Minstrelsy Never Really Died—it Simply Changed Media

While many of these southern folk music pieces wrote by Stephen Forster presented sympathetic portrayals of African American characters, like the heartbreaking “Old Black Joe”(I mentioned in my first post), songs like “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna” became linked with offensive stereotyped images of slaves, and was used in minstrel performance. Strangely, in the early and mid-twentieth century, in addition to using the songs to establish geography and time period, film scores and cartoons also began using Foster’s music as a way to negatively define a minority character’s station in life.

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Although they by no means initiated the trend, film like Blazing Saddles used “Camptown Races” in a shorthand way of defining characters’ region (southern), race (african American), and personalities (hedonistic). The boss assumes his request was misunderstood. He wanted a “darky” song, like “Camptown Races.” In the film, when the boss starts to sing it, he wants to imitate a buffoon in minstrel performance with his untrained voice, awkward dance movements, and exaggerated “negro dialect”.

Cartoons like the Bugs Bunny shorts also used “Camptown Races” to strengthen the stereotype. The song was used to reinforce a drastic change in a character’s personality, or a costume change; this often happens when a character suddenly takes on blackface or even slave-like characteristics, as in Bugs Bunny’s transformation into a minstrel performer singing “Camptown Races” at the conclusion of Fresh Hare (1942). When we watch animated cartoons, how much does music shape our perception of the narrative? And why are Stephen Foster’s songs so prevalent in cartoon music in what has come to be known as animation’s golden age (1930s–1960s), especially in cartoons that depict African American slaves, blackface minstrelsy, and the South? Is it because Forster’s songs no longer deal with some exotic setting in another continent, but rather with real people in real places within the United States (Smolko, 348)?

As Daniel Goldmark says, “Minstrelsy never really died—it simply changed media.”


Work Cited:

Smolko, Joanna R. “Southern Fried Foster: Representing Race and Place through Music in Looney Tunes Cartoons.” American Music 30.3 (2012): 344-372.

Are There “Unreal” Slave Songs?

According to the music review in The Scranton tribune, 1899, with the growing of market of black slave songs and spiritual songs, some composers (non-black) started to produce these kinds of black music. However, the critique pointed out that many of these “new productions” were obvious “fake”, by failing to use “correct” words for pop black culture. Among these new productions, the song “Old Black Joe” was one of the few successful examples that true to African American’s life.


“Old Black Joe” is a song composed by by Stephen Forster (1826–1864) and it was published by Firth, Pond & Co. of New York in 1860. Foster wrote it as a synthesis of his ideals for stage and parlour ballads. The lyrics for the song was from first person recount, describing sadness of losing friends “in the cotton fields”, without any use of Black slangs or tones. The oldest version of notated music of “Old Black Joe” that held in Library of Congress showed a solo male voice line (marked as Joe) with chorus of SATB. Audiences can hear “call and response” in the music in a specific Jubilee Singer’s performing style.



Recording: http://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox.1814/#rights-and-access

However, the “real negro music”, described by the writer of Modern Negro Songs, should be in chorus setting rather than solo and should be sung by men rather than women. As the writer said, “It seems absurd for a female to sing the song of a Negro man, for it is well known that in every age of the Negro song the Negro has prided himself on his bass.” However, evidence from members of The Jubilee Singers and recordings of early work songs can prove he wrong.


Women sang a work Song:


Evening times-Republican. (Marshalltown, Iowa), 08 Feb. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85049554/1919-02-08/ed-1/seq-8/>

The Scranton tribune. (Scranton, Pa.), 16 Jan. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026355/1899-01-16/ed-1/seq-5/>

Deane L. Root. “Foster, Stephen C..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.<http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/10040>.