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How the Blues Affected Race Relations in the United States

Minstrel and Medicine shows

Early appreciation for black music
White interest in black music
Integration of Musicians
Covers & Dances
Integrated Radio
Blues & Rock
Works Consulted
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Minstrel and medicine shows gave whites an opportunity to be introduced to and explore the culture of blacks with the excuse of show business to fall back on. This section describes how these shows began improving the relationship between blacks and whites by stretching it beyond the master and slave relationship even before the Civil War.

Minstrel shows were musical events often featuring white performers who painted their faces and dressed up like blacks. Beginning in the 1830s, minstrel shows were popular all over the United States and their influence on race relations remains ill-defined. On the one hand, they gave many Americans their first sampling of black music1. Whites in blackface traveled the country playing music that they had heard performed by blacks living on plantations in the South2. On the other hand, they operated to feed the white stereotype of blacks. However, if it is true that imitation is the utmost form of flattery, then these shows were evidence of white's attraction and fondness for black culture. Francis Davis, author of The History of the Blues, described these shows as "a world in which black could be white, white could be black, anything could be itself and simultaneously its opposite3."
Memphis Ma Rainey
There were many white actors in the shows who genuinely appreciated black musical form and took pride in their authentic portrayal of black men and women during the shows. Davis asserts that it was these black-faced whites who eventually made it possible for blacks to participate in the performances. The earliest black minstrel to gain distinction was William Henry Lane. He was a dancer in the 1840s well known for his limber moves and acclaimed in the novel American Notes by Charles Dickens4. Lillie Mae Glover, known as Memphis Ma Rainey, said of her travels, "We'd go to places where they'd never seen a colored person before. I remember once in Illinois, when we rolled into this little town, they thought we were no-tailed bears5!"

Medicine shows were extremely popular in America around the turn-of-the-century. Many white country blues performers started out as Fiddlin' John Carsontraveling songsters. Among these are Roy Acuff, Dock Boggs, Fiddling John Carson, Frank Hutchinson, and Uncle Dave Macon. These shows influenced race relations because they featured and entertained blacks and whites. One of the most famous medicine show songsters was Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the father of hillbilly or country and western music. Rodgers's career began in medicine shows where he occasionally put on blackface and frequently played with Frank Stokes, a black songster of Memphis from whom he is thought to have acquired much of his song collection. He Jimmie Rodgersdemonstrated his indebtedness to black music in songs such as his "Blue Yodels." While borrowing techniques and learning from blues artists, Rodgers was also influential to bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks. In 1930, the Sheiks did "Yodeling, Fiddling Blues" which could be a tribute to Rodgers6.

Like the minstrel shows, the medicine shows often involved blackface performances and were also a place where whites and blacks could share something - music and entertainment. Their popularity in America began around the turn-of-the-century and continued after the Civil War (1860-1865) and through the Reconstruction period (1865-1877). These shows were the birthplace of both country and blues. The emancipation of slaves gave the black musicians, typically referred to as songsters, the power to travel around and actually make a living playing music. Their song collection included tunes both black and white in origin. They played country dance pieces, minstrel songs, spirituals, and ballads7. William Ivey of the Country Music Foundation confirms the existence of a common repertoire between the early country musicians and the early blues musicians forcing a type of business relationship even at the peak of segregation8. The noted blues historian, Robert Palmer, says "the music of the songsters and musicians shared a number of traits with white country music, with musicians of each race borrowing freely from the other. But even though many white and black songs were similar, black performing style, with its grainy vocal textures and emphasis on rhythmic momentum, remained distinctive9." It was this distinction that made black entertainers indispensable and continued to cultivate white appreciation for black music.

1. Davis, 37
2. Palmer, 32
3. Davis, 37
4. Davis, 37
5. Bane, 66
6. Davis, 37
7. Palmer, 40-41
8. Bane, 83
9. Palmer, 41

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