From Minstrel Stage to Broadway
From Minstrel Stage to Broadway
The Minstrel Legacy. As early as the 1700s, white actors—their faces smeared with burnt cork—took to the stage in “blackface” to portray African Americans. By the 1830s such portrayals had evolved into a staple form of entertainment at the circus or between acts at the theater, with song and dance augmenting display. By the next decade the first full-length “minstrel shows” had taken shape. These extravaganzas, featuring broad comedy, elaborate dress, and plaintive singing, represented (or misrepresented) black folkways for white audiences. The sentimental plantation ballads of white composer Stephen Foster (1826-1864)—including “Old Folks at Home” (1851), “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” (1852), “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), and “Old Black Joe” (1860)—helped make the minstrel show the dominant form of public entertainment in the United States at midcentury.
African American Variations. Success rendered the minstrel formula largely inviolable. Thus, when African American minstrels took to the stage in the post-Civil War period, they invariably “blacked up” and conformed to stereotypes (the childlike servant, the comic buffoon) created by the white minstrels who preceded them. Billy Kersands (1842-1915), a talented African American minstrel, became one of the highest-paid entertainers of the 1870s and 1880s. His singing and soft-shoe dancing, along with his talent for mimicry and physical comedy, enchanted audiences, white and black. Yet Kersands’s clowning reinforced rather than repudiated minstrel stereotypes. In some cases, however, the minstrel show provided an arena in which African Americans could poke fun at white culture. Traditionally the minstrel show concluded with a “walk-around” or “cakewalk”: a ritualized dance in which couples high-stepped and promenaded in the manner of—or in mockery of—plantation elite. As the critic Eric Sundquist points out, the cakewalk could represent not only “a burlesque of black freedom and cultural integrity” but also a turnabout “in which the racist appropriation of black life . . . gave way to an African American reversal of the stereotype.” Without a doubt the minstrel tradition blunted the expressive range of African American entertainers. At the same time, minstrelry nurtured talents, opened doors, and spawned musical genres that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Syncopated Rhythm. One mainstay of the minstrel show was the banjo, an instrument imported from Africa (where it was called the banza, banjil, banjer, and banshaw in various dialects). Most early banjos had four strings. By the mid nineteenth century, however, the typical North American banjo had sprouted a fifth string: shorter than the other four, and designed to be picked with the thumb. Interviewed in 1897, Kentucky-born pianist Ben Harney (1871-1938) theorized that the origins of ragtime music lay in this shortened fifth string. “The colored performer,” Harney explained, “strumming in his own cajoling way, likes to throw in a note at random, and his thumb ranges over this for effect. When he takes up the piano, the desire for the same effect dominates him, being almost second nature, and he reaches for the open banjo-string note with his little finger.” In ragtime, Harney continued, the pianist’s left hand keeps time while the right hand—driven by the little finger-—sends the tune spinning “off stride.”
Ragtime Musicians. During the 1890s and the early years of the early twentieth century Saint Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, Baltimore, Kansas City, and New York served as magnets for black ragtime composers such as Tom Turpin (1873-1922), Tony Jackson (1876-1921), Joe Jordan (1882-1971), and Euday Louis
Bowman (1887-1949). Scott Joplin (1868-1917), the king of ragtime pianists, came from a musical family: his father, a former slave, played the fiddle; his mother played the banjo and sang. As a young man Joplin set off to make a living as a roving pianist, playing in saloons and bordellos throughout the South and Midwest. The pianist Otis Saunders, whom Joplin met at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, encouraged Joplin to transfer some of his compositions to paper. “Maple Leaf Rag,” published in 1899, sold more than a million copies in sheet-music form; its success freed Joplin from the necessity of touring and allowed him to devote more time to teaching and composition. After the turn of the century Joplin’s string of hits continued with rags such as “The Easy Winners” (1902), “The Entertainer” (1902), and “The Cascades” (1904).
Show Business. The minstrel tradition and its ragtime offshoot served as a training ground for many of the greatest African American performers of the late nineteenth century. Georgia-born Bob Cole (1868-1911) got his start in the minstrel theater of the 1890s. A songwriter—whose songs included the 1893 “Parthenia Takes a Likin’ to a Coon” and “In Shin Bone Alley”—and performer, Cole broke with his white bosses in 1895 and formed his own theater company. With his collaborator, Billy Johnson, Cole produced the Off-Broadway show A Trip to Coontown in 1898; never before had African Americans written, performed, and produced a full-length musical. Sam Lucas (1840-1916), a cast member in A Trip to Coontown, had been active in minstrel theater since the late 1860s. The most famous black actor of his generation, Lucas helped usher in a new era when he starred as Uncle Tom in the 1915 silent-film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The conservatory-trained violinist Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) melded ragtime rhythms with classical phrasing in his hit musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk. Featuring the songs “Darktown is Out Tonight,” “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?,” and “Hottest Coon in Dixie,” Clorindy opened in July 1898 to rave reviews. Its cast of twenty-six African American singers and dancers wowed audiences at the open-air Casino Theater Roof Garden in New York City and won accolades for Cook and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), who wrote the lyrics. An intense professional, Cook enjoyed continued success as a bandleader, a composer of popular songs, and a musical director of Broadway shows. Although he remained frustrated by the narrow range of options open to black musicians, Cook recognized that Clorindy was a breakthrough. “Negroes were at last on Broadway, and there to stay,” Cook recalled. “Gone was the uff-dah of the minstrel! Gone the Massa Linkum stuff! We were artists and … nothing could stop us.”
The popularity of the minstrel show helped establish rigid conventions for public performance in the mid nineteenth century: white entertainers sampling “black” musical forms always performed in blackface. By the 1880s, however, the rules had begun to change. The agent of change was the banjo: a humble instrument of African origins that had served for decades as a mainstay of the minstrel show. Suddenly hordes of young white women began taking banjo lessons and — if they were brave — performing at private parties and soirees. College boys formed banjo clubs. “Extra-Fine” banjos retailed for upwards of $100. Although some enterprising folks performed works by Frédéric Chopin on their banjos, the banjo repertoire remained weighted toward “folk” music, much of it derived from the African American tradition. Once this banjo craze was underway, however, white performers no longer donned blackface to strum a banjo.
A two-page advertisement in the December 1893 issue of Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal illustrated the curious cultural status of the banjo. “Should you say ‘Banjo Concert′ to your Grand-Father, he might have this picture in his mind’s eye,” announced a bold headline over a crude sketch of a banjo player with the stereotypical features of the minstrel: a corked face, gaudy striped shirt, and oversized shoes. “The banjo was once monopolized by the Negro minstrel performers, and hence it became associated with the black face, and was some times called the ‘Negro instrument,′” the advertisement continued. “The banjo of to-day is altogether another instrument. YOU WILL NOT see anything like the above at the great Banjo Concert, at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, on Saturday Evening, January 13th, 1894.” Clearly, racial prejudice helped “sell” events such as the Philadelphia Banjo Concert. Yet the “evolution” of the banjo also heralded a growing respect for African American musical contributions — and foreshadowed the vogue of ragtime, jazz, and other black-influenced genres of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Source: Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
Susan Curtis, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994);
Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991);
Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to Concert Halls: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930 (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark, 1992);
Eric Sundquist, To Wake the Nations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).