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Collection Home Sweet Home: Life in Nineteenth-Century Ohio

Minstrel Songs

Primrose & West's Big Minstrels. Strobridge Lith. Co., c1896. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Blackface minstrelsy, which derived its name from the white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork, was a form of entertainment that reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century. Using caricatures of African Americans in song, dance, tall tales, and stand-up comedy, minstrelsy was immensely popular with white audiences. These caricatures usually featured the uncultured, parochial, happy-go-lucky southern plantation slave (Jim Crow) in his tattered clothing, or the urban dandy (Zip Coon or Dandy Jim), frequently presented as slow-talking, mischievous and gaudily overdressed. Both were dim-witted, lazy, and were intensely fond of both watermelon and chicken. For several decades these two stereotypes remained the most enduring of American minstrelsy.

The classic age of blackface minstrelsy began in the late 1830s, when performers began to regularly form duos, trios, and occasionally quartets. By the 1840s, the show typically was divided into two parts: the first concentrated largely upon the urban black dandy, the second on the southern plantation slave.

A significant change in minstrelsy was the development of troupes composed of black performers. Whereas the few that had existed in the early days had not been considered important, the impact of black companies was realized after the Civil War. The troupes provided a showcase for the talents of black musicians. In addition to plantation scenes and caricatures popularized by white performers, black troupes often incorporated African American religious music in their shows. The more popular included the Original Georgia Minstrels, Haverly's Colored Minstrels, Sprague's Georgia Minstrels, and W.S. Cleveland's Colored Minstrels. By the turn of the century most professional troupes had turned from classic minstrelsy to burlesque, the predecessor of the Broadway musical, and a form only marginally connected with minstrelsy. Nevertheless, among amateur performers and producers, minstrelsy continued as a popular form of American entertainment well into the 1920s.

Recordings and Sheet Music

Cover of Wake Up Jake

Wake Up Jake, by George Holman (Peters, Field & Co., Cincinnati, 1848).

This minstrel song is a comic dialect piece about a black railroad fireman from Pittsburgh. At the time, Pittsburgh rivaled Cincinnati as the fastest-growing city in what was then the West and was unsurpassed in the industry that earned it the nickname "The Iron City."

... Oh Bonyparte was de chap, Dat went to Santalena,
And Billy Brutus was de man, Dat 'sassinated Ceasa,
And Cromwell was de Oliver, Dat gub it to em pritty,
And Billy Pit he was de man, Dat nam'd the Iron City.

Information on playing the recordings

Learn More About It

Southern, Eileen. The music of Black Americans : a history. New York : Norton, 1983. ML3556.S74 1983