The humor of the old-time minstrel show

The humor of the old-time minstrel show was rough and ready, although the essentially clean and moral atmosphere of the performance was one of its greatest assets. The jigs and fancy steps danced to tambourine and castanets were lively and amusing. But in its songs, minstrelsy had something genuine and enduring. While everything else about it was ephemeral, its music won a hold which it has never lost. It was for these blackface comedians, these knights of the burnt cork, that Stephen C. Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Black Joe," "The Old Folks at Home," and "O Susanna." It was as a minstrelshow walk-around that "Dixie," written by Dan Emmett, won its popular vogue. Lincoln heard it at a performance in 1860. "Let's have it again!" he shouted from his box. "Let's have it again!" Within the year Lincoln was President and "Dixie" the battle-song of the Confederacy.

Through its songs the minstrel show has won immortality, but in the form in which the nineteenth century so enjoyed it, it has almost completely faded away. The other types of popular entertainment developing in this period gradually expanded, or took on new shapes, but Mistah Tambo and Mistah Bones are today seldom seen. The limitations of minstrelsy were too marked. There was no room, for the change and diversification that the public in time demanded. There were no women in the cast. As interest began to decline in the decade after the Civil War, the minstrels drew further and further away from the carefree, homely atmosphere of the plantation life they had tried to depict. It had always been fanciful rather than realisticwho can say to what extent the popular conception of Negrob character was framed by minstrelsy, how influential it was in winning northern sympathy for the slave? -- but the minstrels of the latter part of the century bore no relation whatsoever to the plantation blacks. When the slender thread that bound their performances to real life was snapped, their shows were doomed.

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