A form of popular entertainment in the United States and England in the mid to late 1800s, the minstrel show was a musical variety revue performed initially by white men in blackface. Several successful black companies came into existence after the Civil War; Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith got their start in minstrel troupes of this type, and at the time it was one of the few places black artists had to showcase their talents.

Generally the performers, dressed in swallow-tail coats and striped trousers, would sit in chairs in a semicircle facing the audience and each would perform his songs in turn. The master of ceremonies, in whiteface and formal wear, sat in the middle. Two end men, known as "Mr. Bones" (who played the knocking bones) and "Mr. Tambo" (who played the tambourine), sat on each end trading jokes with the interlocutor.

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