Over time, “Oh! Susanna” became associated with the California Gold Rush, but it rose to national attention as a minstrel song. Although first performed in an “ice cream saloon” in 1847, the real performance setting of Stephen Foster’s song about a slave traveling south to see his girl was the minstrel show circuit of the 1840s.
The minstrel show originated in the late 1830s when a traveling song-and-dance man, Thomas “Daddy” Rice,” introduced a character named Jim Crow to his act. Covering his face with burnt cork and dressing in tattered rags, Rice impersonated an old African American slave. The impersonation was based on a crude stereotype—Jim Crow was shiftless and lazy, an ignorant but grinning fool—, but largely for that reason, white audiences enjoyed the character. In 1842, a group of New York performers formed an entire act based on Rice’s blackface character. These “Virginia Minstrels” danced, sang, and swapped stories in a manner believed typical of Southern slaves. In 1845, the Christy Minstrels debuted a similar act. It was this group that bought and performed most of Stephen Foster’s early songs.
The Christy Minstrels would eventually take their blackface act overseas, but during its first decade, the group entertained Northern audiences. In fact, The Christy Minstrels enjoyed a continuous run at New York’s Mechanics’ Theater from 1847 to 1854. Foster’s songs were also performed in other venues, too, though. Weak copyright laws allowed other troupes to pick up his songs and perform them in theaters throughout the country.
The minstrel show reached its peak of popularity during the 1850s, yet it persisted into the 20th century. Certain features did change, though. Black performers joined the white performers in blackface during the 1860s, and eventually more conventional ballads and acts were added to the program, introducing the sort of fare that would become common in Vaudeville. Unfortunately, crude, racist portraits of African Americans remained a defining part of the minstrel show.