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

Stephanie Elaine Dunson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


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.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|Womens studies|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Dunson, Stephanie Elaine, "The minstrel in the parlor: Nineteenth -century sheet music and the domestication of blackface minstrelsy" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136722.