Unit 7 Study Materials

Native America Revisited, Immigrants and American Theater (1830-1920)


Theater was not widespread in Colonial America. In fact, colonists in some regions passed laws forbidding the performance of plays for religious reasons. That may seem strange considering that drama became one of the most popular art forms in America (moving in the 20th century from stage to the movie screen and television).

Musical theater is rooted in the critically important American traditions of Minstrelsy and Vaudeville. The artistic form we call  the “Broadway musical” is our most popular form of American Opera. We explore the difficult topic of Minstrelsy, how Vaudeville built on those same theatrical techniques during a wave of European immigration, and how America’s entertainment today continues that tradition.

From Wild West Shows, to the Ziegfeld Follies, to Jerome Kern’s Showboat and Irving Berlin, the diversity that characterizes America moved to center stage.


Irving Berlin

Charles Wakefield Cadman

George Catlin

Stephen Foster

Casey Jones

Jerome Kern

Jimmie Rodgers

Florenz Ziegfeld


Dentzel Carousel, Meridian, Mississippi

Ellis Island, Jersey City, New Jersey

Broadway, New York, New York

Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Ponca City, Oklahoma

Casey Jones Village, Jackson, Tennessee

Things To Consider

A. Most of Native American music comes to us solely through the oral tradition.

  1. Read about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the popularization of Native American themes.
  2. Listen to Michael Huebner’s explanation of musical traditions that go far back in Native American culture and note the much more recent dates mentioned by Kinsel Lieb concerning the Fancy Dance.
  3. Can you distinguish things about the Ponca Powwow that have deep roots in Native American culture from things that owe more to popular entertainment?
  4. How do you think our perception of Native American music has been shaped by composers like Charles Wakefield Cadman or popular entertainment from Hollywood?

B. Why do you think Minstrel Shows became so popular in the mid 19th century?

  1. What other artistic expressions concerning slavery can you find from the same time period: books, poetry, paintings?
  2. Do you think people of that time were looking for ways to understand slavery in the South? Did art of the time help to clarify the issue?
  3. Read about the song “Darling Nelly Gray” and listen to some recordings of it on iTunes or YouTube.

C. Nearly every town in America had a Vaudeville theater. Is there an old theater in your home town that once featured these shows?

  1. Look at some of the interior photos of the New Amsterdam theater.
  2. Vaudeville continues to influence American Variety entertainment. Consider Bob Hope‘s long career and his early days in Vaudeville.

D. Casey Jones is good example of American Folklore and our constant fascination with the railroad.

  1. Most of the accounts of the accident that killed Casey Jones are in agreement that he was speeding, but some conclude he was negligent and some say he was a hero. What do you think?
  2. You can find Casey Jones and a lot more stories at American Folklore.

Things To Explore

The Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Ziegfeld Follies

New Amsterdam Theater

American Memory Project: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment

George and Ira Gershwin

Jerome Kern’s Showboat

American Memory Project: Forms of Variety Theater

Dentzel Carousel in Meridian, Mississippi

You can find a lot of information and photos of carousels in America by visiting the National Carousel Association.

Casey Jones Village