Popular Music

The most popular music in America during the Civil War was called minstrel music, which was based on two musical traditions: African and Celtic (Irish and Scottish). Minstrel music featured four main instruments: banjos, fiddles, tambourines, and the bones (literally, two pig or cow rib bones). Banjos were first brought to America by African slaves in the late seventeenth century, and their music became part of the culture of the South. Most of the white South was settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants, and they brought their musical traditions of Celtic fiddle songs with them, as well. The mixture of the two brought about the musical traditions that have become uniquely American, including the blues, blue-grass, country, ragtime, and Dixieland.

Minstrel music was also based on an ugly tradition called "blackface," which had been part of American music since Colonial times. Minstrels were white people who blacked their faces, exaggerated their speech, and performed on stage while pretending to be (and ridiculing) black people. It's surprising to us now that something so mean spirited and racist could have lasted so long, but minstrel music was the most popu

Bones Minstrel Show
Banjoplayer in traditional '"blackface" from a minstrel show.

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"Bones" player.

lar form of music in America for almost thirty years before and during the Civil War.

Minstrel shows usually consisted of three parts: the first part was a traditional song recital, where members of the whole minstrel troupe sang popular songs such as "Old Folks at Home" and "Camptown Races," and told jokes and riddles. The second part of the show was more of a variety act, where individual performers would come on stage one at a time and do separate acts. The third part was usually a skit that combined acting and songs that commented on current events. Minstrel shows first became popular in the 1840s, when a group called the Virginia Minstrels toured the country, playing music and performing skits. The Virginia Minstrels were such a hit that they caused a minstrel craze that peaked right around the time of the Civil War. Hundreds of minstrel troupes performed in cities all over the country, and minstrel music was played by anyone who could pick up a banjo, fiddle, or bones.

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