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Old 09-16-2019, 08:15 PM
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Elegy for the minstrel show


Inspired by this thread.

Despite the irreducible racism, its passing is in a way to be regretted -- because it is perhaps the only uniquely American form of live stage entertainment ever invented. General drama goes back to ancient Greece, vaudeville was essentially the same thing as British music hall, the Broadway musical derives from European light opera, but the minstrel show was purely American.

As commercial entertainment, the minstrel show died out around 1910 -- and not because of rising racial consciousness; that period was what African-American historians call the "nadir" of postbellum race relations in the U.S. It just couldn't compete with general vaudeville. But it lived on for some time in community theater and college productions. Standalone blackface acts survived for a time in vaudeville, and can be seen in early cinema:

Babes on Broadway -- One of Judy Garland's and Mickey Rooney's "backyard musicals."

Judy Garland in blackface.

Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Eddie Cantor, again. This one is not so much a parody of black culture as a tribute to it, specifically to the Harlem Renaissance.

And then there was Al Jolsen. He actually liked blacks -- he helped many break into showbiz, and always insisted they be treated as equals. And they liked him -- he was the only white man allowed into Harlem's all-black clubs. I guess in those days, not even blacks thought of a blackface act as racially offensive.

Part of the appeal, I think, was that a minstrel-show character was a kind of all-licensed fool. He (it was always he -- the few female parts were played by men in drag) could say and do things that in the 19th Century would have been considered beneath the dignity of a white man, even while playing a white character on stage. But a negro was assumed to be a creature without dignity -- and a creature without dignity has none to lose.

For most of American history, white America regarded black America with a curious mixture of fear, contempt, and affection. In the minstrel show we see only the contempt and affection -- the characters are lovable fools, but harmless. The "black brute" stereotype does not appear.

In elementary school, in the '70s, I once watched a biopic of Stephen Foster -- and it entirely glossed over the fact that he wrote most of his songs for the minstrel stage. We tend to forget that many songs we still sing -- and might have sung in elementary school -- were originally written to be sung by white men in blackface.

"Ring, Ring the Banjo" & "Old Folks at Home/Swanee River."

"Some Folks Do".

"Oh, Susannah".

"Camptown Races'.

Now, none of this is authentic African-American folk music. It was mostly written by whites. Artistically, much minstrel-show material was very good -- as witness its still being sung today. That is because minstrelsy was the most popular form of American stage entertainment in its heyday, and the talent goes where the money is.

Minstrel-show dancing, OTOH, was often authentic -- the performers did field research, observing the dances slaves made up to amuse themselves. One characteristic dance was the "cakewalk," a dance with a lot of high-stepping leg action that slaves made up to parody their masters' ballroom dancing and generally haughty carriage. So, in the minstrel-show cakewalk, we see white people making fun of black people making fun of white people.
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Old 09-16-2019, 08:18 PM
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Old 09-16-2019, 08:37 PM
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"Old Folks at Home" (for a long time the state song of Florida) originally included the line, "Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary . . ." If you ever hear the word "darkies" in a song, it comes from the minstrel stage. There was never a time in American history when AAs called each other "darky" -- they use the n-word a lot, but never "darky." "Darky" was a word white people used to use when they thought they were being polite.
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Old 09-16-2019, 08:58 PM
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At its best the banter between Mr. Interlocutor and Mr. Bones was genuinely funny. Mr. Bones was a trickster figure, tricking the authority figure of Mr. Interlocutor (who actually was played as having a lot of dignity -- that was taken down by Mr. Bones).

Minstrel shows were popular with both whites and Blacks. There were even Black minstrel troupes that performed in blackface; it was makeup, much like mimes performing in whiteface.

As time went on, though, people began to react to the appearance of the performers more than the show, and the overall offensive origins it were noted. It gave birth to an ugly image that became a cruel caricature. It is a good thing that it died out.

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Old 09-16-2019, 11:11 PM
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The BBC had the Black and White Minstrel Show which I remember seeing on TV around the late 60s-early 70s.

Since it took the innovative American entertainment from the stage to small screen and from a racialised society to one which was at least outwardly proud of its record in abolishing slavery, and kept it going for more than half a century, should we consider this a further slow decline of a once-mighty cultural phenomenon or a renaissance of the form?
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Old 09-17-2019, 12:21 AM
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Despite the irreducible racism, its passing is in a way to be regretted -- because it is perhaps the only uniquely American form of live stage entertainment ever invented.
Nope. One doesn't make up for the other. There is nothing to be regretted in its passing.

Also, minstrelsy is not uniquely American. Turning it into a stage show isn't a huge step.
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Old 09-17-2019, 12:45 AM
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That all looks disgusting, but I can see now the appeal. Members of "good society" got to listen to catchy music while watching people dance around like a bunch of racist caricatures, and they didn’t even have to pay actual people of color to do the performing (which, while still marginalizing them by casting them as caricatures, would have at least given them a greater foothold in the arts and helped put food on their table). Best of all, after the performance was done, the audience could comfortably rub elbows with the performers and not have to worry about associating with any who might be considered... not of their own kind. Likewise, there wouldn’t have to be any controversy or display over the performers having to go somewhere else to eat if the venue was associated with a restaurant, or somewhere else to stay if associated with a hotel.

Good riddance.
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Old 09-17-2019, 12:49 AM
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Those days are gone forever
Over a long time ago


/Incidentally, what's the over/under on when the mods close this thread?
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:08 AM
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At its best the banter between Mr. Interlocutor and Mr. Bones was genuinely funny. Mr. Bones was a trickster figure, tricking the authority figure of Mr. Interlocutor (who actually was played as having a lot of dignity -- that was taken down by Mr. Bones).
Don't forget Mr. Tambo! The classic minstrel show had three emcees -- Brother Bones, who played the bones; Brother Tambo, who played the tambourine; the two of them were the "endmen" in a semicircle of performers ("Gentlemen, be seated!") -- and at the center, on an elevated thronelike chair, the Interlocutor, who was a white man not in blackface, and who spoke in a high-flown vocabulary which the endmen deflated with their puns and disengenuous misunderstandings.
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:15 AM
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That all looks disgusting, but I can see now the appeal. Members of "good society" got to listen to catchy music while watching people dance around like a bunch of racist caricatures, and they didn’t even have to pay actual people of color to do the performing . . .
Actually, sometimes they did, advertising themselves as "the genuwine article!" See Minstrel Man. Of course, they tended to get exploited by the white show-runners in ways white minstrel performers escaped.

Of course, the audience really couldn't tell the difference.

In fact, I recall one YouTube video -- can't find it right now -- which is an interview with an old black performer, talking about another such who for a long time resisted pressure to "take off the co'k" (blackface makeup was usually burnt cork) -- and, when he finally did take it off, his natural skin was actually darker than the blackface.
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:19 AM
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We've all heard of "Jim Crow" -- Jim Crow was a stock character, a plantation slave, an ignorant hick.

Another stock character was Zip Coon, who was a dandified city free-black. Zip Coon had some education but apparently had not fully understood it -- he used fancy words, but mostly used them wrong. Which was the basis of something that still seems funny today -- the minstrel-show stump speech.

See Michelle Schocked's "Jump Jim Crow."
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:24 AM
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There is nothing to be regretted in its passing.
And yet, we still sing the songs.
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:29 AM
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And yet, we still sing the songs.
Black face is required for singing songs?
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:31 AM
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Black face is required for singing songs?
It was required for the songs to be written.
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:37 AM
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Minstrel show sand dance. Done by a white performer who did not even try to put on a stage-negro dialect -- he sounds like a white southerner, which no doubt he was. I don't care what color you are, if you can't appreciate this you got no soul!
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Old 09-17-2019, 03:19 AM
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And yet, we still sing the songs.
Speak for yourself.
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Old 09-17-2019, 04:49 AM
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Stephen Foster was an undeniable talent, but the lyrics of his songs have not aged well.

Plus he wrote a lot of songs about the South for a guy who rarely left Pittsburgh.
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:41 AM
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Speak for yourself.
"Jingle Bells" is still pretty popular.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/briti...lash-1.4459442
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:46 AM
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"Jingle Bells" is still pretty popular.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/briti...lash-1.4459442
Let's just say I'm not the kind of person to go carolling...
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Old 09-17-2019, 07:11 AM
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James Loewen, in his book Lies Across America, notes that a campus-wide minstrel celebration used to be a yearly thing in Vermont (of all places) up until the 1970s. Black student groups on campus had been protesting the shows as racist since at least the 1950s, but it was too entrenched. In an attempt to keep the show going without (they thought) the racist overtones, Vermont tried the bizarre experiment of doing it in GREENface instead of blackface. It really didn't change anything -- the jokes were still racist, and operated on the assumption that the now-greenfaced performers were incapable of dressing properly, speaking "normal" English, and were obsessed with stereotypical activities. The entire minstrel festival stopped the next year.



Minstrel shows, like a lot of the racist entertainment that followed in its wake, were cases of what I call self-Organizing Racism. The insidious thing about this is that the black (and white) performers and even the (sometimes white) writers and composers became known and famous for the work they did in this fundamentally racist milieu. Many times black performers could not find work UNLESS they appeared in such entertainments, which meant that they had to do this, or starve. Even after the heyday, anyone acknowledging the achievements of these people, whether re=performing songs, jokes, and routines or showing movies or listening to recordings of them, had to do so by presenting the same racist material. You couldn't show new generations their work and bring them to new audiences without the racist matrix they were preserved in. So we get Stephen Foster's songs with their lyrics preserving visions of the "romantic" Old South. More often, songs arte presented with lines changed or verses suppressed. Movies and cartoons have been cut to remove such offensive scenes, or aren't shown at all (except in special screenings).

Yet the performers WERE talented. The jokes were funny. Mark Twain adored the Minstrel show, and it helped form his humor. Al Jolson, as noted above, wasn't racist himself, but his best-known performances were. The Minstrel show really WAS the American creation (telling jokes on stage wasn't new, nor were interspersing humorous skits with dance and other performances. But the structure and formalism of the minstrel show was uniquely American. And its punchlines and signature lines still permeate our culture (even if most people aren't aware of it).
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Old 09-17-2019, 07:16 AM
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UVM MInstrel Shows:

https://vtcynic.com/tag/minstrel-shows/

https://vtcynic.com/opinion/kake-wal...ht-our-wrongs/

https://www.rutlandherald.com/news/k...0542aac88.html

https://www.sevendaysvt.com/OffMessa...es-for-decades
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Old 09-17-2019, 09:23 AM
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Here in Peru, there are several "Negritos" dances that come from colonial times. The interesting angle is that the dancers are actually native Peruvians or mestizos. Instead of blackface they wear masks and dresses imitating/paroding both the whites and blacks.
Video - Negritos de Huanuco

Negrillos de Chivay


Morenada



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Old 09-17-2019, 09:41 AM
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Inspired by this thread.

Despite the irreducible racism, its passing is in a way to be regretted -- because it is perhaps the only uniquely American form of live stage entertainment ever invented. General drama goes back to ancient Greece, vaudeville was essentially the same thing as British music hall, the Broadway musical derives from European light opera, but the minstrel show was purely American.

As commercial entertainment, the minstrel show died out around 1910 -- and not because of rising racial consciousness; that period was what African-American historians call the "nadir" of postbellum race relations in the U.S. It just couldn't compete with general vaudeville. But it lived on for some time in community theater and college productions. Standalone blackface acts survived for a time in vaudeville, and can be seen in early cinema:

Babes on Broadway -- One of Judy Garland's and Mickey Rooney's "backyard musicals."

Judy Garland in blackface.

Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Eddie Cantor, again. This one is not so much a parody of black culture as a tribute to it, specifically to the Harlem Renaissance.

And then there was Al Jolsen. He actually liked blacks -- he helped many break into showbiz, and always insisted they be treated as equals. And they liked him -- he was the only white man allowed into Harlem's all-black clubs. I guess in those days, not even blacks thought of a blackface act as racially offensive.

Part of the appeal, I think, was that a minstrel-show character was a kind of all-licensed fool. He (it was always he -- the few female parts were played by men in drag) could say and do things that in the 19th Century would have been considered beneath the dignity of a white man, even while playing a white character on stage. But a negro was assumed to be a creature without dignity -- and a creature without dignity has none to lose.

For most of American history, white America regarded black America with a curious mixture of fear, contempt, and affection. In the minstrel show we see only the contempt and affection -- the characters are lovable fools, but harmless. The "black brute" stereotype does not appear.

In elementary school, in the '70s, I once watched a biopic of Stephen Foster -- and it entirely glossed over the fact that he wrote most of his songs for the minstrel stage. We tend to forget that many songs we still sing -- and might have sung in elementary school -- were originally written to be sung by white men in blackface.

"Ring, Ring the Banjo" & "Old Folks at Home/Swanee River."

"Some Folks Do".

"Oh, Susannah".

"Camptown Races'.

Now, none of this is authentic African-American folk music. It was mostly written by whites. Artistically, much minstrel-show material was very good -- as witness its still being sung today. That is because minstrelsy was the most popular form of American stage entertainment in its heyday, and the talent goes where the money is.

Minstrel-show dancing, OTOH, was often authentic -- the performers did field research, observing the dances slaves made up to amuse themselves. One characteristic dance was the "cakewalk," a dance with a lot of high-stepping leg action that slaves made up to parody their masters' ballroom dancing and generally haughty carriage. So, in the minstrel-show cakewalk, we see white people making fun of black people making fun of white people.
So you want to write a love poem to arguably The Most Racist Form of Entertainment Ever Created (tm) and lament it's passing into history.

Yes it is (somewhat) uniquely American...in all the wrong ways.

How the fuck am I Not supposed to think you're racist?!?

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Old 09-17-2019, 10:11 AM
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I think the idea is to try to draw you in to getting a warning, so don't bite.
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Old 09-17-2019, 10:22 AM
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Fuck Minstrel Shows. Black entertainers participating in them do not absolve that racist form of entertainment in any way - it was the one of the very few "mainstream" forms of stage entertainment they were allowed to participate in, and they gotta eat. Being the only uniquely American form of live stage entertainment is not a worthy distinction, it's just another highlight of how messed up America's history can be.
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Old 09-17-2019, 10:50 AM
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I think the passing of the minstrel shows is a plus for society, specifically because of the irreducible racism.
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Old 09-17-2019, 11:27 AM
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And yet, we still sing the songs.
No, we don't. All those songs you listed are used nowadays to conjure up old timey feelings or make fun of old timers singing them. When was the last frigging time you sang Swanee River?

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Old 09-17-2019, 01:24 PM
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Stephen Foster was an undeniable talent, but the lyrics of his songs have not aged well.

Plus he wrote a lot of songs about the South for a guy who rarely left Pittsburgh.
His family lost a plantation house in Kentucky, and apparently his mother never got past it. That's why "My Old Kentucky Home" has the chorus, "Weep no more my lady, oh weep no more today."

I like reading it as, "Goddamn Ma, shuddup about the freakin' house. It's GONE!! Deal with it for Chrissakes!"
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:31 PM
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Standard SDMB nitpick: Did you mean "Eulogy for the minstrel show"?
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:33 PM
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Elegy seems fine to me...

ETA: Not that I think the minstrel show warrants such a tribute.

Last edited by ASL v2.0; 09-17-2019 at 01:36 PM.
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Old 09-17-2019, 01:44 PM
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No, we don't. All those songs you listed are used nowadays to conjure up old timey feelings or make fun of old timers singing them. When was the last frigging time you sang Swanee River?
Driving over I10 in Florida.
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Old 09-17-2019, 03:04 PM
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My dad had an LP back in the early 60s. I think he got it as a gift, or maybe it was one of the free records that came with our spiffy new hi fi. It was basically a minstrel show. I was embarrassed by it even as a young kid. There was one song I liked about a preacher going hunting on a Sunday and getting chased by bear. The tagline was "Oh, lord, if you can't help me, for goodness sakes, don't you help that bear." It wasn't sung in any kind of fakey dialect, so it didn't seem so bad. It was just a funny song. And it didn't have any racial inferences that I remember. The rest of the album? Cringey.
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Old 09-17-2019, 05:55 PM
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It was required for the songs to be written.
Says who?
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:16 PM
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I think the passing of the minstrel shows is a plus for society, specifically because of the irreducible racism.
Oh, I agree. And yet, it is a distinctive part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps it should not be so thoroughly forgotten as it seems to be -- as mentioned above, I once saw a biopic of Stephen Foster that completely ignored minstrelsy; that's no way to tell American cultural history.
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:18 PM
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Says who?
Says the 19th-Century marketplace. The minstrel-show songs still known were written for that popular genre, and would not have been written had something else been more popular.
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:20 PM
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No, we don't. All those songs you listed are used nowadays to conjure up old timey feelings or make fun of old timers singing them.
Or in the cartoon ash face trope -- when it happens (which it doesn't, any more, AFAIK), we almost always hear the first few notes of "Swanee River." Which, as noted above, was the state song of Florida for a long time.

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Old 09-17-2019, 06:21 PM
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Does country music not qualify in the OP? What about Western shows with the like of Annie Oakley?
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Old 09-17-2019, 06:25 PM
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Or in the cartoon ash face trope -- when it happens (which it doesn't, any more, AFAIK), we almost always hear the first few notes of "Swanee River." Which, as noted above, was the state song of Florida for a long time.
I think there's a few Warner Bro cartoons not on the banned list that have Swanee River
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Old 09-17-2019, 07:56 PM
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Or in the cartoon ash face trope -- when it happens (which it doesn't, any more, AFAIK), we almost always hear the first few notes of "Swanee River.".
I'm confused. Are you agreeing with me that you're wrong?
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Old 09-17-2019, 08:05 PM
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Love and Theft by Eric Lott is a good book about minstrelsy.

It was a main tributary to all forms of modern popular music and entertainment, so it's hard to cut it loose and damn it's name. Some of the best scenarists, comedians and singers of their time did it.

It has a complicated history that lends itself to deeper thoughts but in threads it can come to grief.
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Old 09-17-2019, 08:14 PM
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Despite the irreducible racism, its passing is in a way to be regretted -- because it is perhaps the only uniquely American form of live stage entertainment ever invented. General drama goes back to ancient Greece, vaudeville was essentially the same thing as British music hall, the Broadway musical derives from European light opera, but the minstrel show was purely American.
American culture has roots deeper than the arrival of the wasi'chu, even performance art.
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Old 09-17-2019, 08:39 PM
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Michelle Shocked's best album, Arkansas Traveler, was mostly about minstrel music. She disgraced herself horribly about 20 years later, but it's still a great album.

All of American entertainment has its roots in minstrelsy. You don't have to celebrate it, but you really should acknowledge it.
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Old 09-17-2019, 11:38 PM
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Love and Theft by Eric Lott is a good book about minstrelsy.

It was a main tributary to all forms of modern popular music and entertainment, so it's hard to cut it loose and damn it's name. Some of the best scenarists, comedians and singers of their time did it.

It has a complicated history that lends itself to deeper thoughts but in threads it can come to grief.
Hey, we actually have something to talk about!

In general, I agree. Like most issues regarding race in the US, it's complex. There are songs that I wouldn't know about if it weren't for the minstrel show to popularize them, and like it or not it was a way for some black performers to feed themselves and maybe make a mark on a wider society at the time. White people who weren't actually uneducated and from the country certainly played into the hillbilly stereotype to sell records in the decades after the minstrel show had died out - hell, they do it today. I'm not sure I can blame either side of that one, even if I wouldn't personally be inclined to do it.

That said, it is crazy how a minstrel show (and modern "Red Dirt" music) makes it easy to massage a bad stereotype into entertainment that folks can put butts in seats with. I won't mourn it's passing (or its eagerly awaited demise in the case of the latter), because its time has long passed, and some of the stereotypes it promoted remain a genuine problem.

Last edited by scabpicker; 09-17-2019 at 11:38 PM.
  #44  
Old 09-18-2019, 05:04 AM
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Racial caricatures aside, the traveling minstrel show was an incredibly significant force in American music, disseminating and popularizing new musical styles around the country. No minstrel shows, no jazz (or a very different and much more limited jazz and blues tradition).
  #45  
Old 09-18-2019, 05:49 AM
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No minstrel shows, no jazz
No Nazis, no moon rockets.

That's no reason to celebrate Nazism or do anything but abhor it today.
  #46  
Old 09-18-2019, 06:11 AM
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No Nazis, no moon rockets.

That's no reason to celebrate Nazism or do anything but abhor it today.
I am not in any way "celebrating" minstrel shows. I was just acknowledging that once upon a time they played an important role in American music. That time pretty much finished by 1930 at the latest, and the fact that these shows continued for another half-century still remains horrific.
  #47  
Old 09-18-2019, 07:23 AM
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I am not in any way "celebrating" minstrel shows.
Not you, the OP. I was pointing out that your "no minstrels, no jazz" is not a counter to why we should abhor minstrel shows today (or, at any rate, "not regret their passing").

Last edited by MrDibble; 09-18-2019 at 07:26 AM.
  #48  
Old 09-18-2019, 07:31 AM
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I am not in any way "celebrating" minstrel shows. I was just acknowledging that once upon a time they played an important role in American music. That time pretty much finished by 1930 at the latest, and the fact that these shows continued for another half-century still remains horrific.
You may not be "celebrating" minstrel shows, but the OP is and you and others in this thread are really really quick to dismiss all of the fucked up shit black folks have had to deal with as a result all so you can focus in on the parts you like.

Given the current racial climate of the US, we as a people aren't even close to being in a good place to start discussing the positive aspects of minstrel shows. Anytime you and yours start discussing any of the positives it comes across as a tacit approval of the entire art form, regardless of your intentions.

To me you sound similar to Steve King when he said [paraphrase] "of course rape is bad, but think about all of the good babies that were born as a result!"

Of course minstrel shows were bad but think about all of the entertainment white folks got out of it! Hell, some white folks in this very thread continue to be entertained by it today. Why can't we celebrate the fact that your people's pain and humiliation made white people smile, sing and clap their hands? Don't be so sensitive.

I hope you understand why me and mine don't think fondly of you and yours when you take positions like that.
  #49  
Old 09-18-2019, 07:47 AM
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You may not be "celebrating" minstrel shows, but the OP is and you and others in this thread are really really quick to dismiss all of the fucked up shit black folks have had to deal with as a result all so you can focus in on the parts you like.

Given the current racial climate of the US, we as a people aren't even close to being in a good place to start discussing the positive aspects of minstrel shows. Anytime you and yours start discussing any of the positives it comes across as a tacit approval of the entire art form, regardless of your intentions.

To me you sound similar to Steve King when he said [paraphrase] "of course rape is bad, but think about all of the good babies that were born as a result!"

Of course minstrel shows were bad but think about all of the entertainment white folks got out of it! Hell, some white folks in this very thread continue to be entertained by it today. Why can't we celebrate the fact that your people's pain and humiliation made white people smile, sing and clap their hands? Don't be so sensitive.

I hope you understand why me and mine don't think fondly of you and yours when you take positions like that.
The fuck is "you and yours" and "Me and mine"
  #50  
Old 09-18-2019, 08:05 AM
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The fuck is "you and yours" and "Me and mine"
You and yours = people celebrating minstrel shows or overlooking how fucked up they really were

Me and mine = people who think minstrel shows shouldn't be looked at in a good light regardless of the positives

Thought that was obvious but happy to clarify

Last edited by BeagleJesus; 09-18-2019 at 08:06 AM.
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