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On the Astonishing Longevity of Minstrelsy

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amosandandyI have been rearranging some of my mental furniture recently. It started off while reading Dreaming of Dixie by Karen Cox, a book which John Bush Jones critiques quite heavily in his account of Dixie nostalgia in Tin Pan Alley, but is actually in my view a rather better study. Mostly the reading experience was filling out my understanding of how mythology of the Old South was constructed through music, advertising, radio, movies, literature, and tourism between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The bit that surprised me was how long blackface minstrelsy continued as a performing tradition. In my head it was a 19th-century theatrical tradition, and whilst I knew it appeared in films in the following century, I had always thought of those instances as referring back to the 19th-century practice.

But it turns out blackface minstrelsy continued as an ongoing, popular format right through the 1930s and 40s on the radio. This felt a bit like finding living stromalites off the coast of Australia: something that I had always had in the category of ‘historically distant’ was current during the childhood and youth of people I know. It’s also a rather striking illustration of the associative web that sustains stereotypes: you can’t actually see the black make-up on the radio, but once the associations are established, the dialect and character features that you can hear will evoke the visual content in the listener’s mind’s eye.

The second stage of mental furniture rearrangement came when I remarked to Jonathan about my surprise at how long this went on. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there was also The Black and White Minstrel Show’.

This was something I had forgotten about entirely, mostly because I was only ever dimly aware of its existence. Like the Beatles, its heyday was before I was born, so it always felt like it belonged to a previous generation. Turns out, though, it continued right through until 1978, which not only astonished but also shocked me. This could have been amongst my childhood memories had it been the kind of thing my parents liked.

(Which I infer, from it never having been on in our household, that it was not. Knowing my parents, I’m not surprised. My father might quite have liked the tunes, but my mother would have had sharply critical words to say about the whole premise.)

So, after spending a while, largely agog, reading about the show and watching clips, three observations rise to the top.

First, for all it is entirely derived from the stereotypes of American minstrelsy – in its songs, in its costuming, in the very use of blackface – it also garbles them. There was a clip of ‘Sweet Rosy O’Grady’ featuring a romantic encounter between the male singer in blackface and one of the white female dancers dressed in a kind of 1960s version of Southern Belle. Pretty sure that the image of Black men courting white women wasn’t part of the standard Dixie fantasy.

You’d like to think this might have marked some kind of subtle subversion of the hideous racism the show generally represented, but I suspect it’s only a sign of incompetence. There are some revealing interviews with people involved in the show claiming innocence – they really didn’t mean to be mean – which lends weight to this picture of general cluelessness. However, there are also letters from the BBC archive of people pointing exactly what was wrong with the show, that were brushed aside in the light of the show’s great popularity, so it is hard to claim the ignorance wasn’t wilful.

Second, the tale of Lenny Henry’s addition to the show in 1975 as its first actual Black performer echoes the complex and troubling stories of both the early 20th-century ‘coon-shouters’ and the experience of Black actors in Hollywood in the 1940s. The few opportunities available for Black performers came at the cost of reinforcing the very stereotypes that were used to keep the rest out.

Third, learning about the popularity of this show suddenly put the introduction to barbershop in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a new light. I have always been faintly mystified at how Harry Danser had managed to turn a personal enthusiasm into a movement with evangelical momentum, notwithstanding the support from the BHS in promoting the genre and some favourable national TV coverage.

But if The Black and White Minstrel Show was beaming exotic, nostalgic (if garbled) Americana into millions of homes each Saturday, as apparently it was between 1958 and 1978, that could explain why middle England was such a fertile ground to plant the barbershop seed. And, indeed, how they managed to secure that TV coverage.

It also sheds light on why barbershop in the UK was predominantly white from the get-go. In my book I argued that, as American barbershop had at that point entirely severed barbershop’s history from its Black roots, and only recently desegregated its main organisations, the genre the UK imported was always experienced as a white genre. That point still stands, but if much of its key repertoire, as well as its early costuming habits, all drew on a shared public imaginary in this country that was egregiously racist, it is hardly surprising that it remained a largely white genre here too.

We are, in Europe, in the habit of thinking that we aren’t implicated in the specific cultural struggles represented by Dixie nostalgia; we comfort ourselves with the thought that, notwithstanding the ongoing difficulties with race relations we have in our own local contexts, we imported these songs innocently. But if one the UK’s most popular prime time shows of the Windrush era was built around Dixie’s most quintessentially racist performance tradition, I don’t think we can wash our hands that easily.

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