Mahar: Behind the Burnt Cork Mask (1999)

Mahar’s survey of early minstrel materials delineates the complex cultural turbulence of the antebellum era:


“The songs, dances, jokes, parodies, spoofs, and skits of blackface groups such as the Virginia Minstrels and Buckley’s Serenaders became wildly popular in antebellum America. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask not only explores the racist practices of these entertainers but considers their performances as troubled representations of ethnicity, class, gender, and culture in the nineteenth century. William J. Mahar’s unprecedented archival study of playbills, newspapers, sketches, monologues, and music engages new sources previously not considered in twentieth-century scholarship. More than any other study of its kind, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask investigates the relationships between blackface comedy and other Western genres and traditions; between the music of minstrel shows and its European sources; and between “popular” and “elite” constructions of culture. By locating minstrel performances within their complex sites of production, Mahar offers a significant reassessment of the historiography of the field. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask promises to redefine the study of blackface minstrelsy, charting new directions for future inquiries by scholars in American studies, popular culture, and musicology.”

Taking some issue with Lott’s analysis of antebellum minstrelsy, Mahar sets out to construct a more accurate sense of which songs form the popular “canon” of the era, based on statistical and textual analysis of existing playbills, reviews, and other written records.

His assembled materials outline a nuanced portrait of the role of minstrelsy in race and class identity formation, based on such fascinating resources as his “APPENDIX C: Song Text Frequency in Selected Antebellum Songsters” (p.367), which forms a sort of Antebellum Minstrelsy Top 40 Hit Parade:

Titles Appearing Six or More Times in Songster Collections

Title (Total appearances, 1843-1860)

  1. “Mary Blane”/”Mary Blaine” (22)
  2. “Lucy Long” (20)
  3. “Old Dan Tucker” (19)
  4. “Lucy Neal”/”Lucy Neale” (18)
  5. “Picayune Butler (Ahoo! Ahoo!)” (17)
  6. “Jim Crow” & parodies (15)
    “Blue Tail Fly”/”Jim Crack Corn” (15)
    “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (15)
  7. “Uncle Gabriel” & variants (14)
  8. “(Oh, Lud Gals) Gib Me (Us) Chaw Terbakur” (13)
    “Boatman’s Dance” (13)
    “A Life by the Galley Fire” (13)
    “Dandy Jim of Caroline” (13)
  9. “Alabama Joe” (11)
    “Dearest Mae” (11)
    “Get Up in de Morning” (11)
    “Susey Brown”/”Suzy Brown” (11)
  10. “Cynthia Sue” (10)
    “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay” (10)
    “Jim Brown” (10)
    “Old Jaw Bone” & variants (10)
    “Whar Is de Spot We Were Born?” (10)
    “Come Back Stephen”/”Come Back Steben” (10)
    “Jim Along Josey” (10)
    “Lynchburg Town” (10)

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