Above: Cover of "Minstrel Songs Old and New"

Minstrel Songs Old and New

From the book of the same name, published 1882 by Oliver Ditson, Co.

Over the years we have featured a large number of songs from the 19th century Minstrelsy period of American music, we've also provided snippets of information about specific Minstrel performers and groups but up to now, we have not dedicated an entire issue to the music of the Minstrels. Recently, we received an additional donation from the Marshall-Morrow family that included a large bound book of 102 songs from the 19th century Minstrel period. Included in the book were a number of well known songs remembered to this day and many more that have been long forgotten. In this issue we will present for you a cross section of the music contained in the book that represents the Minstrel tradition of those owner page imagetimes. The book is in fair condition externally but the inner pages are as pristine as the day it was published. It is unknown as to who the original owner may have been however, on the last page (a blank) is scrawled one owner's comments. The writing reads: "This book was give to Sd R. Y. Cold by are white lady to play the songs." Some letters are difficult to read such as the "Sd" and "Y" which could be a "J." Would Mr. or Ms. cold be happy to know that their book and inscription is seeing the light of day more than 130 years later?

For those of you who want to print and play the music we've featured in this article, you will be pleased to see that all music featured this month is printable using the Sibelius Scorch player.

To enjoy the full musical experience, we do recommend that you get the Scorch plug in from our friends at Sibelius software. The Scorch player allows you to not only listen to the music but to view the sheet music as the music plays and see the lyrics as well. The player also allows printing of the sheet music featured so for those of you who play the piano (or other instruments) you'll be able to play the music yourself. It's a complete musical experience! Get the Sibelius Scorch player now.

Minstrelsy Title Page

Minstrelsy is largely based on the music and culture of 19th century African American slaves. Much of the music is reflective of the hardships they endured. However, despite that a great deal of humor shows through in many Minstrel songs. In The American History and Encyclopedia of Music (1908, see our resources page) the editor stated: "Mirth and laughter find little expression in the song of a people long depressed with thoughts of exile, and unhappy under oppression with no promise of alleviation." The author goes on to say: "In many of these songs there may easily be detected the doctrine of the fatalist giving place to the yearning after things spiritual and the hope and faith in the life to come. At moments, even in the most despairing of the 'Sorrow Songs,' there floats out a Sheet musictriumphant note." That mix of hardship and later triumph is easily seen and reflected in the song, Jordan is a Hard Road to Trabel, (Click on the image to view and hear the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics) originally published in 1853 and written by Charles Grobe (1817-1879) but in this book Dan (Daniel Decatur) Emmett, (1815-1904) another white man who was a pioneer in the Minstrel tradition is given credit for the song. Not to sully Emmett's reputation but he was well known for taking other people's works and claiming them as his own in later publications. He was most known for doing so with several of Stephen Foster's original songs. Those actions eventually led Foster to successfully lobby for better copyright protections for intellectual properties.

"Immigrating from Germany, Grobe received the position of professor at the Wesleyan Female Collegiate Institute at Wilmington, Delaware. He maintained a music store, which had been his primary means of support since 1845, until 1871. In 1872, at Pennington Seminary, Grobe became the head of the music department. When he began publishing in the States he started with "Valse brillante" which was based on the music of Liszt. The rest of his works, for the most part, followed the pattern of three to five right-hand exceptional variations based on current popular melodies, operas, minstrel shows or sacred music. The last publication of his variations were based on Webster's "Sweet By and By." His publications were often reflective of current situations such as the Mexican War, Civil War, and Irish pieces. Grobe also wrote an instructional treatise, "New Method for the Piano Forte," which included a history of the piano." ~ Keith Johnson, Rovi at answers.com. As for Emmett, we will deal with him on some later songs attributed to him.

But Minstrel songs and Minstrelsy was much more than a replaying of slave songs, it was in most respects, an entertainment form that mocked the African-Americans, reinforced stereotypes and amplified their cultural characteristics, usually in very negative ways. To some degree we explored the subject in our article about the late 19th and early 20th century fad of what was termed, "coon songs." Minstrelsy had its origins in the observations of an Englishman, Charles Matthews who visited the United States in 1822. He became attracted to the music of blacks and their particular dialect at the time. He incorporated those elements in his skits and songs. By the end of the 1820's this interest had swelled to a novel and purely American blackface minstrelsy form.

The performances of Thomas Dartmouth Rice and George Washington Dixon represented the beginning stages of the Minstrelsy movement. The performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork, dress in exaggerated costumes which were supposed to represent to white audiences the typical black. These costumes came in generally two versions; first the tattered uncouth, naive southern plantation slave (Jim Crow Sibelius format) and second the ludicrous urban dandy often called "Zip Coon" or "Dandy Jim" complete with blue coat and tails.

Zip Coon, published sometime around 1834 is a rather interesting musical example. Iit was wildly popular duringSheet music cover the classic age of Minstrelsy ( 1840-70) and the image shown on the original sheet music became somewhat the iconic image of the "Jim Dandy" African-American. The song's composition was claimed by at least three people at one time or another; George Washington Dixon, Bob Farrell and George Nichols. Later editions also attributed the song to Dan Emmett (our Sibelius reprint is based on the 1882 version in this article's title book.) Somewhere along the way, Zip Coon morphed into another more familiar tune, Turkey in the Straw (Scorch version, a Rag based on the song) You'll immediately recognize the base melody on hearing the song. Of course "Turkey" was and is a much more socially acceptable song and therefore has survived to this day. It is very unlikely that you would ever hear a public performance of Zip Coon today. One treatise on the subject of Minstrel music mentions that Zip Coon was the original of what would later be designated as the aforementioned "Coon Songs."

Click on the cover image to see the music and hear it in the Scorch format, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

Though prior to 1840, Minstrel songs were largely performed in blackface and costume as a bit of a side show or theater act, in some cases even a circus entr'acte, it took a performing group to codify the music, costumes and comedy acts as a complete show in and of itself. Credit for this prototype of the Minstrel show was a group who called themselves the Virginia Minstrels. They devised a complex show with instrumentation, and stage action that would become the blueprint for many troupes formed in the early 1840's such as the Ethiopian Serenaders, The Virginia Serenaders, Christy's Minstrels, the Kitchen Minstrels and many others. With this advance the Minstrel show became a fully developed form of entertainment.

As Minstrelsy developed, many new songs appeared, most of a comedic rather than travailing nature yet the songs continued to have reference to the difficulties of the black man in America but somehow at the same time were infused with humor. After all, who would want to go to a show that presented sadness and misery in all the songs? Of course Minstrelsy was performed for whites and generally, blacks kept their distance, especially in the early years. Later though some blacks began to appear in Minstrel shows. At the time, it was grand entertainment but unfortunately, at the expense of poor slaves or dandy freedmen. The shows made exaggerated use of uneducated dialect, dress and gestures of black Americans and of course, given white audiences, a fine time was had by all at the expense of the black man.

One song that is reflective of the black man's travail but with a hint of humor is Roll Out, Heave that Cotton. Though sheet music coverthis song was written long past the main era of Minstrelsy in 1877, more at the end of the cycle than before, it is a terrific example of a song, by a white man, that has a great deal of empathy for the hard work cast upon blacks during and after slavery. The song primarily tells the story of a gang of blacks who must load and off-load bales of cotton onto a riverboat stop after agonizing stop. The composer, William Shakespeare Hays (1837-1907) wrote many Minstrel style songs and the book we have taken these songs from has quite a few penned by Hays. Hays was an American poet and lyricist. He wrote some 350 songs over his career and sold as many as 20 million copies of his works. These pieces varied in tone from low comedy to sentimental and pious; as a result his material was sometimes confused with that of Stephen Foster. In his later years, Hays put forth one of the more plausible claims to authorship of the song "Dixie". In the end, however, no evidence could be produced to back up his pretensions. He was born as William Hays in Louisville, Kentucky, back then a small but rapidly-growing city where he would spend most of his life. He published his first poetry in 1856 and 1857 through the paper of his Georgetown, Kentucky, school. Hays eventually received the nickname "Shakespeare" for his writings, an appellation he made a formal part of his name. Hays finished school and returned to Louisville in 1857. He found employment at D. P. Fauld's music store, where he continued to write music and poetry. He published many of his pieces under pen names, including Syah ("Hays" spelled backward). Three small collections of his poetry were also produced. (extracted from Wikipedia) Click the cover image above for the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

sheet music coverFrom my own readings on the subject, though Dan Emmett's name frequently appears on famous Minstrel and other tunes of the period, he is credited with many more songs than he actually composed. This is mostly due to his penchant for grabbing good songs from other composers, performing them in his shows and then publishing them with his name on the cover. Despite his somewhat felonious actions, he did write a few songs that reached high levels of popularity and one of the more popular, after the song Dixie,(midi) may be Old Dan Tucker.

Still, Dan Tucker's" origins remain questionable; the tune may have come from oral tradition, and the words may be the only part written by Dan Emmett. The blackface troupe the Virginia Minstrels popularized Old Dan Tucker in 1843, and it quickly became a hit. The song has endured melodically and today it is a bluegrass and country music standard.

The first edition of Old Dan Tucker, published in 1843, is a song of boasts and nonsense in the vein of previous minstrel hits such as Jump Jim Crow (Scorch version.) In exaggerated vernacular, the lyrics tell of Dan Tucker's exploits in a strange town, where he fights, gets drunk, overeats, and breaks other social taboos. Minstrel troupes freely added and removed verses, and folk singers have since added hundreds more. Parodies and political versions are also known. (partially extracted from Wikipedia.) Click on the sheet music cover image above to see and hear the music in the Scorch version or here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

One of the more lasting negative stereotypes of blacks has been the connection to watermelon manwatermelon. Through the years we have sheet music coverpublished a few songs that address the watermelon stereotype, among them are Percy Wenrich's The Smiler (Scorch) and Kate Kyro's 1904 song, Watermelon Breezes. One of the songs included in the Ditson book is Oh! Dat Watermelon. The horrible caricatures of blacks and watermelon such as this example may be one of the most widespread racial depictions of all time. I've found this a little fascinating as most people of every race love and enjoy watermelons so what exactly makes the connection to blacks such a compelling negative image? In researching this question, I came across an excellent site that addresses the issue. The Authentic History Center has a posted article by Michael Shawn Barnes that in part says:

"The origins of these stereotypes are unclear. They may have begun as Southern stereotypes and then evolved into Black stereotypes. It's also possible that these evolved out of American slavery. Numerous primary sources chronicle Black resistance to slavery through "silent sabotage," or, day-to-day acts of resistance. Stealing from the master was one example. It seems logical that, given that food would be among the most desirable of items a slave would pilfer, and chickens and watermelons would have been commonly available. Solomon Northup, for example, tells of being put in charge of punishing slaves who got into the master's watermelon patch. Rather than carry out the punishment, Northup had the slaves show him the way to the patch. The connecting of Blacks to chicken and watermelon was done in a way to dehumanize Blacks and subject them to ridicule. This process helped contribute to prejudice and discrimination. Surprisingly, many young people are unaware of the long history of these stereotypes, while some older Black people refuse to eat watermelon because of that history."

Oh! Dat Watermelon was published in 1874 and according to the Library of Congress, was written and published by Luke Schoolcraft and arranged by John Braham. Click on the cover above for the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

Yet another odd connection to African Americans is the term "Buffalo." A song connected to that term is perhaps best known to many of us from the 1946 film, It's a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed sing the chorus on their way home. "Buffalo Gals" (1848) may have been originally sheet music coverwritten and published as "Lubly Fan" in 1844 by the blackface minstrel John Hodges, who performed as "Cool White." The song was widely popular throughout the United States. Because of its popularity, minstrels may have often altered the lyrics to suit the local audience, so it might be performed as "New York Gals" in New York City or "Boston Gals" in Boston. The most often stated origin of the title is not related to any stereotype but to the city of Buffalo New York. However, "Buffalo" did become associated with blacks and was an often used descriptive sometime after 1866 when the 10th Cavalry regiment of black soldiers who fought in the Indian wars of the 1870's. Some sources assert that the nickname was given out of respect for the fierce fighting ability of the 10th cavalry. Other sources say that Native Americans called the black cavalry troops "buffalo soldiers" because of their dark curly hair, which resembled a buffalo's coat. The lyrics are unclear as to why "Buffalo" but I will leave it to you to decide whether or not the connection was a city or something other than that. This particular edition credits Dan Emmett as the author but it is most often credited to Hodges. Click on the sheet music cover image to see and hear the music in the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

Sheet music coverBlacks were not the only people who the Minstrels made fun of although they were the primary target. Once in a while the Minstrels would take a shot at "white folk" too and when done, there was often more truth than stereotype. Just as whites saw black culture and behavior as odd or subhuman, the blacks saw white society as a mysterious mix of ostentatious display and strange ways of dressing and societal behavior. One song, Folks That Put on Airs, really hit the nail on the head as far as how many whites behaved then and it may be a bit unsettling to read the lyrics and realize the message this song sent to people in 1863 is as valid today as it was then. With six verses and a chorus, the song exposes people who are less than genuine such as politicians, young ladies and gentlemen, business people and even a few people specifically by name. Interestingly, the copyright line for this song as printed in 1882 clearly reads "Copyright 1863 by Lee & Walker, Copyright 1801 by W. H. Coulston." Clearly that last date is an error as Coulston, a composer of many popular Civil War Era songs was (to the nest of our research) born in 1838 and died in 1893. Coulston briefly was owner of his own publishing house in Philadelphia from 1859 - 1864. Regardless of its origins, I think you'll enjoy this song, Click the cover for the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

The use of the stereotyped idiom of the slaves you may have noticed, appears throughout these songs and of course,that was one of the two major stereotypes around which Minstrelsy and the lyrics to these songs expressed. At the same time the words often expressed ignorance or a lack of education.Sheet music The humor in some of the songs is not only interesting but also quite entertaining, though of course, at the expense of the black people. One humorous song originally published in 1847 and composed by Augustus Clapp is De History Ob De World. In six humorous verses we get a rather convoluted and downright funny history of the world as seen through the eyes of an admittedly formally uneducated man who tells us his own view of the creation. The title page of the original publication states "Words used by permission of Turner and Fishr" apparently the writers of the lyrics. Click on the title image above for the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

As minstrelsy developed there was a period of decline beginning shortly after the Civil War. When slavery ended and blacks began their long road to becoming a part of mainstream society, Minstrel shows and songs began to fall out of favor. As with many businesses who try to stay viable, Minstrel troupes tried to adapt to the changing times and their music did too. Men had always been the only performers in Minstrel shows and if a woman's role was required, men would fill in dressed as women. One adaptation that took place was inclusion of women to perform women's roles. This trend continued for a few years with some troupes evolving into complete casts of women. That trend was the precursor of later "girlie shows" and of course such shows attracted many men to the audience. Some troupes also abandoned the burnt cork and performed as "whiteface" performers.

Sheet music coverChanges to the music included more genteel subjects and a gradual move from the primitive nature of the songs and dialect to a more sophisticated variety show. One such "genteel" early song that depicted a different view of African American life was Tom-Big-Bee River or The Gum Tree Canoe. This song is a rather sweet story of a hard working man and his love, Jula. After a hard day's work, he would get Jula and they would rown down the river The title river is the Mississippi - Alabama, Tombigbee. The Tombigbee originates in north Mississippi in Itawamba County and flows through Alabama where it meets with the Alabama river to form the Mobile river. The song was originally composed by A. F. Winnimore with words by S. S. Steele. This song has survived for a long time with an edition published as recently as 1958. The song shows a level of freedom that is rarely seen in songs about African Americans during this period in history. Click the cover for the Scorch version of the music, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

The Minstrel performers often took on character names and told stories about their character through song. Two such examples of songs that introduced a character and told their story are Adolphus Morning Glory, (1868) composed by D. Braham with words by J. D. Murphy "of St. Louis," and Nicodemus Johnson (1865) by J. B. Murphy. What these two have in common besides an odd coincidence of near same names of the songwriters is their incidence at the end or after the Civil War. Nicodemus speaks of his "master" being a Union man and against secession and of hopes that the war will soon end bringing his ability to return to the South. Adolphus, by then a freed man sings nothing of the War or plantations but instead tells a nice story of a woman he loves and their soon to come wedding. Both are good stories with very little of the nastiness of many of the earlier songs.

Sheet music

Click on the sheet music above to see and hear the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics

sheet music

Click on the sheet music above to see and hear the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics

Though Minstrel songs of the earlier variety continued to be included in Minstrel shows, as time passed the music became more of a mix of those songs, newer "coon songs" and popular songs. By the time "Minstrel Songs Old and New" was published in 1882, the Minstrel show had faded substantially and by 1890, were nearly completely replaced by variety songs (Vaudeville) and the revolution on popular music. Despite that the "coon song" fad in popular music revived some very demeaning and negative images of blacks.

A somewhat surprising evolution was the development of Minstrel troupes of black performers. These groups became much more significant after the Civil War. The black troupes provided a showcase for the musical talents of black entertainers. These shows continued to include scenes from plantation life but included other African American music such as their religious music and their own talents as composers of popular music. Probably the most important development in presenting legitimate African American music and performers was the formation of the Fisk Jubilee singers in 1865. Fisk University was founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1865 as a University for the benefit of freed slaves. The trustees of Fisk recognized the black contribution to music and wanted to make music a special feature of the instruction offered at Fisk. George L. White was hired to give instruction in singing and by 1867 his students began presenting programs of music and in 1868 the singers produced a program that included the cantata Esther by Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729), a prodigeous musical accomplishment.

Mr. White also taught music in Memphis and Chattanooga. A concert at the National Teacher's Association conference was given by the group despite some prejudicial resistance and was so popular that they were asked to sing each day till the close of the convention. At this point, White and the trustees thought the group might be a way for Fisk to earn extra monetary support for the University so the group was organized as a professional performing group in October of 1871. At a performance in Boston at the World Peace Jubilee the group sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The audience of twenty thousand rose en masse with the women waving handkerchiefs and men tossing their hats into the air at the chorus of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah." The crowd chanted, "The Jubilees, the Jubilees forever!" and the name stuck and thus were born the Fisk Jubilee Singers! Since that time and continuing now, the Fisk Singers have performed worldwide to acclaim and are highly sought after. You can read more about them at their web site at the Fisk University. The reference book The American History and Encyclopedia of Music in Ten Volumes
Hubbard, W.L., Editor Irving Squire, London, 1908 was the source of the history details of their formation and the following photo is included in the book of the original Jubilee Singers. The same photo appears on the aforementioned Fisk University web site.

Fisk Jubilee Singers

sheet musicBy the 1890s African Americans were an important part of American show business and Minstrelsy continued to fade away although in some isolated areas, rudimentary Minstrel troupes and shows continued till the 1950's. Despite the view we have today of the Minstrels and Minstrel shows, a great deal of exciting, interesting and entertaining music came out of the process. We've tried to share some of them with you in this article and will end with a really happy tune written by (probably, maybe) Dan Emmett in 1843, De Boatman Dance. Click the sheet music image for the Scorch version, here for the midi and here for the Lyrics.

Richard A. Reublin, September, 2011. This article published September, 2011 and is Copyright © 2011 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Association, Inc. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author or a corporate officer. Though the songs published on this site are often in the Public Domain, MIDI renditions are protected by copyright as recorded performances.

Thanks for visiting us and be sure to come back again later to see our next issue or just to read some or all of our over 130 articles about America's music. See our resources page for a complete bibliography of our own library resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


If you'd like to contribute an article to us at Parlor Songs, we'd love to have your help and contribution. The "rules" for submissions can be found here, we'd love to have submissions by any of our readers, anytime and would enjoy having a "reader submission" or "favorites" feature from time to time. Heck, get involved, help us out and write a feature for us!

Parlor Songs is an educational website about American popular music and the history of the genre

If you would like to submit an article about America's music for publish on the website, contact the email on the main page. I also welcome suggestions for subjects for future articles.

All articles are written by the previous owners, unless otherwise stated.

© 1997-2024 by Parlor Songs (former owners Richard A. Reublin or Richard G. Beil). Before using any of these images, text or performances (MIDI or other recordings), please read our usage policy for standard permissions and those requiring special attention. Thanks.

I respect your privacy and do not collect or divulge personal information.

Return to Top of Page