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.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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