Hokum’s Daddy and Dirty Blues’ Granddaddy: the Minstrel Show

When I finally listened to my mother and decided to sing Dirty Blues, the required reading took me directly into the rich vein of history that is the Minstrel Show.  Those blackface variety shows, constructed of racism and vulgarity  and looked upon by modern audiences with horror are simultaneously revolting, mysterious and frightening.  There is so much to say about the form -- and so much has been said by brilliant people -- that imagining an examination on this little forum of mine went so far beyond daunting as to be laughable.  I could excuse my discomfort on the grounds that the subject is terribly loaded emotionally... a stroll through a minefield.  It's also true, though, that the little summaries I like to compose for myself (which then become the pencil sketches I hold in my mind's eye as I work on historical music) simply won't suffice for a subject so vast. You have to do the reading.  There is no summarizing, really; it is, however, worth every minute.  Go down the rabbit hole of links to essays, books, articles, this particularly fantastic book by John Strausbaugh, and God only knows how much stuff.  You may, as I did, realize you skipped lunch entirely and actually, you just missed your train not looking up, dammit. Who knows when another B will come. Argh.

The passages that struck me and the things that occurred to me as I did the reading, drew me strongly to the historical, political and social context of this music, and I found that the landscape the form occupied was at least as interesting to me as the music itself. 

I don’t believe it’s true that the United States was born fully-formed in 1776 when we declared our independence from Great Britain.  Rather, it seems to me that our nation was formed as the result of a series of gestures that took place over the first hundred years of our history.  This came to mind as I was reading the history of the minstrel show, and it was particularly interesting to me that the sharp corners in the evolution of minstrel show seemed to coincide with the major gestures which formed the United States.

The sketch I came up with is a crude stick figure beside all the eloquent analyses that are available, and I don’t pretend to understand or explain it in a comprehensive way.  Even so, American minstrelsy is such a deep subject that I was unable to reduce even my own relatively brief thoughts to a single post.

Instead, I will examine the changes in the minstrel show’s form as they relate to the pivotal moments in our early history, in a series of related posts that will appear in this space from time to time.  I hope others with an interest in history will find them engaging, and I hope that writing them will inform for me my performance of Hokum Blues and, going forward, other genres that draw from that well.

Read on....

I: Minstrelsy and the War of 1812

Kathryn Allyn