History of Minstrel Songs


“Oh, Susanna!,” “Dixie,” “Camptown Races”…these are all familiar tunes that many schoolchildren learned as folk songs, not knowing where they came from or how they were originally performed. Yet their history is mired in issues of race, class, representation, and cultural appropriation. This class examines the history of minstrelsy in American popular music – from the music's origins in the 1820s-30s and the development of racial stereotypes, including performance by white entertainers in blackface in so-called “minstrel shows,” to its lasting and complicated legacy still today.


            Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of musical entertainment in the United States in the 19th century. It started in the late 1820s and gained popularity in the 1830s, with characters and songs such as Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s “Jim Crow” and George Washington Dixon’s “Zip Coon.” Jim Crow represented the southern, rural slave – a buffoon who could also be cunning and witty. Zip Coon depicted the free, northern black man, an urban “dandy” who was sly and sometimes dangerous. These characters and songs often provided a platform for social or political commentary, though the foundation was rooted in racist caricature.
            By the 1840s, the minstrel show developed into a full-length variety show, with an expanded music ensemble and wildly popular troupes including the Virginia Minstrels and Christy’s Minstrels. The songs no longer included much social commentary, and performance became more focused on racial stereotypes for the purpose of entertainment. Musically, the songs were related to European American styles and forms, although instrumentation referenced African American practices, particularly with the appropriation of the banjo (an instrument with origins in Africa and played by slaves). Hit songs from this era include Dan Emmett’s “Old Dan Tucker” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land,” as well as Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna!,” “Camptown Races,” and “Old Folks at Home.”
            The widespread popularity of minstrelsy reached many corners of American popular culture and meant different things to different people. Even abolitionists used popular minstrel tunes to spread their message of emancipation (such as the Hutchinson Family Singers’ “Get Off the Track”). After the Civil War, the popularity of minstrel performances only increased – however, it became more frequently performed by African Americans. Black minstrel troupes included Callender’s Georgia Minstrels and performer Billy Kersands, whose song “Old Aunt Jemima” was published in 1875. Another prominent African American minstrel composer was James Bland, who wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” in 1878.
Minstrelsy has had an indelible influence on American popular music and culture. Many late-19th and early 20th century composers and musicians were involved in minstrelsy – particularly African Americans such as Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey and other blues and jazz artists. Minstrel songs informed the repertoire of early country music as well as the folk music revival. The banjo became a prominent instrument in genres such as bluegrass.
Blackface and Black minstrel performances continued up through the early 20th century, often in vaudeville or other variety shows. It was prominent in many films, such as “The Jazz Singer” from 1927, and can still be found in various forms, from cartoons to comedy act to satires, in the 21st century.

Exploration Questions

  • Why was early blackface minstrelsy popular among urban, working class audiences? Who were some of the later audiences for minstrelsy?
  • What were some of the characters and character types in blackface minstrelsy?
  • How did the minstrel shows of the 1840s-1850s standardize racial stereotypes and musical performances? What was the typical minstrel ensemble?
  • What happened to minstrelsy after the Civil War? Why was there such a rise in African American performers in minstrelsy?
  • What are some of the popular music and entertainment genres that continued to incorporate aspects of blackface minstrelsy into the 20th century and beyond?

Reflective Questions

  • How do you think we can reconcile minstrelsy’s tremendous influence on American popular music and culture with its racist past?
  • Considering the history of these songs, and that many have come to mean different things for different people, do you think they should still be performed today or taught in schools?

More to Explore

  • Blackface and Stereotyping, National Museum of African American History & Culture Click here
  • Blackface Minstrelsy PBS article Click here
  • History of Minstrelsy Click here
  • "Turkey in the Straw" Click here

Books for Further Reading & Listening

  • Johnson, Stephen, ed. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. 266 pages. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing for more than a century, blackface minstrelsy--stage performances that claimed to represent the culture of black Americans--remained arguably the most popular entertainment in North America. A renewed scholarly interest in this contentious form of entertainment has produced studies treating a range of issues: its contradictory depictions of class, race, and gender; its role in the development of racial stereotyping; and its legacy in humor, dance, and music, and in live performance, film, and television. The style and substance of minstrelsy persist in popular music, tap and hip-hop dance, the language of the standup comic, and everyday rituals of contemporary culture. The blackface makeup all but disappeared for a time, though its influence never diminished--and recently, even the makeup has been making a comeback. This collection of original essays brings together a group of prominent scholars of blackface performance to reflect on this complex and troublesome tradition. Essays consider the early relationship of the blackface performer with American politics and the antislavery movement; the relationship of minstrels to the commonplace compromises of the touring "show" business and to the mechanization of the industrial revolution; the exploration and exploitation of blackface in the mass media, by D. W. Griffith and Spike Lee, in early sound animation, and in reality television; and the recent reappropriation of the form at home and abroad. In addition to the editor, contributors include Dale Cockrell, Catherine Cole, Louis Chude-Sokei, W. T. Lhamon, Alice Maurice, Nicholas Sammond, and Linda Williams.
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  • Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Carnival, charivari, mumming plays, peasant festivals, and even early versions of the Santa Claus myth--all of these forms of entertainment influenced and shaped blackface minstrelsy in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his fascinating study Demons of Disorder, musicologist Dale Cockrell studies issues of race and class by analyzing their cultural expressions, and investigates the roots of still-remembered songs such as "Jim Crow," "Zip Coon," and "Dan Tucker." The first book on the blackface tradition written by a leading musicologist, Demons of Disorder is an important achievement in music history and culture.
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  • Sammond, Nicholas. Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. Duke University Press, 2015. 400 pages. In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond describes how popular early American cartoon characters were derived from blackface minstrelsy. He charts the industrialization of animation in the early twentieth century, its representation in the cartoons themselves, and how important blackface minstrels were to that performance, standing in for the frustrations of animation workers. Cherished cartoon characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, were conceived and developed using blackface minstrelsy's visual and performative conventions: these characters are not like minstrels; they are minstrels. They play out the social, cultural, political, and racial anxieties and desires that link race to the laboring body, just as live minstrel show performers did. Carefully examining how early animation helped to naturalize virulent racial formations, Sammond explores how cartoons used laughter and sentimentality to make those stereotypes seem not only less cruel, but actually pleasurable. Although the visible links between cartoon characters and the minstrel stage faded long ago, Sammond shows how important those links are to thinking about animation then and now, and about how cartoons continue to help to illuminate the central place of race in American cultural and social life.
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