The minstrel in the parlor: Nineteenth -century sheet music and the domestication of blackface minstrelsy

2004 2004

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Abstract (summary)

This dissertation explores the role of sheet music in the evolving racial ideologies of mid-nineteenth-century America. My claim is that minstrelsy in the home presents parallel but distinct development of the themes and assumptions commonly associated with the blackface tradition. My primary interest is in exploring early print versions of a popular minstrel tunes to consider how adjustments in the design and content mark minstrelsy's transition from rowdy dance hall spectacle to refined home entertainment.

Read against literary works and first-hand accounts of nineteenth-century home life, the cover illustrations, lyrics, and musical notation of minstrel sheet music reveal how misrepresentations of black identity were positioned at complex intersections of popular culture, national identity, public and private space, and consumerism. I offer an analysis of lyrics, melodies, and musical arrangements to show the evolution of 1840s minstrel sheet music—a progression that exposes a developing reciprocal relationship between the refined aesthetics of the parlor and the playful antics of blackface performance. Most notably, I demonstrate how the logic Eric Lott employs in exposing blackface performance as a medium driven by white male sexuality and racial desire finds a gendered parallel in the images of minstrel sheet music covers designed for white middle-class women.

Ultimately, I suggest that in an era when family dynamics were changing, when class lines were being redrawn, when print material not only reflected social standards but also dictated them, Americans were relearning family roles and relationships even as they were consuming race parodies offered on the covers and in the lyrics of popular minstrel songs. In this age of class uncertainty, minstrel sheet music provided not only entertainment that was supposedly “rich in dark fun” but also offered black caricatures that assured white Americans of their own place within the shifting boundaries of domestic propriety.

Indexing (details)

American studies;
American history;
Womens studies;
African Americans
0323: American studies
0337: American history
0453: Womens studies
0325: African Americans
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; Blackface minstrelsy; Domestication; Material culture; Minstrel; Nineteenth century; Sheet music
The minstrel in the parlor: Nineteenth -century sheet music and the domestication of blackface minstrelsy
Dunson, Stephanie Elaine
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 65/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Knoper, Randall
University of Massachusetts Amherst
University location
United States -- Massachusetts
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
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