The earliest minstrel shows were staged by white male minstrels (traveling musicians) who, with their faces painted black, caricatured the singing and dancing of slaves. Scholars usually distinguish this form of the tradition as blackface minstrelsy. The father of the blackface show was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, popularly known as “Jim Crow,” an early African American impersonator whose performances created a vogue for the genre. The pioneer company, the Virginia Minstrels, a quartet headed by Daniel Decatur Emmett, first performed in 1843. Other noteworthy companies were Bryant’s, Campbell’s, and Haverly’s, but the most important of the early companies was the Christy Minstrels, who played on Broadway for nearly 10 years; Stephen Foster wrote songs for this company.
The format of the minstrel show, usually in two parts, was established by the Christy company and changed little thereafter. In part one the performers were arranged in a semicircle, with the interlocutor in the centre and the end men—Mr. Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mr. Bones, who rattled the bones (a pair of clappers, named after the original material from which they were made)—at the ends. The interlocutor, in whiteface, usually wore formal attire; the others, in blackface, wore gaudy swallow-tailed coats and striped trousers.
The program opened with a chorus, often as a grand entrance, and at the conclusion of the song the interlocutor gave the command, “Gentlemen, be seated.” Then followed a series of jokes between the interlocutor and end men, interspersed with ballads, comic songs, and instrumental numbers, chiefly on the banjo and violin. The second part, or olio (mixture or medley), consisted of a series of individual acts that concluded with a hoedown or walk-around in which every member did a specialty number while the others sang and clapped. Occasionally there was a third part consisting of a farce, burlesque, or comic opera.
Minstrel troupes composed of black performers were formed after the American Civil War, and a number of these, including the Hicks and Sawyer Minstrels, had black owners and managers. Some, such as Callendar’s Consolidated Spectacular Colored Minstrels, were popular in both the United States and Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially these shows were staged by all-male companies that included male alto and male soprano singers. The larger black minstrel shows included bands of multitalented instrumentalists to play marches for the troupe’s parades in the daytime and perform string accompaniments for the evening shows. In addition to some music by Stephen Foster, their repertoire featured music by black composers such as James Bland, a popular singer-banjoist who wrote some 700 songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” In general, these minstrel shows were the only theatrical medium in which gifted black performers of the period could support themselves.
A few of the larger companies employed both black and white performers. By the 20th century, women were also appearing in minstrel shows; the great blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were both minstrel performers early in their careers. Minstrel shows had effectively disappeared by the mid-20th century. However, vestiges of their racial stereotyping and performance aesthetics persisted for decades in various performance mediums, including television situation comedies such as Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, which aired in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as the South African world-music genre known as isicathamiya, championed in the late 20th and early 21st century by the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.