartoons.
  • Bert Williams, the famous comedian signed by Florenz Ziegfeld for the Ziegfeld Follies was from the West Indies, yet performed in blackface.
  • In Everybody Sing (1938), Judy Garland breaks into Broadway by way of a minstrel-show production.
  • In Babes on Broadway (1941) -- third of the Mickey-Rooney-and-Judy-Garland "backyard musicals," where the kids in the local high school put on a show -- their show is a blackface minstrel show.
  • In Swanee River (1940), Al Jolson plays 19th-Century minstrel-man E.P. Christie, introducing the songs of Stephen Foster to America. Watch Jolson in blackface, with a whole minstrel troupe, singing "Oh Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home/Swanee River" -- practically every song Foster ever wrote was meant to be sung by white men in blackface, dressed like clowns. (In the case of "Old Folks at Home" one can tell from the lyrics -- "Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary." Never in American history did darkies typically address each other as "darkies," they used the n-word a lot but never "darkies," that's a word you'll scarcely find outside of minstrel-song lyrics.)
  • In Yes Mr. Bones (1951), a young boy finds himself in a home for retired minstrel-show acts, and there are flashbacks to the genre's glory days -- perhaps the most recent film where one can see a serious attempt to reconstruct such performances as they once were, played entirely straight for their own sake; and probably the last film made for which any living minstrel-show veterans were available. (The professional minstrel-show troupes died out by 1910, unable to compete with Vaudeville; but, minstrelsy survived for a while in one-act format within Vaudeville shows; and amateur, high-school and college productions of full-length minstrel shows continued well into the 1950s.)
  • In the Jazz Age generally, minstrelsy somehow synergized with the Harlem Renaissance to produce forms of minstrelsy apparently intended (by their white performers) as tributes to contemporary African-American art rather than mockery. Eddie Cantor was big on this. In Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), the eponymous Connecticut-Yankee-style time traveler, at the court of Harun al-Rashid, puts on blackface and leads a crowd of actual Africans in performing a big song-and-dance production, "Swing Is Here to Sway."
  • Sir Rodney Glossop appears in blackface to entertain his fiancee's young son in one of PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels.
  • Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled is about a black TV producer who creates a modern-day minstrel show.
  • In the All in The Family episode "Birth of the Baby", Archie's lodge puts on a ministrel show. When Mike argues that this offends black people, Archie says that it won't, because they are not allowed in anyway.
  • The minstrel song "Jump Jim Crow" became so popular that it entered the popular vernacular of its time, mostly as a slur, and ultimately gave its name to the American Jim Crows laws.
  • "Dixie," likewise, originally was written (in the 1850s) as a minstrel-show number, and that's a blackface character wishing (for whatever reason) he was in the land of cotton.
  • The BBC ran its Black and White Minstrel Show on TV until 1978. It continued as a stage show until 1987. It's now pretty much the standard UK allusion for "embarassingly racist past pop culture".
  • On Mad Men, Roger performs one at his wedding reception.