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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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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