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Billie Holiday in Performance
Jazz ExchangeMinstrelsy
Minstrelsy Production still from Lew Dockstader's Minstrel Show
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Minstrelsy

by Karen Sotiropoulos, Professor of History, Cleveland State University

Our Hokum Hooked Them

"Father of the blues" W. C. Handy — who had begun his career performing with minstrel troupes — complained to his aunt that black musicians made too many mistakes. "Honey," she responded, "white folks like to hear colored folks make mistakes." Handy then quipped, "in this one remark, can be hidden the source or secret of jazz." The history of jazz, for Handy, was inexorably tied to markets and audiences for black sound — markets that in the 19th century could not be separated from the history of minstrelsy and racism. Coming of age in the 1890s, Handy's generation of musicians constantly weighed how much to play to white racist expectation to win audiences. One example among many is what Handy called the "musician's strike." He orchestrated a fight among band members to attract white onlookers. When the unsuspecting white audience had gathered, the band won them over by bursting into song, and as Handy assessed, "Our hokum hooked them." From a post-Jazz Age perspective, Harlem Renaissance intellectual Alain Locke commented similarly that turn-of-the-century black music made its way "by luring its audience with comedy farce and then ambushing and conquering them with music."

Jim Crow sheet music
Jim Crow sheet music
Image courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

Although the first minstrels had blacked up in the 1830s, minstrelsy still held sway as America's most popular form of entertainment when Handy's generation came of age. While minstrelsy underwent changes throughout the 19th century, it usually involved a cast of white male performers, most famously minstrel "originator" Thomas "Daddy" Rice, who donned blackface make-up and caricatured blacks for profit. "Rice wrote down and performed the first big minstrel hit saying that he'd first heard it being sung by a black stable hand. Rice named the tune after the man — Jim Crow — a term that would later be used to refer to the laws that segregated the south. Most antebellum minstrel performers were white working-class men as were their audiences. By enacting racist stereotypes such as the "plantation darky," minstrels created a sense of solidarity out of staged racial superiority. Their success rested upon a large white audience that accepted their performances as authentic representations of black culture.

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
Reflections on minstrelsy
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


While the Civil War did not end white America's love of minstrelsy, it did change the nature of performance. White minstrels continued to perform to large audiences around the country, but after the war, increasing numbers of African-American men formed their own minstrel troupes. Minstrelsy's content also shifted to more explicitly depict "life on the plantation." Black men blacking up sought to capitalize on America's racism by playing to white belief that they were indeed the "plantation darkies" they portrayed on stage even advertising themselves as "genuine Negroes." Handy's "hokum" was not unlike the techniques employed by African-American actors who used the minstrel stage and white racist expectation to attract audiences.

Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Image courtesy of Duncan Schiedt Collection

In the 1890s, black performers and musicians left minstrel stages for those of vaudeville and musical comedy. Still, they faced a business in commercial amusement wedded to minstrel imagery. Will Marion Cook's experiences best exemplify the dilemmas of black musicians of the vaudeville era. Although he significantly influenced jazz great Duke Ellington, who even called him "Dad," Cook is often ignored as a forerunner to jazz. To a large extent, the slight is due to the racism of American consumer culture that determined the shape Cook's music would take.

Cook wrote what he called "real Negro melodies" and what he envisioned as "opera." He sought to market the syncopated sounds emanating from black expressive culture, but his compositions would be sold as "coon songs" suitable for variety stages. Cook's music fits most comfortably in the genre now known as "ragtime," but at the turn of the century, critics used the terms "ragtime" and "coon song" interchangeably. Like minstrelsy, the "coon song craze" sold racist stereotypes to mass audiences. Not unlike African-American minstrel performers, black songwriters capitulated in varying degrees to white racist expectation to market their music.

Cook, who had been classically trained and had even studied with Dvorak, did not intend to write ragtime or "coon songs"; the terms were not even in use when he wrote his first compositions. With white America convinced that black cultural production was nothing more than evidence of primitivism and savagery, Cook could not convince either promoters or critics that his full-length composition, Clorindy, was "opera." A white publisher thought Cook to be "crazy" for "believing" that any "Broadway audience would listen to Negroes singing Negro opera," and a white manager thought that "a position as elevator-boy was more in the line." Clorindy finally made it to the stage marketed as "Negro novelty." Performed late at night and outdoors for Broadway's after-theater crowd, little of the libretto could be used, and the show consisted of song and dance numbers — a melange that both resembled vaudeville and fit with racist beliefs that African-Americans could sing and dance, but not embark upon serious cultural production.

Handy and Cook's generation faced the racism of an American consumer culture born in minstrelsy, but through their genius they were able to gain legitimacy for black music — if not for black musicians. J. Rosamund Johnson, Eubie Blake, and James Reese Europe were just a few of the African-American musicians who together with Cook and Handy created a market for syncopated sound in the early 20th century. They were, in part, responsible for shifting the minstrelized expectations of 19th century white audiences, who had derided black images to celebrate their own identity as white. Black musicians succeeded in making black music and accordingly, "blackness," more a product of desire than one of derision or repulsion.

By the 1910s, the "coon song" era faded, taking with it the worst of the racist terminology, and ragtime secured a more respectable place as a form of American popular music. Without such a shift, Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, would not have been able to burst on the popular music scene. Berlin appropriated the term ragtime — if not the musical style — with his 1911 hit Alexander's Ragtime Band. The song resembled more of a march than the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, but Berlin capitalized on whites' new love for black music. This shift marked a new moment for black artists. The burden of selling songs to a consumer culture saturated with racism continued to plague black musicians, often robbing them of deserved credit. But their music, at least, had a growing audience, one that set the stage for black music to flourish as jazz in a Jazz Age.

Selected Sources:

Sotiropoulos, Karen, Staging Race: Black Cultural Politics before the Harlem Renaissance, 1893-1915, forthcoming

Badger, Reid, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995

Bean, Annemarie with James V. Hatch and Brooks McNamara (eds), Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996

Carter, Marva Griffin, Life and Music of Will Marion Cook, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1988

Erenberg, Lewis, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981

Handy, W. C., Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, New York: Macmillan, 1941, reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1969

Locke, Alain, The Negro and his Music, 1936, New York: Arno Reprint, 1969

Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface minstrelsy and the American Working Class, New York: Oxford University, 1993

Riis, Thomas L., Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989

Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.