I've sat and wondered whether I should post, but sorry, can't shut up!!
I danced blacked up for some 15 years...and when the knees gave up played blacked up for another five. So, my two pennorth
Howard...I do think there's some link with minstelry...I'm sure you know and play Clee Hill...i learned it as (those easily offended look away now) Clee Hill Niggering. On our second CD we use a picture of the Broseley Morris dancers... we chickened out of using the original name of the troupe because, yes it used the n word.
Les...the Ironmen spent many happy (and I don't think it was just the drink!!) hours following Gorton Rushcart. No one seemed offended.
The morris/moresco theory. Some twenty odd years ago we were in vited to dance in the Basque country. Most of the other teams were government supported performing arts groups. The Basque team were, like most British teams, used to dancing in the streets. On the last day of the festival we mananged it. The Basque team (the Basques are fiercly proud of the fact that the Moors didn't give them the pasting they gave the rest of "Spain") bought out what was, in fact, a giant jig doll...black face, tattered jacket, feathers in hat. Used as a morris team might use a hobby horse. What was it called...a Moresco. A nice story, if nothing else. BTW there were two or three afro-carib troupes represented who found the whole thing hilarious. The only grief we got was from the Quebecois, and I don't think that had anything to do with the blacking.
A theory I've not seen elsewhere on the thread links the tradition to the gypsies...follow the hop trail...Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester, Kent,...and you'll see blacking up...gypsies being darkes skinned. Again, a nice story.
To end on a lighter note...we used to use the following as a party line
Punter Why do you black your faces
Dancer It's a disguise
Confused Punter Oh
Dancer You don't recognise me do you
Dancer It must work then.
When we got bored, or had drink taken, this would be abbreviated to
Why do you black your faces
To frighten the camels away
But there aren't any camels in (insert location)
It must work, then!!
I've just re read this and I'm happy to post. If you're offended sorry. Someone more knowledgable than me will be along in a minute