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University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections: Archives and Special Collections

About this collection

Many of the minstrel songs contained in this digital collection are extremely offensive. However, it is impossible to adequately understand American racial attitudes of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, without examining some blatantly racist ideas. Most of the music featured in this collection is not fringe material, but some of the most popular songs of their times.


The derogatory terms, images, and ideas that appear in some of this sheet music are not condoned by the University of Mississippi. They do represent the attitudes of a number of Americans at the times the songs were published. As such, it is hoped that the sheet music in this collection can aid students of music, history, and other disciplines to better understand popular American music and racial stereotypes from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries.


The August 1999 edition of Parlor Songs (an online magazine on sheet music) dealt with similar subject matter. Their words say it best: "The music of those times has become an important historical document and serves to remind us of the continuing need for tolerance and the elimination of prejudice, stereotypes and hatred." (


Minstrel Songs
The minstrel song was a popular American musical form that lasted through much of the 19th-century and gradually declined through the first few decades of the 20th-century. These songs were sometimes performed as solo pieces, but were most often part of a minstrel show. Minstrel shows featured a wide variety of stock characters performing jokes, songs, dances, and comedy routines. The early minstrel shows predominantly featured white performers in painted black faces, parodying African American entertainment routines. This form of blackface minstrelsy was later adopted by African Americans, who would also appear in painted blackface. The tradition goes back at least to 1789, when a white comedian, Lewis Hallam Jr., put on blackface to play the role of a drunken black man. The first highly successful blackface performer was Thomas Rice, who created a song and dance routine called "Jump Jim Crow" in 1828. His performances helped usher in an American craze for blackface minstrel songs. Short blackface routines were often interjected between acts at more serious theater performances. By the 1930s, these acts developed into full fledged minstrel shows, often with entire theatre companies dedicated to their performance. By the 1860s, many minstrel shows featured all-black casts, where black performers often parodied the parody white performers had earlier created.


Minstrel songs often emphasized white stereotypes of African Americans, frequently portraying black Americans as ignorant, overly jolly, and superstitious. Minstrel songs also featured a nostalgic, romanticized vision of the south as a form of paradise; this style of minstrel song was often featured in the music of Stephen Foster.


The minstrel show had a profound influence on the creation of vaudeville, which, in many ways, is simply an extension of minstrelsy, and indirectly to musical theater. Though some scholars see minstrelsy alive today in the form of white artists performing black styles, the overt, blackface style minstrel parody really died out in the 1950s. Amos & Andy and Al Jolson were some of the last major vestiges of this blatant blackface minstrel tradition.


Sheldon Harris bio
Raised and educated in Brooklyn, New York, Sheldon Harris interest in jazz and blues began as a record collector in the 1930s. As an after-hours interest, he attended extended jazz and blues history and appreciation classes during the late 1940s at New York University and The New School for Social Research ( New York) under the direction of the late Dr. Marshall W. Stearns, noted jazz authority. In 1954 he joined Dr. Stearns at New York's Institute of Jazz Studies, serving as a volunteer secretary until its transfer to Rutgers University in 1966.


From 1963 to 1971 he was blues editor of Jazz & Pop Magazine, a national publication, writing feature stories, critiques, record and book reviews. He has also contributed jazz and blues articles to the Saturday Evening Post, Current Biography, Downbeat, Living Blues, Jazz Journal (UK), Blues Forum (Germany) among others and has written an extensive number of record album liner notes. He was also staff member of Record Research Magazine and a member of the Record Research Associates of New York and the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors, Inc.


Mr. Harris had lectured on blues and related musics at Rutgers University; Alfred University/College; Jersey City State; Brooklyn College and Queens College among other schools and universities, as well as community and student centers, clubs and private social groups. He also organized and presented live concerts at the International Center of New York.


He appeared on WSOU-FM radio as guest lecturer as part of the Seton Hall University (South Orange, NJ) educational black studies jazz series; participated in talks and interviews on the Candy Jones Show (WMCA-radio, NYC); The Larry King Show (WOR national radio network); The Bill Nolan Show (WPKN-FM radio, Bridgeport, CN); All Things Considered (NPR); A Taste of the Blues (WBAI-radio, NYC); The Joe Franklin Show (WOR-TV / WOR-radio, NYC); Carol's Corner (WCBS-TV, NYC); Brooklyn Magazine (NNYC-TV, NYC); and others.


After nearly 20 years of research, his book Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers, was published by Arlington House ( New Rochelle, NY) in 1979. This 775 page work lists detailed biographical facts on 571 of the most noted singers in the history of the blues and is now considered a prime reference source in the field. It won the Memphis Blues Foundation's "National Blues Music W. C. Handy Award" in 1981 as the outstanding blues book of the year and in 1983 won its "Blues Hall of Fame Award" in the classics of blues literature category. An emendated soft-cover edition was published in 1981 by DaCapo Press (NYC) and is presently into its seventh printing.


In collaboration with veteran jazz trombonist and blues singer, Clyde E. B. Bernhardt, he wrote I Remember: Eighty Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands and the Blues, published in 1986 by the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA). Written in first person, it is a colorful and detailed autobiography covering virtually the entire history of jazz from the viewpoint of a practicing black musician. It is presently into its second printing.


In 1945 he began a 30-year professional career in the advertising business, eventually serving as a long-time account executive at the Doyle Dane Bernbach Advertising Agency (NYC).


He also had a 3 year war service record, serving in the U.S. Air Force in England and Germany. His wife of 47 years, Gladys, died in 1994.


Sheldon Harris passed away at the age of 81 on 8 September 2005 from complications associated with Alzheimer's.


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