Rabbit Foot Minstrels
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During the first half of the 20th century, the African American entertainers of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels played a major role in spreading the blues [via tours across the South]. Founded in 1900, the “Foots” were headquartered in Port Gibson between 1918 and 1950 under owner F.S. Wolcott. Notable members included Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Ida Cox, Louis Jordan, and Rufus Thomas.
By the mid-1910s entertainers in tent shows were spreading the blues across the South, and one of most popular groups was the Port Gibson-based Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Minstrel shows presented a wide range of comedy routines, skits, and song-and-dance numbers, and always featured a marching band. In the 1910s they added blues to their existing repertoire of classical, ragtime, and popular music, playing it both instrumentally and in support of vaudeville-style female singers. Many performers later known for other styles of blues also spent time in minstrel troupes, including rhythm and blues pioneer Louis Jordan and Rufus Thomas, who worked as a comedian.
White performers including Dan Emmett and T. D. Rice pioneered blackface minstrelsy, the first distinctively American theatrical format, in the 1830s and 1840s. African Americans soon followed them, particularly following the Civil War, and, like their white counterparts, they “blacked up” with makeup and enacted caricatures of black life that many whites believed to be authentic. The shows, all initially operated by white managers, were enjoyed by both black and white audiences, and in the South seating was segregated. By the beginning of the 20th century, African Americans had begun organizing their own companies. Minstrel shows were often staged at large urban theaters, and in tandem with the growth of the railway system troupes began traveling to rural areas as well, staging their shows under canvas tents.
In 1900, Patrick Henry Chappelle, an African American from Florida, produced a musical comedy called “A Rabbit’s Foot,” and by 1902 his Rabbit’s Foot Company was touring as a tent show, though the popular attraction was billed as “too good for a tent.” Following Chappelle’s death in 1911, the company was taken over by F. S. (Fred Swift) Wolcott, a white entrepreneur from Michigan who had been running a small minstrel company. In the spring of 1918 Wolcott moved the company’s headquarters to Port Gibson, where troupe members stayed in the winter, either in train cars or in the homes of locals, and rehearsed on a covered stage at Wolcott’s home. The show remained popular through the 1940s, and records suggest that its final performances were in 1959.
Among the ranks of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels were many blues singers and musicians who at some point lived in Mississippi, including Big Joe Williams, Sid Hemphill, Willie Nix, Maxwell Street Jimmy, Jim Jackson, Bogus Ben Covington, Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, Johnny "Daddy Stovepipe" Watson, and trombonist Leon “Pee Wee” Whittaker.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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