|Burnt Cork and Guitars: The Blackface Minstrel Show|
“The only place of Amusement where the entertainments are indigenous are the African Opera Houses,” wrote a correspondent to Putnam’s Monthly in 1854, “where native American vocalists, with blackened faces, sing national songs, and utter none but native witticisms.” Minstrel show entertainers, who ruled American stages for much of the nineteenth century, smeared their faces with burnt cork and affected highly exaggerated black dialects while performing comic routines, dances and songs purportedly representing black life on Southern plantations and in the cities.
Blackface entertainers had appeared on American stages since the mid-eighteenth century in interludes to larger theatrical pieces or as novelty acts in circuses. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice took blackface entertainment to unprecedented heights of popularity in the 1830s with his song and dance routine, “Jump Jim Crow,” which made Rice an international celebrity. In 1843, a group called the Virginia Minstrels gave the first performance of what would become known as the minstrel show – a full evening of entertainment performed in blackface. Blackface minstrelsy is repugnant to modern sensibilities, but by the late 1840s the minstrel show was the most popular form of entertainment in America, and would remain so throughout most of the nineteenth century. “Catering to an insatiable public appetite, scarcely an auditorium, café, pleasure garden, hotel, museum, or drinking spot was without its troupe of Ethiopian entertainers,” wrote Vera Brodsky Lawrence of New York in the late 1840s.
By the 1850s, the minstrel show had settled into a somewhat standardized format. For the first part of the show, the performers were seated in a line or semicircle. The Interlocutor – the master of ceremonies and straight man – was seated in the center, with the comedic stars, who were usually called Tambo and Bones for the instruments they played (tambourine and “bones,” or castanets), seated at each end (and called the “end men”). The crux of this part of the show was a running comic dialogue between the Interlocutor and the end men, which was frequently interrupted by songs and dances. The second section of the show was called the Olio. It was more-or-less a freeform collection of songs, comic routines and variety acts. The finale to the Olio – often a comical plantation skit or a send-up of an opera, a play or a popular novel – was sometimes presented as a separate third section.
The standard instruments for the first part of the typical minstrel show were the banjo, the violin, the tambourine and the bones. A few antebellum troupes used the guitar regularly in the first part. The line-up of Kneass’ Opera Troupe, for example, was two guitars, two violins, banjo, tambourine and bones, while the Sable Harmonists featured two banjos, two violins, guitar, tambourine and bones. Most often, when the guitar appeared in the first part, its connection with the genteel parlor music tradition was used as a symbolic foil to the slave music associations of other instruments, especially the banjo. “While the cotton ginning darky beguiled his hours of ease by pickin’ on the ole banjo, the lovely daughter of the planter sat in her luxurious boudoir and strummed the light guitar” is how actress and author Olive Logan, writing in 1879, contrasted the symbolism of the banjo and the guitar on the minstrel stage. Sometimes the Interlocutor, who was often the only member not in blackface, held a guitar, which he may or may not actually have played. The master of ceremonies and straight man to Tambo and Bones’ antics, his character was often performed as officious and a little dim, and the guitar was a symbol of his propriety.
The guitar began to transcend its symbolic role during the 1850s and was found more frequently as an integral part of minstrel show instrumentation. In part, this was due to the fact that the minstrel show was increasingly a mainstream form of entertainment, having grown from young urban working class origins to become the most popular form of theatrical entertainment across
The guitar most often played a role in the Olio, the eclectic mix of music, comedy and novelty acts that comprised the second section of the typical minstrel show. Songs in the Olio were often performed to guitar accompaniment, and guitar soloists were sometimes featured performers. The very popular George Christy and Wood’s Minstrels, for example, advertised performances offering “Ethiopian Melodies, Banjo, Guitar and Violin Solos, Duets, and Trios.”
The two most popular minstrel guitarists during the antebellum era were the Englishman Napoleon Gould (1819-1881), who was a headliner with Chritsy’s Minstrels, the leading troupe of the age, and A.M. Hernandez (d. 1874), a Cuban-born entertainer who starred with a number of top-tier troupes, including his own Hernandez and Morningstar’s Minstrels and Hernandez & Smith’s Minstrels. G.W.H. Griffin (1829-1879), described by minstrel biographer Edward LeRoy Rice as “one of the prominent men of minstrelsy,” headlined as a guitar soloist with the hugely successful George Christy’s Minstrels.
Other guitarists featured with popular minstrel companies include Frank Curley, who played with the popular Campbell’s Minstrels; W.D. Corrister, a San Francisco musician who played with Charles White’s Serenaders, Birch’s Minstrels, the San Francisco Minstrels and Backus’ Original Minstrels; English born singer and guitarist E.J. Melville (1825-1903); who played with Durant & Haywood's Campbells, Hooley & Campbell's Minstrels, Lloyd’s Minstrels, Carncross & Dixey and Duprez & Benedict, C.L. Huntley, who was a member of Thayer’s Boston Sable Harmonists; and E. Smith, “the Celebrated Guitarist,” who was featured with Buckley’s Ethiopian Troupe. Even Manuel Ferrer, one of the most respected guitarists of the nineteenth century, appeared on stage for at least one performance of George Christy’s Minstrels in
Ahead to "Mexico and the American West"
(Illustration: Kneass' Opera (Minstrel) Troupe, from sheet music cover)
(Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford)
 “Places of Public Amusement: Theatres and Concert Rooms,” Putnam's monthly magazine of American literature, science and art. Volume 3, Issue 14, February 1854, p. 146
 Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Strong on Music: The
 Olive Logan, “The Ancestry of Brudder Bones,” Harper's new monthly magazine, Vol. 58, Issue 347, April 1879, p. 695
 Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Strong on Music: The
 Edward Le Roy Rice, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from "Daddy" Rice to Date, (New York, Kenny Publishing Co, 1911), p. 59