July 30, 2009
Almost all of the blues queens and many other blues musicians got their start touring on the minstrel circuit in the Southern United States. These black minstrel shows were direct outgrowths of the blackface performances by white performers that became popular in the South in the 1830’s, consisting of racist skits about plantation life, with exaggerated stereotypes and imitations of black song and dance. I find the negotiations and appropriations of black life from the advent of minstrelsy through early blues history fascinating, as different elements of its performance and production pass back and forth between black and white hands.
Besides entertaining white audiences, early blackface minstrel shows also served to enforce racial stereotypes and unite poor and rich whites against a common black enemy. However, by the 1850’s, blacks themselves were imitating the very form that had portrayed their race as infantile and grotesque, capitalizing on the “authentic” nature of their race to attract both black and white audiences. The entrance of black performers into the entertainment industry allowed for the blues to develop out of the cotton fields and into a more structured form of professional entertainment. Blacks took the form given to them, the minstrel show, and embellished it to make it their own by adding blues to the comedy and vaudeville routines typical of blackface. However, the blues then became a self-standing form that was increasingly co-opted and commodified by white producers. The blues itself is a mix between European-derived ballads and African-American work songs on the cotton fields, and this mixture of black and white influence pertains not only to the form of the songs, but to the process of production and performance itself.
On a side note, I’m also intrigued by the extent to which talking about blackface and minstrelsy has become something completely taboo in the US. From my experience, it is not regarded as such an abomination in other parts of the world, but simply recognized as a part of history. There is perhaps no better representation of blatant and mocking racism than blackface minstrelsy, but at the same time minstrelsy was the venue which first gave blacks the chance to earn money as entertainers. How might we try to rethink taboos and inscribe blackface into this larger narrative of African-American performance?