Sheet Music

Songs from the minstrel stage were often adapted as sheet music to be played in the parlor. Unsurprisingly, the representations of African Americans found there echo the stereotypes portrayed in minstrelsy, both in their music and, notably in their cover art. As in blackface, these publications were songs that were first written by mostly northern whites and later by African Americans as well. As was the case with blackface minstrelsy, even in instances where songwriters were African American the same caricatured dialect was often used and cover art depictions often mimicked the exaggerated features utilized in blackface, especially the exaggerated lips that are generally associated with clowns today.

Unlike minstrel shows, which were raucous affairs that offered a temporary release from the restraint of Victorian manners, the parlor was one of the places where those manners were most often displayed. For minstrel-inspired sheet music to come into the parlor represented a clash between the refined and the profane. Sheet music publishers addressed this conflict through their cover art. This copy of “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” is a good example of this phenomenon. While a cartoonish, minstrelsy-influenced illustration comprises the majority of the cover, in the bottom right hand corner is a portrait of Emma Carus, a contralto from the vaudeville and Broadway stage, with a serious expression and refined clothes. Meanwhile, Shelton Brooks, the African American/Canadian composer and lyricist is credited in the lower left hand corner of the cover.