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WORDBIRTH, a column by Jack Karasch
Long before radio, movies, television or vaudeville, there came into being in this country a unique form of entertainment known as the MINSTREL SHOW.
One early example was incorporated into a play titled "Oroonoko" in Boston, Massachusetts during 1799. On stage an actor named Gottlieb Graupner used burnt cork to make himself appear as a black man. In a grotesque costume he sang songs while playing a banjo. His main number -- about as politically correct today a? giving Joseph Stalin a posthumous Nobel peace prize was titled "The Gay Negro Boy". The audience loved it.
The first star of the genre was Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice. He became famous crooning a ballad about a black beggar boy, "Jump, Jim Crow."
Almost all minstrel entertainers were whites in black face. How conscious people of the time were of their prejudice is difficult to state accurately. Certainly from American Colonial times a fascination existed for the black subculture.
The first permanent troupe, "The Virginian Minstrels", was organized by Daniel Emmett around 1840. Soon after, minstrel shows became wildly popular in the United States, and later Europe. The big stars were Andrew Jackson Alien and Bob Farrell.
Mark Twain wrote enthusiastically about the shows and how he cherished their humor and music.
Some troupes performed regularly on paddleboats as they navigated American rivers.
Shows were made up of variety acts, comedy, dancing, sentimental ballads and skits. The master of ceremonies, or interlocutor, acted as the straight man for other performers.
One famous interlocutor, Edwin P. Christy, had previously been a successful actor and singer. He started up the most famous of the troupes, calling it Christy's Minstrels. (You may remember a folk group of the 1960s which honored Edwin P. and called themselves the "New Christy Minstrels".)
Edwin Christy's formula included two men who sat at opposite ends of a semicircle stage. One was known as "Mr. Bones" because he tickled the ivory; "Mr. Tambo" fervently shook a tambourine.
Al Jolson, the famous singer who later starred in the first talking motion picture, got his start in Lew Dockstader's minstrel group.
Another bright light, Stephen Foster, composed many tunes which became American favorites, such as "Oh! Susanna", "My Old Kentucky Home", and "Swanee River". Foster referred to these tunes as his "plantation" songs and had so low an opinion of his first efforts that he allowed other people's names to appear as composer. Tragically, Foster died when only 37 years old. Depressed about his failure with other types of music, he drank heavily and died from a fall at a New York Bowery flophouse. He had only three pennies in his pockets at the time.
Originally the word minstrel meant anyone with specific duties. Late in the 16th century it signified those who sang juggled or told stories for a livelihood. It entered the English language in 1297.
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