Content Warning: The songs in this collection were amassed to document the history of the United States through sheet music. Therefore, users of the collection will find many songs with explicitly racist, xenophobic, sexist, and other offensive content. While this subject matter is in many cases reprehensible, it is preserved here to honestly and accurately reflect prejudice found in the collection-- even as we recognize that encountering harmful or offensive language is difficult or painful. Strong consideration should be given to a song’s history and context prior to a public performance.
Cataloging Minstrel Music in the Levy Collection
The minstrel show was a racist form of popular entertainment that surfaced in the 19th century. These shows featured skits of performers in blackface, caricaturing African Americans with mock dialects and parody lyrics. Minstrel shows quickly became a dominant form of American entertainment for decades, both on stage and in the home. Recognizing the formative role that these shows played in American popular culture, Lester Levy included these songs in his collection for future interrogation by students and scholars.
We are currently working to better identify and label minstrel music in the collection (see Dorothy Berry; Descriptive Equity and Clarity around Blackface Minstrelsy in HTC Collections). As a result, minstrel music in the collection has been labeled with the new subject heading “minstrel shows.” Subject headings related to enslavement were also updated to include "enslaved persons," "freedom seekers," "free African Americans," and "freed persons." We refrained from entirely removing outdated language (such as the heading "slaves") that would help researchers discover Black subjects in the collection. The neutral heading "hanging" was replaced with "lynching" for stronger and more accurate description.
The subject heading "minstrel shows" was chosen to reflect the legacy of minstrel shows, including “coon songs” and other uses of blackface. Therefore, not all these songs were performed in formal minstrel shows, which typically had a formulaic structure and recycled characters. Songs in the collection were identified through racist illustrations, satirization of African American dialects (“de” instead of “the,” for example), photographs of performers in blackface makeup, ensemble names ("As performed by Christy's Minstrels"), and subtitles such as “coon song” or “Ethiopian song.” While minstrel shows included caricatures of other minorities, the initial scope of this project is limited to labeling songs caricaturing African Americans.
This project is part of ongoing work to better address and describe harmful materials in Johns Hopkins Special Collections. If you believe a song has been labeled in error, or if you have found a song missing the “Minstrel shows” label, we encourage you to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources and further reading:
View a list of Black creators that have been identified in the Levy Collection.
Burnim, Mellonee V. and Maultsby, Portia K. African American Music. Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.
Toll, Robert. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Many thanks to colleagues throughout the Sheridan Libraries who contributed to the planning and implementation of this project, including colleagues in Special Collections and Technical Services.