"Hard Times Come Again No More"
McGarrigle, Kate and Anna. Songs of the Civil War. CK 48607. Columbia, 1991. CD 2854

Hard Times (1)

From today's perspective, the minstrel show raises disturbing questions about racism and entertainment. Nonetheless, the musical form represents America's first indigenous musical theater. Although early minstrelsy relied on existing American and British genres, by the 1820s the American minstrel show had developed a distinctive national character. Performers blackened their faces with cork and, by distorting elements of African-American culture, created stereotypes such as the urban dandy "Zip Coon" and the guileless plantation slave "Jim Crow."

Grand Ethiopian Concert! [Winchester, VA: 1863]

Grand Ethiopian Concert! [Winchester, VA: 1863].

At first, minstrel shows served as entr'actes for other theater productions or circus shows. However, by 1843, the Virginia Minstrels, headed by Daniel Decatur Emmett, composer of "Dixie," performed separately. At this point, the form had evolved into two distinct shows, one featuring Zip Coon and the other Jim Crow. Each play relied on stock humor and clichés. During the 1850s, the minstrel shows integrated more "genteel" entertainment in the form of popular and sentimental ballads of the day. The "walk-around," an ensemble finale, closed the shows on a high note.

The London Mathews; Containing an Account of This Celebrated Comedian's Trip to America

Mathews, [Charles]. The London Mathews; Containing an Account of This Celebrated Comedian's Trip to America. London: Hodgson, [1824].

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

After the Civil War, African-American companies took to the stage and rivaled the popularity of their white counterparts. James Bland, composer of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," and Sam Lucas became known as the leading performers of African-American minstrel shows and eventually branched into other forms of musical theater. Professional minstrelsy waned at the turn of the century as troupes turned to vaudeville, burlesque, and the emerging Broadway musical theater.

During a visit to the United States in 1822, the comedian Charles Matthews became fascinated with African-American music and dialect. On his return to England, he began to incorporate his observations into skits, sketches, and songs. In turn, Matthews's own theatrical productions influenced early American minstrelsy.

Photograph of a blackface minstrel

Photograph of a blackface minstrel. Elk's Lodge, Charlottesville, February 2 and 3, 1925.

Although vaudeville replaced minstrel shows as the most popular form of professional musical theater at the turn of the twentieth century, minstrelsy retained a presence in amateur theatricals until the 1950s. This photograph was taken at a minstrel show at the Elk's Lodge in Charlottesville, held on February 2 and 3, 1925.

Autograph manuscript, signed, of play "Hard Times

Autograph manuscript, signed, of play "Hard Times. An Original Ethiopian Walkround" by Daniel Decatur Emmett. 1855.

Papers of Daniel Decatur Emmett and the Ankeney Family, 1850-1881.

The first full-length blackface minstrel show was performed at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York in February 1843. Songwriter and banjoist Daniel Decatur Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels put on a program of song and dance to the accompaniment of bone castanets, violin, banjo, and tambourine. One of the most controversial eras of American performance history was launched.    

Songs of the Virginny Banjoist

Emmett, D[aniel] D[ecatur]. Songs of the Virginny Banjoist. London: D'Almaine, 1840.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Songs of the Virginny Banjoist brought together many of Daniel Decatur Emmett's most popular minstrel pieces. Joel Sweeney, a native of Appomattox, Virginia, popularized the African-inspired banjo, although Emmett favored the instrument in his compositions.

The publisher of Songs originally presented this copy to Napoleon W. Gould, a British musician who played in Emmett's minstrel troupe. Notes on the flyleaf indicate that Gould gave this book to Emmett, who "on his deathbed" returned it to Gould.