the complicated legacy of minstrel shows -- 2/21/20

Today's selection -- from Billie Holiday by John Szwed. Minstrel shows, most often with white entertainers performing in blackface, were a highly racist phenomenon that were a pervasive form of entertainment in America for over 80 years through the 1800s and early 1900s. Yet as complicated and fundamentally offensive as they were, it was part of what led to a break with a purely European music tradition:

"African Americans were leading the way in breaking with European musical tradition, and, strange as it might seem, this break had been anticipated, and maybe even urged, by the minstrel show, the first form of musical theater to reach the whole country. Its history is much longer than the eighty or so years that it is said to have lasted in the United States; its legacy is far more complicated than just a matter of white people copying black people, and even today questions about the sources of this music and its influence remain unsettled.

"Some minstrels were black, and some of those we now consider white performers were then categorized as nonwhite in one way or another. A few of the white performers who wore blackface, such as Al Jolson or Libby Holman, were very popular among people of color. Minstrelsy reached a much wider audience than just the United States, and it took on different meanings in other countries. In South Africa minstrel performances in blackface have been popular for over a century among nonwhite Africans in Cape Town during Coon Carnival in January of each year. Adolf Hitler's mistress Eva Braun posed in blackface for professional entertainers' photos in imitation of her favorite performer, Al Jolson, who was Jewish. Billie Holiday, like many other black performers of her time, at least once had to darken her skin so as not to look too white when appearing with a band of black musicians before a white audience.


"The music and dance of minstrel shows were not copying Negroes so much as they were constructions of imaginary characters in imaginary antebellum settings by white composers and choreographers who put them together from various cultural ingredients. If they believed what they were presenting were simulations of real people, they had failed. More likely, they knew they were pastiches, or parodies, especially because many of the tunes of the minstrels and some of the humor had scarcely concealed origins among the tent and stage shows from the past that had minstrelized the Irish. A New York theater writer in the late 1800s remarked after a minstrel show he had just witnessed that he pitied Negro performers because they had to compete with the real thing! ...

"But whatever its history and complexity, and however distasteful it is, minstrelsy tells us that something was missing and desperately needed in American singing: the voices of excluded black people. The offshoots of minstrelsy shaped styles and agendas that are in some ways still with us today. In 1961 the great R&B singer Jackie Wilson recorded a tribute album to Al Jolson, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet. Aretha Franklin's father, the estimable Reverend R. L. Franklin, said his favorite singers were Muddy Waters and Al Jolson, and Aretha herself recorded some of Jolson's and Stephen Foster's songs. Since the heyday of minstrelsy, popular music has continued to be a form of cultural masking, a weird type of passing, a den of exoticism, an arena for vernacular everything but especially speech, and a playground for those who enjoy crossing lines, changing shape, and taking risks."



John Szwed


Billie Holiday: The Musician & The Myth


William Heinemann


Copyright John Szwed 2015


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