Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

Early Minstrel Show Music,
1843-1852

ROBERT B. WINANS

The first complete minstrel show was put on in 1843 and was an immediate "hit," spawning many imitations and initiating what was to be the most popular of popular entertainments for the next forty years or more. 1 What was it about, this entertainment, especially in its first, formative decade, 1843-1852, that so captivated a nation? Though many factors might enter into the answer, surely one of the more important ones is the music of the shows. For the minstrel show was primarily a musical event, not really "musical theatre" in the modern sense, but what one might call "theatrical music." Musical performances were what structured the early minstrel show. Printed programs for the shows, which are the primary sources for this essay, look like concert programs (see figure 9). Of course, much more occurred on stage in the actual shows than appears in the programs, which do not indicate all the dialogue and comic "business" that went on in between musical numbers. But the musical pieces on the program structured the evening. And previous scholarship has not dealt very substantially with the music of the early shows, with the partial exception of Hans Nathan's book on Dan Emmett. So my purpose here is to examine some of the features of that music as it was performed on stage between 1843 and 1852. 2

The starting point for discussing early minstrel show music is instrumentation. Table 3 shows the distribution of instruments in twenty-nine minstrel companies active between 1843 and 1847. 3 Clearly, the banjo and the tambourine were indispensable, followed closely by the bones and the violin.

The banjo of the period was not like a modern banjo (see figure 10). The main differences were a larger diameter body with a deeper but thinner rim and a fretless fingerboard; its five strings were gut, tuned, as a whole, either a third or a fourth below modern pitch, depending on the key to be played. These differences are important, because the minstrel banjo was at the heart of the sound of the minstrel ensemble, and it did not sound like a modern banjo. Surviving banjoes from the period have a mellower, fuller, more

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