(Pictured: blackface minstrels onstage in 1925.)
I recently read Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 by David Wondrich. (It’s the subject of an episode of the always-terrific Let It Roll podcast, which you can listen to here.) One of its topics is the birth and growth of the minstrel show, a popular form of entertainment from the 1840s well into the 20th century. White performers put on blackface and told jokes, sang, played instruments, and danced in appallingly racist caricatures of Black people and others. However, despite their racist content, minstrel shows were a significant ingredient in the stew that eventually became American popular music as we would know it in our time.
As it happens, I have seen a minstrel show. More than once.
In the 1960s and 1970s, my Wisconsin hometown, population about 8,700, was 99 and 44/100 percent white, heavily Swiss and German. And every year, the local Lions Club put on what it called a “modern” minstrel show, which featured our city band and an all-local cast. It was a very popular ticket, often selling out the local school auditorium on a Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.
The show opened, as in days of old, with a musical number, then a group of performers took their places on the stage. In the middle was the master of ceremonies, known as the interlocutor. He was flanked by six “end men,” who told jokes and bantered with the interlocutor, and with each other. This was a variation on the traditional 19th and early 20th century shows, where there were but two end men, frequently named Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (as pictured above). The end men and interlocutor were played by prominent local businessmen and professional men of the kind likely to be members of the Lions Club. They appeared in the same roles year after year, as did many of the featured singers and dancers. I can’t remember if any women were part of the cast.
After a round of jokes, banter, and pratfalls by the end men, there followed the olio, in which the end men and interlocutor left the stage, and various singers and dancers performed straight. The olio was followed by the afterpiece. In traditional minstrel shows, this was often a skit set on a plantation, or a cakewalk. What it was in my town’s show I don’t remember, although the end men and interlocutor eventually came back for more comedy before a big musical finale involving the whole cast.
When the minstrel show in my town began in 1953, the performers wore blackface. By the time I was attending, in the late 60s and early 70s, the performers wore whiteface, as well as all-white costumes meant to be similar to the shabby costumes blackface minstrels sometimes wore—castoff clothing and junkyard chic, another caricature of Black people. (If this seemed odd to me, I don’t remember it; it was just the way they dressed at the minstrel show.)
I dug into the archives of a hometown Facebook group to read a discussion from a few years back about the minstrel show. A number of people who commented had fathers, uncles, or grandfathers who had been cast members. Many people pointed out that the shows were “politically incorrect” without getting much into specifics. I doubt that the modern shows were as crudely racist as the traditional shows, but traditional minstrel shows were equal-opportunity offenders: they parodied not only Black people but other non-white people and immigrants. (Facebook commenters remembered that our town’s minstrel show frequently made fun of hippies; a classmate of mine remembers appearing as a “Swiss Indian.”) I scrolled expecting somebody to go off on an anti-PC tirade, but nobody did. One commenter even noted that she has a large collection of photos from the minstrel shows but was reluctant to share them because of their potential to offend. (That nobody called her a woke liberal snowflake is a minor miracle.)
Time passed, and the Lions Club eventually decided to stop doing the minstrel show. No one in the Facebook group gave a reason; surely if it had been due to some outcry over the content of the show, somebody would have remembered that. It seems more likely that the show simply petered out because of a lack of interest among the public, or the performers. The last show was presented in 1983—astoundingly late in history for such a problematical form of entertainment to continue, even in a “modern,” sanitized, whiteface form. But in a small, lily-white town, perhaps not all that surprising.