Minstrel Structure and Iconography
Early minstrels such as Rice specialized in solo performances. Rice’s “Jim Crow” became the template for an enduring “Sambo” archetype. The word “Sambo” is derived from the Spanish word used to describe people of mixed African and Native American descent (“Zambo”) and was apparently a common name for slaves as early as the 1700s.
In minstrelsy, the Sambo represented the uneducated rural slave. Urban African Americans were depicted by the “Zip Coon,” typified by his flamboyant dress and his clumsy attempts at sophisticated speech. Of course, there is always the “Mammy,” an African American mother figure, often doting on her “pickanninnies,” or black children. Finally, the name “Hannah” appears in many songs. “Hannah” refers to a mulatto woman who is usually sexually desired, a symbol of master-on-slave sexuality.
Perhaps the most enduring “mammy” icon is Aunt Jemima. Billy Kersands, a black minstrel performer, wrote the song “Aunt Jemima” for a white minstrel artist in 1875. The song was performed in 1889 with a man named Chris Rutt in the audience. Rutt, seeing an opportunity for commercializing the Aunt Jemima character, went on to trademark the name and sold it to The Davis Company. Davis eventually hired a former enslaved woman named Nancy Green to sell their company’s pancakes at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. The "mammy" icon of Aunt Jemima has lived far beyond the minstrel song.
The first minstrel ensemble was formed in 1843, the Virginia Minstrels. Shortly after, Christy’s Minstrels set the standard structure and iconography for future minstrel shows. The band presented itself in a semicircle facing the audience. The interlocutor sat in the middle of the arc and spoke in the formal tones of a trained actor. He was the “straight man” of the ensemble. The jokers (“gagmen” or “endmen”) stood at either end of the arc, one called “Tambo” who played tambourine, the other called “Bones” who played castanets or spoons.
The “endmen” jesters began the show with joking banter and quips, which gave way to music and dancing. Along with comic songs, a sentimental ballad was usually performed by a “romantic tenor.” The second act, the “olio,” featured a variety show (an early forerunner of vaudeville) of song and dance. The final act featured a one-act play, usually set on a plantation. Finally, the entire ensemble performed a rousing “walkaround” song and dance before leaving the stage.