With the intention of getting to the most uncomfortable stuff about “minstrelsy” right at the top, Jim Crow started as a stage character before lending the name to a collection of laws that shame the United States to this day. And, hey, the guy who came up with it, Thomas D. “Daddy” (why?) Rice? He’s from my hometown (stay classy, Cincinnati). Also, guy named George Washington Dixon worked under the stage name, “Zip Coon.” (This is his title track, apparently, and…harsh start…”Do Your Ears Hang Low”? There it is, a cherished tune from my childhood, birthed as a straight racist classic.)
It's uncomfortable to like at a creative form like minstrelsy – e.g. stage productions featuring white performers in blackface, which peaked in popularity in the two decades running up to our nation’s only true existential crisis (so far), the American Civil War (roughly, 1840 – 1860) – but context is always important. To quote Crawford:
“When characters of American Indian, Irish, or Scottish descent appeared on nineteenth-century stages, their stories were immediately ripe for elaboration because the audience expected them to behave in certain ways.”
Minstrelsy offered up stereotype as humor, basically, a long, proud tradition that limps on in (what feels like the dead form) “white people do this/black people do this” comedy. By way of live stage shows that followed a fairly standard pattern – “first a group of songs…then an ‘olio’ (hodgepodge) section including stump speeches and other novelties; and finally a large-scale burlesque skit set in the South” - minstrelsy makes a case as the first original and truly popular musical/entertainment form in American history, even as the sophistication of the material changed. As Crawford notes, it “proved to be the first musical genre to reverse the east-to-west transatlantic flow of performers to North America.” So, minstrelsy sounds like America’s first pop culture export. Yay?