Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

137: Minstrel shows in Britain

This article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Black British History (2007), later available in paperback.

Minstrelsy. Musical and humorous entertainment style popular from about 1850 to 1970. The entertainers blacked up, a grotesque parody of black Americans of the Southern slave states. When African-descent entertainers participated, they too wore burnt-cork make-up. Minstrel shows were musical, vibrant, amusing, and capable of swiftly adapting to new circumstances.
Most societies have entertainers who use masks and gaudy clothes, speak with false accents, dance in exaggerated ways, and play musical instruments with visible enthusiasm. The minstrel show did all these. A minstrel show was a self-contained entertainment.
Minstrelsy originated in the United States, where it once showed both the evils of slavery and the allegedly happy plantation slave. The best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin added dramatic elements; then Negro spirituals, brought to England by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1871, added songs including ‘Go Down, Moses’ and ‘Steal Away to Jesus’. Costumes ranged from ragged hand-me-downs to primary-coloured broad-striped fashions, dinner jackets, and the 18th-century styles favoured by ‘court minstrels’.
Minstrelsy encouraged audience interaction. Opening with the entire company in a semi-circle, with individual acts including dialect songs and dances, the cast would join in the chorus. In the centre was the pompous interlocutor, or master of ceremonies, personifying dignity. The endmen had comic roles, making jokes often about the interlocutor. The audience joined in their mockery. With malapropisms and vulgar dialect the endmen — Brudder Tambo and Brudder Bones — were in turn mocked by the interlocutor. He directed the action on stage, swiftly responding to the audience: another reason why minstrel shows were very successful.
The show would include handsome tenors singing emotional songs. This sharply contrasted to Tambo and Bones, who made puns, contorted their bodies, and wore the most flamboyant costumes. The second act could include a range of entertainers, providing time for the closing act’s set to be put up behind the curtains. Almost any style of act might be seen, but the main attraction was a stump speech. An ill-educated, verbose, over-serious speaker would include the latest political and local news in this act, which usually ended when he fell off his soap-box. Local dignitaries and leaders of society were parodied. This was the heritage of the jester.
The age of minstrelsy was in an era when music publishing, the manufacture of inexpensive musical instruments, and easy movement afforded by railways led to composers and performers of popular melodies achieving fame and fortune. Minstrel shows led to so-called dialect songs reaching most parts of Britain. Audiences enjoyed minstrels singing of ‘Away Down in de Kentuck [Kentucky] Brake’, ‘Dixie’, and ‘Dar Is a Place Call’d Loozyann [Louisiana]’. The sentimental sighed when they heard ‘Old Mass Was de Best ob [sic] Men’.
Men and women purchased banjos — and mandolins and guitars — and played the songs at home. Groups played together; singers performed to the piano in domestic music-making. Amateur groups were widespread: the squire’s in rural Oxfordshire in the 1880s is recalled in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford memoirs.
Professional groups reached every urban centre of Britain. Several groups named the Christy Minstrels, notably that run by George ‘Pony’ Moore, had continuing success. St James Hall in Piccadilly, London, a 550-seat basement beneath a grander hall, became a centre for minstrel shows until it was demolished in 1904. The Moore Minstrels set the standard for four decades.
Although Tambo and Bones and the interlocutor retained vital roles, the scope had widened. Though plantation and Southern state theme songs remained, there were Irish songs, comic songs, and dramatic ballads, sometimes presented by operatic singers.
Following emancipation in the United States many black Americans played in Britain. Sam Hague publicized his Georgia Minstrel Troupe of 26 freed slaves, whose tour opened in Liverpool in July 1866. In time experienced white performers replaced many of them. Aaron Banks was the longest-surviving original member working in Britain.
Other black American minstrels in Britain included composer James Bland (‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’, ‘Oh dem Golden Slippers’) and the comedian Billy Kersands. By 1903, when Bert Williams was starring in In Dahomey in London (his acting impressed the dramatist George Bernard Shaw), with burn cork and exaggerated white lips, he had obtained black support in America for his amusing dialect talk. Normally he spoke standard American (he had been brought up in California). English comments on In Dahomey noted problems with accents, nevertheless. The card-sharp, the pompous speechmaker, the enthusiastic dancers, and the humour made In Dahomey a semi-minstrel show on the West End stage.
Theatres and halls lost their monopoly as the cinema gained popularity, but minstrels (and genuine Blacks) continued to entertain at seaside resorts in the summer, the burnt cork often the sole survivor of the tradition. When Ken Johnson’s West Indian dance orchestra was playing in an exclusive West End club around 1938, a customer was heard to ask the debonair leader (a Guyanese doctor’s son) if he played the bones, such was the legacy of minstrelsy.
Minstrelsy’s success was due to it being a family show, with choral and solo singing, instrumental selections, humour, topicality, sentimentality, and joy. African-descent performers were often first-class, as with the Bohee Brothers, Canada-born banjoists. Will Garland, an American based in London, kept minstrel elements in his black shows into the 1930s.
Burnt cork was just one of minstrelsy’s negative images of Blacks. The entry of a watermelon cart would lead to the entire cast breaking away to munch the sweet fruit; scenes set in a bar would involve poker players cheating, and threatening each other with razors. The cast would stop to dance at the slightest opportunity.
When The Black and White Minstrel Show appeared on British television in the 1960s, many welcomed it, but protests eventually led to its being terminated in 1978. An era was over.
end of article

Pages expanding this theme include
001 In Dahomey
049 Eugene McAdoo’s singers
074 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
075 Horace Weston, banjo maestro
120 Black prima donnas