Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1863 by then President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (and later passing of the 13th Amendment), but slave-like conditions persisted for African Americans living in the South for many decades longer. Since former slaves had little or no experience other than field work, many turned to tenant farming, which Texas-based blues songster Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976) described as “slavery under another name.”
After working a six-day week from dawn to dusk in the fields, black laborers were thirsty for some form of entertainment. Local jukes and churches provided platforms for singing the blues and spirituals, but “big-time” entertainment came in the form of traveling tent shows that could afford to hire well-known singers and comedians. These shows were particularly active during the spring cotton-harvesting season when workers were paid and that money was burning holes in the pockets of these hard-working farm hands.
The largest such show was the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, known colloquially as “The Foots.” It was a long-running minstrel and variety troupe that toured as a tent show in the American South between 1900 and the late 1950s, established by the African-American entrepreneur Pat Chappelle. “The Foots provided a basis for the careers of many leading African-American musicians and entertainers, including Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Louis Jordan and Charles Neville,” explains Wikipedia. The last-named Neville (1938-2018) was the second oldest brother and horn (saxophone) man in the Neville Brothers band of New Orleans.
The Rabbit’s Foot Company was bought in 1912 by Fred Swift Wolcott (1882–1967), a white farmer originally from Michigan. Each spring, black musicians and entertainers from around the country assembled in Port Gibson, Mississippi to create a musical, comedy, and variety show to perform under canvas. In his 1998 book The Story of the Blues, the late British historian and musicologist Paul Oliver wrote:
“The ‘Foots’ travelled in two cars and had an 80ft x 110ft tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show…The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume.”
One has to wonder why minstrel shows were so popular in the early days of traveling tent shows, and later. And why would a black performer in those days demean himself or herself even more by blackening their own faces with burnt cork? Beginning about the 1820s, white entertainers began performing songs, skits, and dances in blackface, often as the two stereotypical characters of minstrelsy, Zip Coon and Jim Crow.
Schmoop.com explains: “On the one hand, these routines, which were tremendously popular throughout the United States—North and South—for much of the 1800s and centered on blatantly racist, crude caricatures of African-American language and life, played for white laughs. But on the other, minstrelsy served as a vehicle for popularizing Black secular music. The minstrel shows were, to borrow the phrase of the historian Eric Lott, sites of ‘love and theft,’ and the racial dynamic of showcase, appropriation, and ridicule became even more complicated as Black performers—some of whom, such as W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, would become crucial blues figures—increasingly filled the ranks of the white-owned touring minstrel companies after the Civil War.”
Minstrel shows were still being performed in Navasota, Texas as late as March 1963, according to the little town’s newspaper called the Navasota Examiner. Singer Bobby Berger performed in blackface as Al Jolson at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood, Md., in 2015. The white singer Al Jolson (1888-1950) was known in the 1920s as “the king of blackface” and is best remembered for singing “Mammy” in the first feature-length movie talkie in 1927 called The Jazz Singer. Although we should be cautious about judging the past by today’s morality, it is also true that minstrel shows were more popular in the North than in the South.
Many blues singers got their start with the “foots.” A black-faced minstrel named “Jim Jackson (1884-1937) used to tour in his younger days with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, but it was only in October 1927 that Jackson finally went into the studio, aged around 43. His first session included ‘Kansas City Blues,’ which went on to become a blues and rock template,” states Wikipedia. Jackson’s blues classic spawned Charlie Patton’s, ‘Going to Move to Alabama’(1929), Hank Williams’ first hit ‘Move it on Over’ (1947), and Bill Hayley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (1956).
Another key “foots” performer was Rufus Thomas (1936-98), later known as Mr. Swing, who also called himself the “world’s oldest teenager.” Thomas began performing in traveling tent shows. In 1936, he joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, an all-black revue that toured the South, as a tap dancer and comedian, sometimes part of a duo, Rufus and Johnny. He is best remembered for such classics as “Walking the Dog” (1963) and “Do the Funky Chicken” (1970).
“The Rabbit Foots was like a carnival, like when a fair came to town,” said Bobby Rush, a bluesman from Jackson Mississippi.
What was it about the name? The omg.com website explains: Although the superstition of rabbit’s feet being associated with luck has some roots in European culture, the common North American myth originates from the African-American folk spirituality known as hoodoo. It’s said that rabbit’s feet are lucky because of their reproductive habits, so carrying a rabbit’s foot was thought to help with fertility and luck.
There are, however, a few specification the rabbit’s foot must adhere to in order to technically be considered lucky:
1. It has to be the left hind foot.
2. The rabbit needs to have been captured or killed in a cemetery.
3. The rabbit’s foot needs to be cut off on a specific day—usually a Friday, but with variations such as the weather, date, etc.
To answer the above question of why African Americans blackened their faces for money, it was because minstrelsy in those early days was the route to becoming famous and prosperous. Money was only one aspect, however. “Yet it [minstrelsy] also reveals the strange way white Americans yearn to see, and indeed idolize, black performers and black culture. Wearing blackface, a white person tries on a life he simultaneously disdains,” states author Marc Aronson in a 2018 article in the Washington Post.
If the white American public in those days wanted to pay to see a cartoon version of a happy plantation slave (a parody of a freed slave) performing on stage, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels were glad to provide it to the tune of cash registers ringing. The fact that blackface still pops up here and there these days should give us all pause to reflect on its true meaning.
The Rabbit Foot Minstrels: