Minstrel and Medicine Shows -- Creating a Market for the Blues
by Patrick Joseph O'Connor
Overland Review (University of Arkansas) Volume 32: 1.2, 2005
The traveling function of musicians is ancient. Minstrel shows, tent shows, medicine shows, and revivals brought some notable Southern blues musicians to Kansas. In 1929, the Paramount Flappers with Ma Rainey played Kansas with the C. A. Wortham Circus.1 Another great Mississippi blues man, Skip James, in a respite from blues in the mid-1930s, toured parts of Kansas with a revival group, giving "a twenty to thirty minute sermonette with music to introduce and close the service."2 Prior to this, scores of talented Afro-Americans performed in minstrel and medicine shows in opera houses, town halls, and tents throughout the state. The performances showed the residents of late 19th and early 20th century Kansas that blacks were capable musicians and entertainers, enabling them to achieve limited acceptance in society. While the stage fare was at times demeaning and diminished the art of the individuals, this prepared the rural and isolated audiences for those forms of music, blues and jazz, that later gave blacks an active, more genuine voice in the community.
Black population figures in Kansas show an increase from 625 in 1860 to over 43,000 in 1880.3 The local populace was hard-pressed to assimilate the newcomers into the local economy, and indeed into society at large. However, blacks were recognized as musicians of talent, due to the popularity of minstrel shows. While not necessarily citizens of the state, many of them came to Kansas in companies on national tours. Some of the best minstrel troupes played the state, and their success encouraged lesser and local imitations.4 Below, a table is offered depicting the minstrel and medicine shows that played one theater in Kansas, the Whitley Opera House, in operation in Emporia5 from 1881 through 1913.6 The play "The Shoo-Fly Regiment," and the Black Patti Troubadours tour have been included in the listing, as they were important black productions a step above minstrelsy
WHITLEY OPERA HOUSE, EMPORIA, KANSAS 1881-1913
Sampson reports on all the acts marked (B) in his chronology, some 23 out of 52, a little over 44 percent. In addition, some of those not listed by him may well be African American. This demonstrates the substantial presence of black troupes at the Whitley. Minstrel shows were popular with Emporia audiences (and, by extension, other Kansas communities) well into the 20th century. Lomax viewed the minstrel songs as "America's first popular music."7 While often written and performed by whites, the minstrel songs borrowed heavily from African-American performances. Though at times disparaging and tending to idealize plantation life, the compositions were actually a tribute to the musical ability of the black race.
Lindy, oh Lindy, sweeter than sugar cane.
Lindy, Lindy, say you'll be mine.
While the moon am a shinin'
And my heart am a twinin'
Meet me dear little Lindy at the wild [minton?] vine.8
The above refrain, from "Don't Think I'm Santa Claus," depicts "pure 'coon song' of a kind hardly ever heard on race records," according to Tony Russell. He points out that these songs, immensely popular in the late 19th century, were "children of the minstrel era."9 When the blues reached its zenith in the 1920s, the "rural musician, whatever his colour, expressed a sort of desegregation...[with] shared songs...available to all."10
In the days before recorded song, performers were quick to borrow regional influences, incorporating them into their rendition of the same song or similar entry in their repertory. The black treatment of European folk song and folk song form, contributing to the formation of the blues, has thrilled American audiences at large since the days when Daniel Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels first toured the country in 1843. After 1865, blacks with their newfound freedom, gave America a good sampling of the original.
According to Hughes and Meltzer in their history of blacks in American entertainment, early minstrel performances had around fifteen men, black or in blackface, seated in semi-circle and shaking tambourines as the curtain came up. Standing before them and facing the audience was a grandly dressed interlocutor. At each end of the semi-circle were two comedians in gaudy costumes, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. The word play between these three men, as well as the comedic and sentimental songs on banjo and lively dances performed by the rest, comprised the first part of the show. The second part or olio was taken up with comedy and burlesque skits.11
An 1898 programme of Mahara's Minstrels with W. C. Handy as band master (Mahara's first played the Whitley in 1899) has the show beginning with "Within The Realms Of Flowerdom," a vocal ensemble. The conversationalist (interlocutor) is George Moxley and there are three "left ends" and three "right ends," serving the place of Tambo and Bones. Following the opening chorus, there are ten songs, including "Echoes From Sunny Land, Old Black Joe." Coming next is a skit, "Go in the House," that includes acrobatics by Pearl Brewer. Then there is a "Big Blackberry Song and Dance" (an ensemble), followed by Billy Young, "refined comedian." The Ponce De Leon Comedy Four are on stage next followed by two dancer-comedians in a sketch "I'll Make That Black Gal Mine." The conclusion of the entertainment is a "farce-comedy entitled 'The Rival Brothers.'"12
According to Sampson, "By the end of the 1890s...most of the best black professionals were performing outside the realm of minstrelsy."13 Bert Williams and his partner George Walker14 were pioneers in the movement to establish blacks on their own in the theater. This comedy team played all over the country, and was welcomed enthusiastically, except in the cradle of the Confederacy. Hughes and Meltzer include several black vaudevillians in their study. One, Ernest Hogan, played the longest single vaudeville run in history—44 weeks in New York in the early part of the 20th century. Beginning in 1909, blacks had their own vaudeville circuit that eventually reached throughout the eastern half of the nation. The Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), or Toby as it was called by the troupes, paid very little to all except the main attractions: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, among others. Lieb reports that blues began to appear in vaudeville routines by 1919.15 Those headliners often made their way to the larger white circuits, and were accepted as first-rate entertainers.
The Wangdoodle Comedy Four were originally with The Colored Georgia Minstrels but struck out on their own and became quite a success in vaudeville, playing many dates in opera houses throughout Kansas. In 1908, the Shoo-Fly Regiment with Cole and Johnson, played the Crawford Theatre in Wichita and "scored a tremendous hit before an audience that filled every seat," according to a Wichita Eagle review. The newspaper pronounced the show "the best production ever given by a colored organization in this city."
Notwithstanding the praise, getting accommodations after the show might have been a different matter. Many of the black performers ended up receiving a sack lunch out the back door while their white counterparts dined at the counter. In 1902, the performer Billy McClain was arrested in Kansas City for "having too much jewelry for a colored man" (diamonds worth $7000). He was released after it was determined that the stones were his.16
The September 16, 1923 Wichita Eagle noted that W.C. Handy, who had published the "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, would appear at the Crawford Theatre. "Both balconies for colored persons," an advertisement read. So, it would seem that the blues had indeed taken the place of the minstrel shows. Segregation was still in effect to some extent but at least the performers were putting on their music, showing a truer cast of feelings before the appreciative whites.
was one class of traveling shows. The following section deals
with an often smaller, decidedly rustic ensemble.
The medicine shows, begun in the prior century, traveled across the country, bringing music and quackery to the isolated towns and villages. These shows were "wedding[s] of the ancient mountebank's show and the nineteenth-century American popular entertainments,"17 and the favored routes were in the Midwest and the South. The doctor "was required not only to attract a crowd, but to hold it and convince some of its members that he possessed the power to relieve their...suffering."18 Evidently the audiences in the above-named regions were more receptive to the showmanship and chicanery, possibly because of the relative quality of performance. As one participant reported, the medicine shows were often "the only entertainment the yokels got to see....[O]ut of gratitude they bought whatever [we] sold them."19
McNamara found that around one third of the shows was "lectures, demonstrations and sales...the rest was...entertainment, most frequently some sort of variety show."20 Music was an important part of the show, drawing spectators within earshot. These performances were influenced by the popularity of minstrelsy. During the 1850s, "banjo tunes and blackface capers stolen from the minstrel show had been added."21
Though many of the ensembles could be rather dependent on brass, containing "cornet, bass horn, bass drum, banjo, violin, and tuba,"22 others might consist of one or two banjos and a guitar. These smaller troupes, particularly those playing the South, performed blues as well as the vaudeville and minstrel-inspired tunes. Charters cites the "strongest American influences on the...blues [as] form, while the most important influence from Africa was...performance style."23 Medicine shows allowed local blues artists, as well as other musicians, to disseminate the regionalism inherent in any folk form. The touring tent shows gradually shed their minstrel trappings and took on a more representative image of Afro-Americans.
In her work on Ma Rainey, Lieb calls that performer "one of the last great minstrel artists and one of the first professional blues singers."24 Born in 1886, Rainey joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, touring the South and Midwest in the early part of this century. She began working with the Theatre Owners Booking Association in 1924 to help sell her Paramount recordings.
The Chicago blues singer, A.D. "Gatemouth" Moore, a sophisticated stylist who converted to gospel singing in the early 1950s, saw Ma Rainey at the Kansas State Fair around 1930 and joined her show. The Topeka native was "sixteen to eighteen" at the time, and "played all the fairs in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi."25 This was seasonal work.
"When we closed the last fair in Mississippi, there I became a member of the famous F. S. Wolcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels."26 After this, Moore worked on the T.O.B.A. circuit. In 1934, he was drawn to the Mecca of the blues, Memphis with its Beale Street. Memphis held many medicine show singers, and there was also a jug band tradition which gave the blues a lighter feeling, especially when contrasted to the Delta region. Will Shade, known as Son Brimmer, of the Memphis Jug Band, toured Mississippi with medicine shows in the early 1920s.
And I'm goin' to the river, gonna buy me a rocking chair,
When the blues overtakes me, goin' to rock 'em way away from here.27
Another Memphis performer, banjo player Gus Cannon, was working in medicine shows as early as 1918. Charters points out that Cannon's recorded banjo playing gives an indication of what early blues might have been like.28
Don't you never let one woman worry your mind
She'll keep you worried, troubled all the time.29
In this 1928 recording by Cannon's Jug Stompers, the tempo moves from andante to allegro as the piece unfurls. The banjo is struck with a pick in a syncopative, compelling manner, gradually incorporating interspersed blues runs. This style combines the old minstrel attack with the innovative blues. A step beyond the old plantation tunes, this rural music spoke the truth of the blues to the audiences that clustered in the street around the wooden platform or in the mildewed tents. Gus Cannon worked with the "doctors" Stokey, Benson, C.E. Hangerson, and E. B. Milton, primarily in the summer months.30
"The Memphis medicine show singers were in the [Mississippi] delta every summer, and they left as many melodies behind them as they picked up for their own use."31
The medicine shows brought entertainment and hucksterism to rural America, establishing a link between them that was reflected in radio and television programs in later years. In the age of the automobile, the stage was often the flatbed of a truck. Charters reports that the shows began with one of the singers in blackface who performed blues, told jokes, or did some minstrel show songs.32 After the crowd was warmed up, the "doctor" appeared and hawked his product. His selling technique "was expected to be as entertaining as the show."33 Many of them borrowed practices from the Southern revival preachers. According to Charters, occasionally the singers had to help with the exchange of remedy for cash, but often they were free to repair to a local home to continue playing and to carouse.
Another Memphis singer, Jim Jackson, recorded "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues" in 1927. It was "more of a medicine show song than a blues."34
If you don't want my peaches, don't shake my tree.
I ain't after that woman, but she sure likes me.
I've got to move to Kansas City, mama,
Sure as you're born. (REPEAT)
I've got to move to Kansas City, honey,
Where they don't 'low you.35
Jackson toured with several minstrel troupes: Silas Green, Abbey Sutton, Red Rose Minstrels, and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The Memphis singer recorded 31 songs which Charters calls "a priceless glimpse of the kind of material it took to get a crowd in a country town."36 The Memphis blues was "softer, talkier...mingled with the medicine show songs and folk songs and ballads that were popular in the country when musicians left town to play the little shows."37
Georgian singer Blind Willie McTell spent many of his teen years with
medicine and other touring shows. "He was most closely associated
with the John Roberts Plantation Show in 1916 and 1917."38
McTell played a twelve-string guitar39 and incorporated the
medicine show songs and rags into his act, along with blues material.
To illustrate the effects of minstrel troupes on the blues of today, a case history of a musician, Harold Cary, is offered.40 Cary was born in Atlanta, Texas, a small town near Texarkana, in 1922. "We had a piano in the home. I always could play. It was just a natural talent. I had to stand up to play when I was young." The youngster also sang in the choir. "My mother was religious. We didn't have too many blues records around the house."
Instead, Cary had a chance for direct transferal of musical methodology in the 1930s. "When I was a kid, we had minstrel shows come through town. Since there weren't any hotels for blacks in town, we had a piano player stay in our house. My folks wouldn't let me in to see the show. I was too young."
The musician, from "a broken-down minstrel troupe," was simply known as Jake. "It was typical in those days to just use one name. He showed me how to play."
Cary moved to Kansas when he was 19 to go to Wichita University. He brought his Texas blues and boogie-woogie piano with him. Boogie-woogie first surfaced in the 1920s and was originally called Western or Texas style. It is up-tempo blues with an active left hand that drives the rhythm using repetitive bass lines and encourages the right hand to improvise a singing counterpart.
Boogie-woogie holds everything remarkable about the blues (spirited musical complaint and exultation of life) and few of its detractions (maudlin, dragging composition). It experienced a resurgence of popularity in the late 1930s and the style has been incorporated into numerous rhythm and blues, country and western, and rock hits. Some of the most copied artists are: Clarence "Pinetop" Smith, Cow Cow Davenport, Meade "Lux" Lewis, and Pete Johnson.
Cary secured a cleaning job at the Cessna employees club in downtown Wichita to raise money for tuition. "I was fooling around on the piano at lunch time one day and the manager heard me. He said 'Come back in the evening and play.'" Cary became a regular performer at the club. Later he broadcast his music on local radio. "Somebody from KFH heard me and I did some recording. At the time, KFH did a live show from the top of the Lassen Hotel."
During this time, Cary had to adhere to the limits of segregation. "Wichita was better than Texas. But back then blacks didn't play the other side of Central [Street]." Cary played his part in the Armed Services, becoming a dental technician in the army. "Most of the time, I was stationed in India. I played in the rec halls and spent the last year traveling as a dancer. McHenry Boatwright was my partner. We traveled all over Burma and China."
At the conclusion of World War II, Cary returned to Wichita and Wichita University’s pre-dental program. He earned money performing music. "I played sorority and fraternity parties and rushes. In '47 and '48 I had a radio show on KMUW [Wichita University station] two times a week."
The pianist worked alone. "You made more money by yourself. Not very much money in those days. I was glad to get three dollars. I was playing Count Basie, Meade Lux Lewis, jazz, and rhythm and blues." His success as a musician came at a cost however. "I was too far out of my discipline to get back into my studies."
young fans wanted him to play in one of Wichita's prestigious venues,
and this presented a problem. "They wanted me to play the
Wichita Country Club. In those days they wouldn't let blacks play
in clubs in Wichita. I got in the back door by letting a white
guy, Fred Casmaer, front the band. The war did a lot to open things
up. Wichita was still segregated. I was the only black to
play in white night clubs. I had a white booking agent, Reed Kays.
It was unique to find a black guy who could play something other than
stomp-down, Muddy Water blues. I had a job as a dental technician
and didn't have to play for money. I got material from radio and
records. I wasn't a progressive jazz pianist, and I wasn't a blues
player, although I played a lot of blues. I did 'Stardust' and
The entertainment properties of the race helped white Kansans accept the blacks immigrating into their state. This reputation for an aptitude for translating emotion through popular song has stayed with the black people through modern times. Blacks had a less inhibited musicality reflecting a more natural morality. This fit the tenor of late 19th and early 20th century in white society, hence the popularity of black performers and the styles they developed, jazz and blues.
Coming out of bondage, the Afro-Americans were in a precarious social landscape. This resulted in the spurious portrayals of black life found in the coon songs. It must have been a half-life for many of the performers, submitting themselves for white approval. Yet that was where the money was. The blues explored the 20th century concept of unrequited love, from one or a multitude of partners. The themes discussed were often too immoral for isolated audiences, but the loose, suggestive style of performance could be indulged in.
Heider's balance theory can be used to examine the black impetus toward the utilization of music performance, and the resulting white acceptance. A balanced state is defined as an "harmonious state, one in which the entitities comprising the situation and the feelings about them fit together without stress."41
Both the newly freed blacks and the majority society were in an unbalanced state. The old hierarchical system had been supplanted by another. The "tension" between the races must have been thought by many to be insurmountable. Heider's concept of the forces that work to restore balance between individuals makes use of the halo phenomenon. This phenomenon relies on prejudice to perceive people as "uniformly positive or negative."42
When blacks began their move upward on the social scale, from being property to free agents struggling with lack of inherited wealth, their talent, abilities, and desire to earn their living, began to endear them to the residents of Kansas. Heider's theory stresses "a tendency toward balanced states in human relationships."43 This tendency, augmented by the showmanship of blacks in minstrel and other shows (and the indirect paens to the Afro-American talent presented in the white minstrel troupes), began the process of eventual acceptance.44
Many former abolitionists were in the state, of course, and their ministrations no doubt aided the cause of the majority's attitudinal reworking. Yet this cause was served best by the black people themselves. They made their own way along the narrow trails of Kansas, and gave the settlers a little respite from the harsh life on the plains, first with artificial song and then with the real.
1 Sandra R. Lieb, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1981) 43.
2 Samuel Charters, The Blues Makers, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991) 78.
3 G. Athearn, In Search Of Canaan, (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978) 75.
4 Henry T. Sampson records that Allie Brown, P. G. Lowery, and Charles Hunn were Kansas residents who performed in minstrel productions (The Ghost Walks, Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1988, 134, 145, 130).
5 Population of Emporia was 8,223 in 1900, according to the United States Bureau of Census.
6 James D. Kemmerling, A History of the Whitley Opera House in Emporia, Kansas: 1881-1913, (Emporia: Kansas State Teachers College, 1970)
7 Lomax, 202.
8 Unknown composer, arranged by Lil McClintock, Columbia 14575-D, 1930.
9 Tony Russell, jacket notes, Blacks Whites And Blues, CBS Records, 52796, n.d.
11 Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer, Black Magic (Englewood Clifffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967) 27-28.
12 Henry T. Sampson, The Ghost Walks (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1988) 143.
13 Sampson 140.
Walker was born in Lawrence, Kansas. Sampson records (202) that
when William and Walker's Policy Players Company performed in that city
in January, 1900, the show was interrupted when the president of the
black Twentieth Century Club climbed on stage to present Walker with
a loving cup.
15 Lieb 19.
16 Sampson 245.
17 Brooks McNamara, Preface. Step Right Up, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976) XVI.
18 McNamara, 1.
19 McNamara, 49.
20 McNamara, 48.
21 McNamara 10
22 McNamara, 74.
23 Charters, 20.
24 Lieb, 48
D. Moore, interview, television broadcast, "Saturday Night and
Sunday Morning," Discovery Showcase.
26 A. D. Moore.
"Son Brimmer's Blues," (BVE-37941-2), RCA, LPV-540, 1967.
28 Charters, 34
Lewis, "Minglewood Blues," Victor 21267, The Blues,
Smithsonian RD 101, A4 23981, 1993.
33 Charters, 32.
34 Charters, 42.
Jackson, "Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues," Vocalion 1144,
Parts One and Two, 1927.
39 The guitar (6 or 12-string) was a relative newcomer to black musicians. A Works Progress Administration survey of ex-slaves conducted in the '30s found violins were talked about by 205 individuals, banjos by 106, while only 15 mentioned the guitar.
was granted through telephone and personal interviews from Harold Cary's
home in Wichita.
Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, (New York:
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1958) 180.
44An example of this is seen in Cary's efforts to play in the exclusive Wichita clubs, who formerly hired only white entertainers.