Soon after the Civil War black minstrel troupes began to perform and
tour the country. They offered blacks rare opportunities for travelling
and employment, and gave talented Negro musicians and artists a chance
to perform. Many famous black jazz musicians like Bessie Smith or W.C.
Handy began their career in the minstrel circuit.
In his book One hundred years of the Negro in Show Business Tom
Fletcher recalls the days when he started as a "boy soprano" at the age
of fifteen in a black minstrel troupe in 1888.
"We rehearsed in Portsmouth and opened in Mayville, Kentucky. The name
of the show was Howard’s Novelty Colored Minstreis. [... ] The show consisted
of fourteen people including an "orchestra" composed of Eddie Cross, banjo
player, and Ed Wilson, a piano player out of Lexington, Kentucky, who doubled
on the guitar. [...] The two Eddies would play a few tunes and we would
sing a few songs and give out the handbills. A colored man with a banjo
would draw almost as big a crowd as an elephant in a circus.
My place in the first part was just like the boy in the Al G. Fields
Minstrels. The first part was the regular semi-circle, the Interlocutor
slightly elevated in the center with five men (three singers and two endmen)
on each side. The banjo and guitar were just a little behind the Interlocutor.
Nat Lucas was the Interlocutor. End men, Tambos, were Bill Reid and Tom
Gales; Bones, Henry Derring and Frank Green. In addition the Bayou Quartet
and Frank and Willie Jackson, dancers, were also featured. The show lasted
around one hour and forty-five minutes. Everybody in the show appeared
at least twice, and the entire company appeared in the afterpiece. The
songs were the regular tunes of the period, spirituals, original songs
and songs by Sam Lucas, Stephen Foster and Jim Bland.
The places we played had nothing but town halls. In a number of these
towns, the halls were only used a few times a year. Mr. Howard would rent
the hall, or he would get the use of the hall in some way, and we would
have to clean and dust the place and make our own footlights because when
the school or the townspeople had their infrequent occasions to use the
hall they would bring their own lamps from home. [... ] Most of the halls
seated less than four hundred people and there were times when the audience
would have to stay outside until we were dressed for the show. Admission
prices were from 15 cents to 50 cents for matinees and at night, 25, 50
and $1.00, according to the crowd. [...]
Since the towns we played were mostly small ones, getting lodgings
was pretty tough. The colored people where we had to lodge were not well
equipped to take care of anybody outside their own families. Being on their
own only a short time, very few of them could offer outsiders a place to
sleep. Meals were okay because nearly all of the people had their own farms
and smoke houses [...].
During the winter, in many towns, we were compelled to sleep in the
halls, opera houses and railroad stations. There wasn’t any steam heat
in those days, but all of the places had a big coal or wood stove. We would
all sit around the big hot fire and get what few winks we could.
After a while I began to get tired of the rough times. I got homesick.
Talking to the men in the show, I was told, and also noticed, that the
towns the show played were the toughest. [...] As show business was what
I wanted, and I was still young, I kept my tongue between my teeth and
took it with a smile like all the rest. As I was not old enough to take
part in any vices, at the end of the season, out of my own personal two
dollars a week I had enough money to buy me some clothes and be a big shot