The Minstrel Show

Still another form of entertainment was called a Minstrel Show.  After the Civil War ended in 1865, formalized Minstrel Shows, utilizing three comic characters (Mr. Interlocutor, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones), were produced, introducing American audiences to syncopated music and dance.

We should not glance over the minstrel show too quickly, or we will lose an important thread, the thread of syncopation.  Use of the banjo by slaves introduced into the minds and tapping feet of every audience the infectious rhythms of syncopation.  Along these lines, it has been noted that: “Thomas Jefferson was probably the first white man to make note of the musical nature of his slaves.  ‘In music, they are more generally gifted than the whites,’ he wrote in the Notes on Virginia, ‘with accurate ears for tune and time….’ They also imported from Africa various kinds of African drums, and an African instrument that came to be known in the Colonies as a ‘banjo.’  Finally, they introduced into the music of the Colonies stylistic accents, variety of rhythm, and the ‘call and answer’ format of the chants.”

Daniel Decatur "Dan" Emmett Photo

Dan Emmett

White composers, such as Dan Emmett and Stephen Foster, wrote a number of songs in the Negro style.  Emmett’s songs included “Old Dan Tucker,” “The Blue Tail Fly,” “Walk Along, John” and “Dixie.”

“Dixie” is the song we most easily recognize.  It was President Lincoln’s favorite, and it is a fine composition.

However, because it is so well-known, we decided to remember Emmett by including some Ozark fiddling to the music of “Walk Along, John.”

In 1847, Foster wrote “Louisiana Belle,” which is one of his first songs, and should be played on a banjo.  We have included a wonderfully harmonic, western arrangement by The Sons of the Pioneers.

Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” (also in 1847) became the theme song sung by Forty-Niners on their way to California to pan for gold.  Then came “Old Uncle Ned” (1848), “Camptown Races” (1850) and “The Old Folks at Home” (1851).  When he wrote “The Old Folks at Home,” Foster was down on his luck; and, in order to survive, he sold the rights to the song to The Christy Minstrels for $15.  We can sense suffering creeping into Foster’s music, which seems to parallel his unfortunate experiences.  What other voice than Paul Robeson’s can best deliver the pathos of this music.

Foster’s “Ring De Banjo” (1851) is a good example of harmony centered around the syncopated sound of banjo music.  While the Robert Shaw Chorale version is a bit stylized, it preserves the beauty of the music.

Foster published “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground” in 1852 and “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1853.  We have included Robeson’s moving version of “My Old Kentucky Home,” as an example of progression of both composition and expression.

Foster’s last great “Negro” song was “Old Black Joe” which was also known as “Gone Are the Days.” It was published in 1860 and represents a final transformation in the words and music Foster used, especially as sung by Robeson in a Gospel style.  Listening to Robeson’s voice, we can hear the weary acceptance of loss and pain as the only rewards one can expect in this mortal existence.  Yet, listen more attentively the second time you play it, and you will sense the unbowed head, the spirit that was never touched by mortal strife; the dignity of a man whose soul is still intact.

We think this is how Foster felt when he wrote the song.  Between the two men, composer and singer, we begin to understand what the lack of freedom felt like in 1860.  

Perhaps, this is why the African-American community could empathize with the suffering that Jesus endured in order to preach his Gospel of peace and love.  Perhaps the feeling in the black community was that, if Jesus could endure the scourge and the cross, they can endure the lash of the whip.

On the other hand, the same music could be used to create a jazz-rhythmed tap dance. Listen to the intermingling of “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe” as performed by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1934 movie short, King for a Day.