Archive | March 2014

Caricatures in Context, Part 2: The Commodity of the Coon Song

While the popularity of the coon song had been drawn from elements of what audiences had heard and seen in minstrel shows, it had continued with the rise of ragtime music, the content of which often depicts black caricatures prominently.  But this was part of a larger movement in American culture, an era when the American population was discovering its own distinct popular culture in the late nineteenth century with the popularity of baseball games, Wild West shows, vaudeville, and medicine shows.[1]  It also became fashionable to create art reflecting “the common man in his world” in a style called Realism.[2]  In some regional literary circles, this realism was accomplished by local colorist writers who used language of regional, distinct dialects, including African American dialects, to add a greater, more American dimension to literature.  Mark Twain’s character Jim from his 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is narrated in his local dialect and prominent poets and writers like Paul Lawrence Dunbar used their African American dialects to create art from their local speech.  Even though pop songs throughout the later half of the 1890s had been perpetuating a certain racial caricature, it was part of a broader cultural context of American culture awakening, including the popularity the presence of African American voices, whether produced by white or black authors, in various entertainment formats, including coon songs.

The coon song of pop music around the turn of the twentieth century had become a fashionable pop trend, and like most pop trends over the course of commercial musical history, it eventually became a commodity used to sell products, at the turn of the century these included sheet music for the home piano and records for talking machines.  While the actual content of these songs can leave a modern listener a bit uncomfortable with the ways in which songwriters and performers described African Americans, at the time, it was entertainment in an era when the American public was seeking “a return to the ‘good old days’ prior to the Civil War, before regional, cultural and ethnic differences.”[3]  The caricature of the coon was used in all ways to not only sell individual songs, but also sell a new style of music to customers at the beginning of the ragtime era.  Cover illustrations of sheet music and the style of written and recorded song lyrics were all part of perpetuating and advertising the caricatures which the songs contained, many of which were considered novel and humorous subject material.  However, as the ragtime era progressed, the content of the coon song had morphed into an entirely separate genre of music, where the vernacular style of local color dialect had become secondary to the commodity of the product which had been commercialized by Tin Pan Alley to sell a music, a genre that was less adherent to such racial caricatures.

The basic trait that set apart coon songs from other pop song genres like ballads was the style in which the lyrics were written, in African American dialect.  During the later half of the nineteenth century in the era of literary realism, part of which was characterized by authors writing in geographic vernacular styles, songwriters used African American pronunciation and idioms in the commercial song industry of the 1890s.  Some of the more popular techniques for “blacking up” song lyrics included changes in spelling conventions; the and that became de and dat, my became ma, words suffixed with –ing were reduced to –in’; songs also commonly used the word ain’t. The 1900 A.B. Sloane hit “Ma Tiger Lily” features such tactics in one single verse:

But she ain’t never caused no sigh

To dis yere yaller coon

Yon hear me all I’m proud

To leave her in a crowd

And see dem crazy niggers spoon.[4]

Another example, the 1896 Ernest Hogan song “All Coons Look Alike to Me” has a pre-chorus which imitates the kind of lyricism found in shouts from minstrel shows, in this case, introducing the refrain by interjection: 

For I’m worried, yes I’m desp’rate

I’ve been Jonahed, and I’ll get dang’rous[5]

In cases like these, songwriters used African American speech patterns to create a new style of lyricism that became characteristic of the coon song.  Such local color lyricism of the time was not, in itself, the caricature which was selling music, instead it was the common, standardized medium through which many lyricists and songwriters expressed ideas of the caricatures. 

Beyond the language, syntax and grammatical patterns used by songwriters, coon songs often depict African Americans as people who enjoyed good food and fun times at social gatherings, reducing their culture into a caricature for consumer consumption.  When reviewing the lyrics of more popular coon songs, most mentioned some details of stereotyped culinary habits, most particularly the enjoyment of chicken, pork chops and watermelon.  For example, the 1905 Fred Fischer hit “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon” mentions that “a chicken am a coon’s delight”[6] and the Arthur Pryor song “A Coon Band Contest” from 1899 tells the story of how the band in the title won a ham in a musical contest.[7]  In the 1899 Kerry Mills song “Whistling Rufus,” the title character was so talented that “when he got there was a handsome nigger/Out came the chicken and the wine,”[8] which blends an odd mixture of coon song caricature in mentioning chicken, with celebrating the title character’s musical prowess.  Social functions and celebration are also important parts of the caricature of the coon song, showing black people attending balls, jubilees and religious camp meetings.  In the 1906 Egbert Van Alstyne/Harry Wilson song “Camp Meeting Time,” there was so much excitement to get into the tent at the camp meeting that they were “ravin’ a-fightin’ to git in.”[9]  A more unusual topic for song was the 1902 Bob Cole hit “Under the Bamboo Tree,” which describes a tale of courtship and marriage between Zulu royalty.[10]  In comparison to white-sounding sentimental ballads, which were often tragic or nostalgic, coon songs were a relatively happy genre of music and so were the caricatures which were part of the consumer product of the music.  The reception and appeal of such coon songs indicates that audiences were possibly ready for a different trend in music and an acceptance of the caricatures in their lyrics.

Other than the songs in black dialect celebrating the culinary tastes and social gatherings in African America, there are examples of coon songs which have a distinctly negative, overtly racist caricatures of black people being thieves, unhappy with their own race and always looking for fights, where most disputes were resolved with the use of a barber’s straight razor.  The main character of the 1900 Leo Friedman/Gene Jefferson song “Coon Coon Coon,” is bothered that a woman would not marry him because he is too dark, expressing such annoyance in the refrain:

Coon Coon Coon!  I wish my color would fade;

Coon Coon Coon!  I’d like a different shade

Coon Coon Coon!  Morning night and noon,

I wish I was a white man ‘stead of a coon coon coon![11]

The 1903 Thomas S. Allen song “Any Rags?” warns of the appearance of scavenger and neighborhood thief Ragged Jagged Jack, that “if you happen for to leave a thing out all night/You get up in the morn and it’s gone from yer sight;”[12] the cover illustration of “Rag-Bag Rag” expresses the same idea, with a coon with a sack on his back.[13]  As well, the 1896 song “Bully Song,” popularized in the vaudeville show of actress May Irwin, tells a story of a man on the hunt for a bully whose been “around de niggers a-layin’ their bodies down.”  The result of the eventual conflict, with the character attacking the bully with a razor, is rather graphic,

When I got through with bully, a doctor and a nurse

Wan’t no good to dat nigger, so they put him in a hearse.

A cyclone couldn’t have tore him up much worse.[14]

While May Irwin’s “Bully Song” may have been part of the larger plot of her show, the song and its lengthy storyline are full of such characterizations.  Songs like these, even when considering that the caricature content of coon songs was used actively to sell music during the era, seem blatantly racist even for the genre.

With the popularization of the coon song in the late 1890s gave a new avenue for music publishers to not only sell the music, illustrators used the coon caricature as packaging on the cover of the sheet music, turning image into a commodity.  This was a new age of illustrated advertising and “commercial rhetoric”[15] and for sheet music, an illustration identifying what kind of music the consumer was purchasing was an essential part of the business to entice musical sales.  The Sambo caricature was common fodder for advertisers selling everything from crackers to soap,[16] and for coon songs, their physical features were on display in shops and music sections of department stores.  The cover of  “Coon Coon Coon” for example prominently features three illustrations of black men with big white eyes, exaggerated noses and lips characteristic of blackface minstrelsy[17] and another song “My Money Never Gives Out” (1900) by Irving Jones features similar physical features with a caricature of the urbane Zip Coon in fancy clothes and jewelry.[18]  But physical features are not the only representations of the caricature used to sell coon songs.  Most covers feature African Americans attending social events like balls, jubilees and religious camp meetings and socializing, advertising the happy nature of the music within its pages, which is featured on the covers of such hit songs like Kerry Mills’s “At A Georgia Campmeeting” from 1897.[19]  Possibly to sell them as a series, in 1899 and 1900, composer Abe Holzmann produced a trio of instrumental pieces, “Smokey Mokes,” “Bunch o’Blackberries” and “Hunky-Dory,” all of which feature portraits of smiling black children in similar background color and font on their covers.[20]  The use of African Americans’ appearance on sheet music and social habits connected therewith advertised to consumers that they were purchasing a specific kind of music, and so, the caricature had become an advertising commodity for music.

Along with the happy nature of lyrical portraits of the African American caricature and the celebratory comical commodity of their cover illustrations, so was the happy nature of coon song recordings of this era.  Recordings reveal one important facet that reading sheet music does not, that the audience should not take what they were hearing too seriously.  It was considered novelty music, for example, the music of the 1899 Abe Holzmann ragtime instrumental “Smokey Mokes,” came with an optional “humorous darky text”[21] and a 1902 Len Spencer recording of “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down” is introduced as “a little ragtime foolishness.”[22]  Recordings of coon songs prominently feature laughing and comical interjections.  An Arthur Collins 1901 recording of “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is replete with laughing breaks and coon jokes[23] as is an 1897 Len Spencer recording of “My Gal Is a Highborn Lady,” which begins and ends with a humorous brief sketch and each verse ends in a fit of brisk laughter.[24]  An 1899 Billy Golden recording of “Yaller Gal” has a chorus entirely composed of yodel-like laughter.[25] Arthur Collins’s rendition of the 1899 hit “Hello! Ma Baby,” introduced specifically as a “coon song” by the announcer, is particularly spirited, with ad lib jokes about the difficulty of using the telephone and, of course, brisk laughter.[26]  Like the covers and lyrics of coon songs which depicted the carefree and happy life of the caricature, recordings with laughter and joking also helped in perpetuating the humorous novelty that was the commodity of the coon song.

As the ragtime era progressed through the early 1900s, the coon song transitioned from a caricature of African Americans, into its own separate genre of music for the sake of commercializing music.  In the Columbia and Edison catalogues, a new sections of “Negro Novelty” songs advertised this style of ragged time music, effectively, a targeted commodity in a separate section to sell music.[27]  Well-established Tin Pan Alley composers began to get into the market for coon songs, Harry von Tilzer, for example, composer of sentimental ballads like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” (1900) and “Mansion of Aching Hearts” (1902), had written songs like “Movin’ Day” in 1906 and “What You Gonna Do When the Rent Comes Round (Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown)” in 1905.[28]  One notable example of the transformation of the coon song caricature to pop song commodity was the “tramp song,” which uses coon caricatures for a white performer, consequently turning the subject of the song into a white coon.  The 1901 hit “Any Old Place I Can Hang My Hat Is Home Sweet Home To Me,” popularized by vaudeville performer Nat Mills “The Happy Tamp,” describes a caricature of a carefree white coon, the refrain most effectively demonstrates this technique with the use of the word ain’t, but with otherwise white-sounding lyrics:

I ain’t got no regular place that I can call my home,

I ain’t got no permanent address, as thro’ this world I roam.

Portland Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee.

Any old place I can hang my hat is home sweet home to me.[29]

There are examples, where it was not necessarily the caricatures associated with the music, that was the focus of coon songs by 1902, but rather use of the name of the genre for the sake of commodity.  For example, the cover of the 1903 song “Bedelia” claims it is an “Irish coon song.”[30]  The 1905 hit “If the Man in the Moon were a Coon” simply uses the word coon as a rhyming mechanism and some passing references to African Americans’ taste for chicken without any context or African American dialect or caricatures of earlier songs.

If the man in the moon were a coon coon coon, what would you do?

He would fade with his shade the silvery moon moon moon, away from you

No roaming ‘round the park at night

No spooning in the bright moonlight

If the man in the moon were a coon coon coon[31]

Another hit song, 1902’s “Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star,” has lyrics that reflect the style of ballads, but with the sorts of dialect alterations that blacked up otherwise white music; every instance throughout the lyrics which could be blacked up, was done so for this song:

Den when comes de days bright light

An’ ma star fades from ma sight,

Ma love is unabatin’ I grow impatient waitin’

To see again ma love, ma light, dat night.[32]

The content of the coon song had become diluted to a new separate genre where caricatures and local color had faded into a mass popular music consumption of commonplace products.

Consequently, hundreds of coon songs and rags of varying success came out of Tin Pan Alley onto the music mass market and the above sampling, however sizeable, is only representative of a much larger body of pop songs of the era and it was such a popular marketing gimmick that “coon song” eventually became a separate genre of music.  But for the few years between the mass popularity of the coon song in 1896 and the caricatures associated with it in lyrical style and cover illustration, no matter how fun or different they seemed to be for the consumer, eventually by 1903 became a Tin Pan Alley gimmick.  The new commodity of the novel nature of the coon song genre could presumably sell itself, without any of the African American connotations associated with its older song paradigms.  After all, the transformation from caricature to commodity for the coon song worked very well, recordings of “Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star,” “Bedelia,” “Any Rags?,” “Hello! Ma Baby,” and “Camp Meeting Time” were among the biggest selling hits of their relative year.[33]  Although not all songs during the ragtime era were coon songs, they had certainly become a commodity which sold music product.

References

Cady, Edwin H.  “Realism Reflects a Common Vision of Everyday Life.”  Contained in American Realism.  Edited by Christopher Smith.  San Diego, CA:  Greenhaven Press.  2000.  56-67.

Gates, Jr, Henry Louis.  Life Upon These Shores:  Looking at African Americans History:  1513-2008.  New York:  Alfred A Knoff.  2011.

Lears, Jackson.  Fables of Abundance:  A Cultural History of Advertising in America.  New York:  BasicBooks.  1994.

Morgan, Thomas L and William Barlow.  From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott and Clark Publishing.  1992.

Story, Ralph.  “Paul Laurence Dunbar:  Master Player in a Fixed Game.”  Contained in African-American Poets:  Phillis Wheatly through Melvin B. Tolson.  Edited by Harold Bloom.  Philadelphia, PA:  Chelsea House Publishers.  2002.  129-151.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi.  America:  A Narrative History.  8th ed.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.  2010.

Waldo, Terry.  This is Ragtime.  New York:  Hawthorn Books. 1974.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories 1890-1954:  History of American Popular Music.  Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research.  1986.

Songs Cited

Allen, Thomas S.  Any Rags? Boston, MA:  George M. Krey Co.  1903.

Cole, Bob.  Under the Bamboo Tree.  New York:  Jos. W. Stern & Co.  1902. 

Fischer, Fred.  If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon.   Chicago, IL:  Will Rossiter.  1905.

Friedman, Leo (music) and Gene Jefferson (music).  Coon Coon Coon.  Chicago, IL:  Sol Bloom.  1900.  

Hogan, Ernest.  All Coons Look Alike to Me.  New York:  M. Witmark & Sons.  1896.  

Holzmann, Abe.  Smokey Mokes.  New York:  Feist & Frankenthaler.  1899. 

Lincoln, Harry J.  Rag-Bag Rag.  Williamsport, PA:  VanDerSloot Music Publishing.  1909.  Cover illustration contained in Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow.  From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing.  1992.

Jones, Irving.  My Money Never Gives Out.  New York:  Feist & Frankenthaler.  1900.  Cover illustration contained in Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow.  From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing.  1992.

Mills, Kerry.  At a Georgia Campmeeting.  New York:  F.A. Mills Inc.  1897.  Cover illustration contained in Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow.  From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing.  1992.

——-.  Whistling Rufus.  New York:  F.A. Mills.  1899.

Pryor, Arthur.  A Coon Band Contest.  New York:  Arthur Pryor.  1899.

Schwartz, Jean (music) and William Jerome (lyrics).  Any Old Place I Can Hang My Hat is Home Sweet Home to Me.  New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer.  1901.

——-.  Bedelia.  New York:   Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer.  1903.

Sloane, Alfred Baldwin (music) and Clay M. Greene (lyrics).  Ma Tiger Lily.  New York:  M. Witmark & Sons.  1900.  

Stromberg, John (music) and Robert B Smith (lyrics).  Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star.  New York:  M. Witmark & Sons.  1902.  

Trevathan, Charles.  May Irwin’s Bully Song.  New York:  White-Smith Music Publishing.  1896.  

Van Alstyne, Egbert (music) and Harry Williams (lyrics).  Camp Meeting Time.  New York: Jerome H. Remick & Co.  1906.  

Discography

Collins, Arthur (performer).  Hello! Ma Baby.  1899.  From Internet Archive, 78RPMs & Cylinder Recordings.  Mp3 file.

Collins, Arthur and Vess Ossman (performers).   All Coons Look Alike to Me.  1901.  Edison Records.  Edison-7317.  From Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings.  Mp3 file.

Golden, Billy (performer).  Yaller Gal. 1899.  Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings.  Mp3 file.

Spencer, Len (performer).  My Gal Is a High Born Lady. 1897.  Columbia Records.  Columbia-7252.  From Internet Archive, 78 RPMs & Cylinder Recordings.  Mp3 file.

——-.  You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down. 1902.  Lambert Records.  Lambert-989.  From Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings.  Mp3 file.


[1] For an introduction to the rise in American popular culture during the latter half of the nineteenth century, see George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America:  A Narrative History, 8th Edition, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 837-853.

[2] Edwin H Cady, “Realism Reflects a Common Vision of Everyday Life,” contained in American Realism, Christopher Smith, ed, (San Diego, CA:  Greenhaven Press, 2000), 59.

[3] Ralph Story, “Paul Laurence Dunbar:  Master Player in a Fixed Game,” contained in African-American Poets:  Phillis Wheatly through Melvin B. Tolson, Harold Bloom, ed., (Philadelphia, PA:  Chelsea House Publishers, 2002), 131.

[4]Alfred Baldwin Sloane (music) and Clay M. Greene (lyrics), Ma Tiger Lily, (New York:  M. Witmark & Sons, 1900).  

[5] Ernest Hogan, All Coons Look Alike to Me, (New York:  M. Witmark & Sons, 1896).

[6] Fred Fischer, If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon, (Chicago, IL:  Will Rossiter, 1905).

[7] Arthur Pryor, A Coon Band Contest, (New York:  Arthur Pryor, 1899).

[8] Kerry Mills, Whistling Rufus, (New York:  F.A. Mills, 1899).

[9] Egbert Van Alstyne (music) and Harry Williams (lyrics), Camp Meeting Time, (New York: Jerome H. Remick & Co, 1906).

[10] Bob Cole, Under the Bamboo Tree, (New York:  Jos. W. Stern & Co, 1902). 

[11] Friedman, Leo (music) and Gene Jefferson (music), Coon Coon Coon, (Chicago, IL:  Sol Bloom, 1900).

[12] Thomas S. Allen, Any Rags? (Boston, MA:  George M. Krey Co., 1903).  

[13] Harry J Lincoln, Rag-Bag Rag, (Williamsport, PA:  Vandersloot Music Publishing, 1909), cover illustration contained in Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930, (Washington, DC:  Elliott and Clark Publishing, 1992), 25. 

[14] Charles Trevathan, May Irwin’s ‘Bully Song,’ (New York:  White-Smith Music Publishing, 1896).

[15] Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance:  A Cultural History of Advertising in America, (New York:  BasicBooks, 1994), 141.

[16] For a selection of “Sambo Art” used in advertising, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Life Upon These Shores:  Looking at African American History:  1513-2008, (New York:  Alfred A Knoff, 2011), 214-219.

[17] Friedman and Jefferson, Coon Coon Coon,.   

[18]Irving Jones, My Money Never Gives Out, (New York:  Feist & Frankenthaler, 1900), cover illustration contained in Morgan and Barlow,48.

[19] Kerry Mills, At a Georgia Camp Meeting, (New York:  F.A. Mills Inc, 1897), cover illustration contained in Morgan and Barlow, 50.

[20] Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930, (Washington, DC:  Elliott and Clark, 1992), 55-56.

[21] Abe Holzmann, Smokey Mokes, (New York:  Feist & Frankenthaler, 1899), cover illustration contained in Morgan and Barlow, 56. 

[22] Len Spencer (performer), You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down, 1902, Lambert Records, Lambert-989, Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings, mp3 file.

[23] Arthur Collins and Vess Ossman (performers), All Coons Look Alike to Me, 1901, Edison Records, Edison-7317, Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings, mp3 file.

[24] Len Spencer (performer), My Gal Is a High Born Lady, 1897, Columbia Records, Columbia-7252, Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings, mp3 file.

[25] Billy Golden (performer), Yaller Gal, 1899, Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings, mp3 file.

[26] Arthur Collins (performer), Hello! Ma Baby, 1899, Internet Archive, 78 RPMs and Cylinder Recordings, mp3 file.

[27] Morgan and Barlow, 49.

[28] Terry Waldo, This is Ragtime, (New York:  Hawthorn Books, 1976), 92.

[29] Jean Schwartz (music) and William Jerome (lyrics), Any Old Place I Can Hang My Hat is Home Sweet Home to Me, (New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer, 1901).

[30] Jean Schwartz (music) and William Jerome (lyrics), Bedelia, (New York:   Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer, 1903).

[31] Fischer, If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon.  

[32] John Stromberg (music) and Robert B Smith (lyrics), Come Down, Ma Evenin’ Star, (New York:  M. Witmark & Sons, 1902).  

[33] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954:  History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research, 1986), 643-645.

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Caricatures in Context, Part 1: The Popularity of the Coon Song

            All throughout the history of commercial pop song in America, there are gimmicks which become trendy and profitable fads for a moment but such gimmicks, even when becoming influential for a time, eventually fade into the past.  The past decade alone has had many such pop fads that once sounded new and fresh to mass audiences, the shouts of Crunk in 2004, the incessant Latin rhythms of Reggaeton in 2005, the robotic sounds of Auto Tune in 2008/2009 and more recently, the start-stop abrasive sounds of dub step in 2012 are the most notable examples.  At the turn of the twentieth century, American music was in the throes of its first big revolution in style, a raucous period of syncopated music called the Ragtime era and American lyric pop song was also in the midst of a transformation with songs about rural southern life.  The pop fad bridging both of these changes was the coon song, a genre of which African Americans were the subject and focus, most often in caricature representation.  When ragtime rhythms and vernacular lyrics met in a collision course of musical history and pop culture, the fad of the coon song became one of the most popular lyrical songs for nearly a decade in the early twentieth century.

            The term coon song is potent enough to elicit squeamish, visceral viewpoints of racism over a century later in the cultural sensitivities of modern times, but selling the caricature of African Americans was business and both white and black performers were involved in its popularity.  In a century when black minstrelsy was the most popular form of theatrical entertainment and when black plantation culture was the focus of it, selling the caricature of African Americans was not inherently culturally insensitive, it was an early form of Show Biz.  Black minstrelsy depicting the “carefree” plantation life of the nineteenth century eventually became the first mass entertainment in America.  It was also business to create the most “authentic” experiences at the theatre, after all, audiences would not likely go to the theatre to see minstrel shows if bad acting were involved.  By 1890, the caricature of the minstrel darkey had made its way to pop songs and when ragtime had reached its commercial zenith, itself a black folk tradition, a mass market had come into existence embracing the caricature of African Americans portrayed in coon songs.  The coon song remained popular until the later half of the 1900s, but it eventually became a fad and a gimmick to sell sheet music, fading from the popularity of songs.  While there are theories of coon songs’ popularity ranging from lazy song writing technique to social Darwinism of race, considering the currants of pop songs throughout its history, coon songs and their caricatures are more commercial method to sell songs rather than to make a statement on the status of race relations in America.

            The actual origins of the caricature of the African American coon are unclear, but by the early nineteenth century, it became a new profitable image for the American stage with the rise of the minstrel show.  The caricatures depicted by minstrelsy in the nineteenth century, according to John Tasker Howard, date as early as the 1760s and by 1827, songs like “ Old Zip Coon” and “Coal-Black Rose” had become parts of circus acts of performer George Washington Dixon, perhaps the father of the minstrel show.[1]  Around this time in the early 1830s, caricatures of African Americans were coming into popular culture and characters like Jim Crow, the plantation slave; Zip Coon, the urbane free black; and Sambo, the plantation musician and artist became the subjects of stage skits and songs.  One account says that shrewd businessman and actor “Daddy” Rice’s first performance of the song “Jump Jim Crow” in 1830 came after he learned the song from a black man in Cincinnati, consequently lifting it for his own gains,[2] while another account says that Rice observed an eccentric stable hand dancing and created the Jim Crow character from this encounter.[3]  Rice’s character Jim Crow consequently became one of the earliest documented public performances of the black caricature.[4]  Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen point out that the characters Sambo, Zip Coon and Jim Crow became popular because they are not technically slaves, instead they “eat a lot, sing and dance, and poke fun at each other.  They never worry about what white people think, or interact with them at all.”[5]  By 1840, troupes of performers traveled the country in minstrel shows depicting a caricature form of both plantation life and the African Americans living it as entertainment for the stage.

By hiring casts of actors and putting on shows with musical performances, skits, jokes, commentary on the politics of the day and ending with an elaborate cakewalk around the stage, the minstrel not only omitted that slavery was in existence, but brought slave culture into caricature proportions.  In order for minstrel companies to create a more “authentic” theatrical experience, they made every detail hyperbolic, including “blacking up” white actors for the stage and highlighting African American facial features like lips and eyes with heavy makeup.  It was not just appearance which was caricature, characters’ performances evolved into clowning around on stage.  Although most had touted to be the most “authentic Ethiopian” experiences[6] at the theatre, most minstrel companies were composed of entirely white performers singing anglicized versions of black folk tunes for white audiences, after all, in most places African Americans were not allowed on the professional stage until well into the 1870s, according to one source.[7]  African American troupes, also performing in blackface when allowed to perform, clowned up their performances for audiences and also became an unconnected pop parody of actual slave plantation life.[8]  The most noticeable feature of the minstrel show from this period is that slavery is not the focus of attention, it is the lifestyle of African Americans that included anything but slavery and minstrel companies capitalized on the caricatures associated with it to get theatregoers in the seats.

            Minstrelsy was Show Biz, after all.  Touring companies like the Georgia Minstrels or the Christy Minstrels had to appear as authentic as they could.  Of course, if there was a popular minstrel show, then there were writers working for it, producing material like skits and songs.  For example, songwriter Stephen Foster took advantage of the rise in popularity in the minstrelsy to pen numerous popular songs like “De Camptown Race,” “Way Down in Ca-i-ro,” and “Oh! Susanna” for the Christy Minstrels throughout the 1840s and 1850s.[9]  As the black minstrel became popular, the caricature become more stage character than “authentic” theatrical experience.  Stephen Foster, who had helped popularize the plantation song, and perpetuating some of its caricatures, was growing annoyed with the rise of more crude and overtly racist minstrels by the early 1850s.  In a letter to E.P. Christy, he wrote, “I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs, owing to a prejudice against them by some…I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people…instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that [Ethiopian] order.”[10]  Depictions of African Americans were not considered racist as they would be described in modern times, but rather the result of the Show Biz culture of the theatre, no matter how clownish they made their subjects appear.  Edward Berlin notes that coon songs were “an accepted part of show business” in a period that had little concern with ethnic sensibilities.  As well, the performances by black singers in blackface was “a bit of mockery, even self-mockery [that] was ‘good fun’.”[11]  The minstrel perpetuated the image of African American but also fostered early Show Biz culture in America.

Minstrelsy was in decline by 1890, but the caricatures of African Americans remained prevalent and were making their way onto the cylinders of the talking machine before they had become part of the commercial grab for sheet music sales of Tin Pan Alley.  A program from a brass band performance in 1888 included a “Echo from the New South” called “Pay Day on the Old Plantation” sandwiched between performances of a polka and a piccolo solo.[12]  The first to record a modern commercial coon song was himself an African American songwriter and virtuosic whistler, George Washington Johnson, whose song “The Whistling Coon” became a major hit song for recorded music in 1891.  Throughout the early 1890s, singer Len Spencer had recorded numerous rural song hits like “The Old Folks at Home” (1892), “Mamie, Come and Kiss Your Honey Boy” (1893) and “Little Alabama Coon” (1895) just to name a few.  The recordings of Vess Ossman, who turned pop songs of the day into instrumental recordings on the banjo, also became a pop culture phenomenon in the 1890s; a banjo rendition of “Yankee Doodle” became a major hit in 1894.[13]  During his visit to the United States, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, apparently impressed by African American musicianship, urged for a national American musical movement based solely on African American music in 1894.[14]  These were only precursors of a more pronounced American popular culture appetite for rural plantation songs of the South and of African Americans. 

For a decade afterwards, coon songs became a fad which sold sheet music and recordings and both African Americans and whites made money pushing the caricature of the coon.  According to William G. Hyland, the first to do so was Ben Harvey in 1896, erroneously billed the “Inventor of Ragtime,”[15] whose song “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down” turned the vernacular of African American speech into profitable pop song material.[16]  That same year, another song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me” written by African American songwriter Ernest Hogan, also helped to create a pop song moment by featuring the word coon in its title, even though it had originally been called “All Pimps Look Alike to Me” and its original lyrics were not specific to any racial caricature.[17]  Subsequently, throughout the second half of the 1890s and into the twentieth century, songs like “Coon, Coon Coon” (1901), “A Coon Band Contest” (1901), “At a Georgia Campmeeting” (1897)  and “De Bugs Am In De Co’n (A Darkey’s Lament)” (1897) perpetuated the caricatures originally mass produced in black minstrelsy.  It was a tremendous success, coon songs were beginning to enter the pop song mass market, eventually becoming a gimmick to sell music to customers.

Coon songs became associated with a new musical trend of syncopated “ragged” time and its popularity as a mass commercial genre further made coon songs fashionable and profitable.  A syncopated march style music, ragging time by syncopating rhythms originally developed in African American folk traditions,[18] becoming a form mass entertainment with African Americans working and travelling on steamboats and railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing the musical style along ports on the Mississippi River like St Louis and Memphis.[19]  In trying to define the term, bandleader and composer James Reese Europe commented, “there was never any such music as ‘ragtime.’ ‘Ragtime’ is simply a nickname…given to Negro rhythm by our Caucasian brother.”[20]  After 1899 when Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” became the first instrumental piece of sheet music to sell over a million copies, American consumers and Tin Pan Alley songwriters went both ragtime and coon song crazy, combining the two to make a commercial fad throughout the first half of the 1900s.  Even Sousa’s Band recorded coon songs and ragged time pieces, Sousa himself a fan of the genre and looked to expand the band’s repertoire and capitalize on the demand for syncopated music.[21]  The two styles had become so inextricably linked that Etude Magazine described ragtime as “a term applied to the peculiar, broken, rhythmic features of the popular ‘coon song’.”[22]  But the caricature remained, black actor and vaudeville superstar Bert Williams, commented on the bad luck and slow wit of his blackfaced characters, mentioning that “even if it rained soup, [he] would be found with a fork in his hand.”[23] Ragtime set a trendy fad with publishers and songwriters to produce syncopated musical styles and use the coon caricatures to sell them.

There are various theories on why the black caricature was used to sell music and why audiences were buying such songs. One reason suggested by Susan Curtis is that the lure of the rhythms and content of black music in the 1890s was a refuge from the hectic pace of life in crowded, noisy city so that customers could temporarily escape to a more simple and rural life through musical entertainment.[24]  Taylor and Austen also point to escapism, noting that coon songs were never sad or tragic like popular sentimental ballads, that it was “happy music.”[25]  According to Eve Golden, the kinds of caricatures available in coon songs were part of the “casual racism” of the times, that it was “not the era of delicate feelings.”[26]  She also astutely observes that the choice for using the word coon in songs was a matter of song writing laziness since it rhymed easily with so many common words.[27]  Terry Waldo observes that the popularity of the coon song was a matter of social Darwinist theories of the time, that “the mass mind needed to be reassured that its relegation of Negroes to a secondary spot in the system.”[28]  Morgan and Barlow also remark on this aspect of coon songs that “African Americans were at least a step below [whites] on the biological ladder.”[29]  While coon songs had been a musical fad of the times, still, over a century later, they have created numerous debates on the genre.

I argue that it is simply a case of buyers wanting a new in style product to hear or play at home that fit with the musical trends of the times and the coon caricature was the commodity on which it was based.  Words like coon, darkey or darktown were the vocabulary used by the songwriters of the times and fit with the style of music that consumers were willing to pay for.  This was as true for the black minstrels of the mid-nineteenth century as it was for the coon song in the early twentieth, when the caricature of African Americans was used to sell both theatre tickets and musical recordings.  The show biz of the black minstrelsy had ended by the time ragtime and coon songs became a pop song phenomenon, but its cultural implications of the caricature of the coon was still in fashion for use to sell a new somewhat foreign form of music that was fresh to the market for consumers.  Cover illustrations on sheet music using the physical caricature of African Americans and their lyrics mimicking African American speech became common during this era for the sake of moving musical product.  The coon caricature  was both an image and marketing tool.   However, only had a few years of truly pop success, the coon song had become a fad, eventually fading as other currents in pop song history were becoming newer and fresher with audiences.

References

Berlin, Edward.  King of Ragtime:  Scott Joplin and His Era.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1994.

Chase, Gilbert.  America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.  1966.

Curtis, Susan.  Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune:  A Life of Scott Joplin.  Columbia, MO:  University of Missouri Press.  1994.

Gammond, Peter.  Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era.  New York: St Martin’s Press.  1975.

Golden, Eve.  Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution.  Lexington, KY:  University of Kentucky Press.  2007.

Hazen, Margaret Hindle and Robert M Hazen.  The Music Men:  An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, 1800-1920.  Washington, DC:  Smithsonian Institution.  1987.

Howard, John Tasker.  Stephen Foster:  America’s Troubadour.  New York: Thomas Y Crowell Company.  1954.

Hyland, William G.  The Song is Ended:  Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1995.

Morgan, Thomas L. and William Barlow.  From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930.  Washington, DC:  Elliott and Clark Publishing.  1992.

Taylor, Yuval and Jake Austen.  Darkest America:  Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.  2012.

Waldo, Terry.  This is Ragtime.  New York: Hawthorn Books.  1976.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories 1890-1954:  The History of American Popular Music.  Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research Inc.  1986.

Williams, Bert and Eddie Leonard.  “The Original and the Echo.”  Contained in American Vaudeville as Seen by its Contemporaries.  Edited by Charles W Stein.  New York:  Alfred Knoff.  1984.


[1] John Tasker Howard, Stephen Foster:  America’s Troubadour, (New York:  Thomas Y Crowell Company, 1954), 120.

[2] ibid, 122-123.

[3] Terry Waldo, This is Ragtime, (New York:  Hawthorn Books, 1976), 11.

[4] Peter Gammond, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 35.

[5] Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen, Darkest America:  Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2012), 78.

[6] Gammond, 35.

[7] ibid, 36.

[8] Taylor Austen, 26-27.

[9] Howard, 179.

[10] Stephen Foster, letter to E.P. Christy, 25 May 1852, contained in Gilbert Chase, America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present, (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 93.

[11] Edward Berlin, King of Ragtime:  Scott Joplin and His Era, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994), 78-79.

[12] Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen, The Music Men:  An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, 1800-1920, (Washington, DC:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987), 124.

[13] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954:  The History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc, 1986), 642.

[14] Gilbert Chase, America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present, (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 403.

[15] Even Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution, (Lexington, KY:  University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 52.

[16] William G Hyland, The Song is Ended:  Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1995), 27.

[17] Morgan and Harlow, 16.

[18] Gammond, 21.

[19] Thomas L Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to Concert Halls:  An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895-1930, Washington, DC:  Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1992), 10-11.

[20] James Reese Europe, qtd in Golden, 51.

[21] Waldo, 39.

[22] Susan Curtis, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune:  A Life of Scott Joplin, (Columbia, MO:  University of Missouri Press, 1994), 112.

[23] Bert Williams and Eddie Leonard, “The Original and the Echo,” contained in American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries, 241-247, Charles W Stein, ed, (New York:  Alfred Knoff, 1984), 241-242,

[24] Curtis, 65.

[25] Taylor and Austen, 202.

[26] Golden, 72.

[27] ibid, 71.

[28] Waldo, 22.

[29] Morgan and Barlow, 13-15.