What was a blackface minstrel show?
Stephen Foster, when he heard a minstrel show, would have heard something that sounded altogether different from what his sisters or other polite society were playing at home. The difference was not so much a structural one because the musical style, the musical structure, the form of the melody and so forth, followed certain European patterns that were derived from the same kinds of music that genteel society were playing and singing. The differences were much more in the style of the performance itself and in the kinds of words that were being put to it. And to some extent rhythm, but we tend to overemphasize those differences, I think, in retrospect, because many of the songs that we see that were published by the minstrel troupes, performed by the minstrel troupes, were essentially the same, out of the same stock as what was being performed in the home. So what was the difference? Style, manner. It was much cruder. It was exaggerated. It was even -- foreign. Out of the culture, in a sense. They were trying to exaggerate and make [something] exotic.
It presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical, as being basically a frivolous character. Now, how that impacted upon society itself was that they embraced it. They loved it. This was what people had thought about blacks all along. So Rice's characterization of blacks then reaffirmed what mainstream America had been thinking all along.
When the Virginia Minstrels came along what they did was to develop other characters, and the characters they developed were much more over the edge than the character Rice had portrayed. That's when you get Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. That's when you get the semi-circle with the traditional minstrel set-up, with these two characters being outrageous, who fidgeted all the time, who were saying the most inane things that could possibly be said. The masks had become much more grotesque. That's when you really get the negative characterization of blacks as the total comic fool, and that is what minstrelsy was about, to a certain extent.
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