Coon Songs and the Loss of a Generation of Good Melodies

Presented by Jack Rummel November 17, 2012 at the West Coast Ragtime Festival

Video  by Lewis Motisher

Below is the script for the presentation. You can follow along with the audio by scrolling down.

I will preface this symposium with a disclaimer. I will be discussing a topic and showing a few slides that could potentially be offensive to some people. It will be done in a scholarly fashion with no attempt to be sensational, in the hopes that there are lessons to be learned. If you feel that this seminar is not for you, now would be an appropriate time to be excused.

We come to festivals such as this one to enjoy ragtime, not only to share the excitement of newly composed rags but also to pay homage to the syncopated compositions written in the early decades of the Twentieth Century that started what some historians have referred to as “The Ragtime Craze.”

Yet, despite the popularity between 1897-1917 of the works of such composers as Scott Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Arthur Marshall, Charles L. Johnson, Henry Lodge, George Botsford, Artie Matthews and others who are venerated today, few people are aware that the popularity of those rags in their day was completely eclipsed by the popularity of another type of syncopated music: the Coon Song .

Between about 1895-1910, the public’s appetite for coon songs became insatiable. Most were set to syncopated melodies, and thus, according to Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff in their book, Ragged But Right, subtitled Black Traveling Shows, ‘Coon Songs’ and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, “To the popular music industry and the contemporary white audience, ragtime and coon songs were virtually synonymous.” This subsequently forced the ragtime community to spend decades trying to dissociate themselves from the vile lyrics and persuade America - and the world - to accept instrumental ragtime as legitimate music.

Scott Joplin himself may have said it best in this quote from the April 1913 issue of New York Age: “I have often sat in theatres and listened to beautiful ragtime melodies set to almost vulgar words…and I have wondered why some composers will continue to make the public hate ragtime melodies because the melodies are set to such bad words.

“If someone were to put vulgar words to a strain of Beethoven’s beautiful symphonies, people would begin saying ‘I don’t like Beethoven symphonies.’ So it is the unwholesome words and not the ragtime melodies that people hate.”

The defense against these ugly songs has been very simple: it is to pretend they never existed. Should an early coon song happen to surface, it would be treated as a rarity, an anomaly, and a hasty apology would be issued. If I asked almost anyone in this room (not counting sheet music collectors and historians) how many of these songs they could name, Ernest Hogan’s 1885 song, All Coons Look Alike To Me, would certainly be mentioned, along with a half-dozen others, and someone would hastily add that Hogan was an African-American, as if to Justify the song’s existence. This completely glosses over the fact that a Brown University collection of African-American Sheet Music, 1895-1920, contains 1,305 pieces of sheet music with offensive titles and/or lyrics.

All of this begs the question, “Why was this music so popular and why were Black composers also writing it?” And that leads to additional questions, such as “Why should we care?” and “We’ve tried to sweep it under the rug for 100 years; why not leave it there?”

In my 33 years of hosting the “Ragtime America” radio program, I have pondered this last question myself, because in dealing with some of the recordings in my collection I asked  whether or not I should play them over the air because, melodically, many are quite good. Then a few months ago, I watched a DVD of a PBS special program narrated by Steve Martin called “Give Me the Banjo,” and that gave me the answer I was looking for. In it, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Maryland named Greg Adams made the following statement about the banjo. I contacted him to request his permission to substitute the word “ragtime” for the word “banjo” and he agreed that it was entirely appropriate to do so:

“You can’t talk about the history of [ragtime] if you can’t talk about racism, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation – all the things that run counter to what we love about [ragtime]. We are at a point in our understanding of the history of [this music] that it’s no longer acceptable to pretend these other things don’t exist.”

The atrocities of Hitler’s regime against the Jews have been exposed to the light of day in the hopes that any recurrence might be prevented. Openly examining legalized segregation in this country has helped to create laws to eliminate it. We may think that ugly prejudice couldn’t happen to music again, but how many of us knew that there was an active market for white supremacy music until on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six and wounding four, and it was later revealed that he was a member of two white supremacy rock bands named “Definite Hate” and “End Apathy.”

In 1977, Max Morath was quoted as saying that the “coon song” phenomenon of 1890-1910 “right now resides exactly where it should – on the back shelves of the pop museum collecting dust. It’s a sociological curiosity and nothing more.” While our sympathies might lie with Mr. Morath’s sentiment, it has become clear that few contemporary students of American culture accept the implication that because racist phenomena are distasteful they are no longer important.

The earliest known use of the word “coon” in a racist context began in the minstrel shows of the 1830s, where White performers applied burnt cork “blackface” to portray African-Americans as ignorant, lazy, slow-talking fools before White audiences. A different variation was “Zip Coon,” based on a song by George Washington Dixon from 1834, where performers dressed up as urban Black dandies in imitation of affluent Whites. We know the melody of that song today as Turkey in the Straw.

By the late 1800s, minstrel shows had given way to vaudeville, which included musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians and other acts which often featured blackface, worn by White and Black actors alike. Most of the skits still featured degrading depictions of Blacks and the songs were often of the racist “coon” variety and were supposed to be humorous. When composers, both Black and White, began incorporating the new, intoxicating, syncopated rhythms of ragtime into their songs, the “coon song” genre really exploded as the demand by White audiences became almost impossible to satisfy.

Theories abound as to why “coon songs” were in such demand, but the most rational explanation, to my mind, comes from James Dormon, a former professor of history and American studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, who suggested in the December 1988 edition of American Quarterly, that coon songs can be seen as "a necessary sociopsychological mechanism for justifying segregation and subordination." He concluded that the songs portrayed Blacks as posing a threat to the American social order, and implicitly that they had to be controlled; in other words, the songs were used to justify continued segregation and discrimination in the United States.

By about 1910, Blacks began to rebel against these stereotypes, Whites began to realize that perhaps “coon songs” were no longer acceptable in theatrical settings, and in a few short years the demand had died out completely. The image of the bumbling coon continued on in the movies, where it had a relatively short life, with Black actor Stepin Fetchit, who eventually became a millionaire, being the most sought-after performer.

Why would Blacks place themselves in such degrading situations? Two answers are put forth, the first being financial. A column titled “Tom the Tattler” in the Indianapolis Freeman, a respected Black newspaper dated August 24, 1901, summed up the reaction of African-Americans to the first decade of the “Coon Song” craze:

“The colored man writes the ‘coon’ song, the colored singer sings the ‘coon’ song, the colored race is compelled to stand for the belittling and ignominy of the ‘coon’ song, but the money from the ‘coon’ song flows with ceaseless activity into the white man’s pockets.”

However, according to Dorman, Black songwriters and performers who participated in the creation of coon songs did profit commercially, enabling them to go on to develop a new type of African-American musical theater based at least in part on African-American traditions.

Secondly, it was a stepping stone to the legitimate stage for Black performers such as Bert Williams, George Walker, Will Marion Cook and others, which led to the acceptance by Whites of Black actors and musicians into the mainstream. Again to quote Abbott and Seroff from their book, Ragged But Right, “Every branch of the black stage profession included artists who saw race elevation as part of their professional responsibility.”

Despite the popularity of vaudeville on the legitimate stage, traveling minstrel shows continued to perform throughout the South well into the Twentieth Century, prompting another quote from Abbott and Seroff: “Black minstrel companies stole the audience away from their pale (Nineteenth-Century white) imitators, thus opening a pathway of employment for hundreds of musicians, performers, and entrepreneurs.”

What of the melodious ragtime music that was the underpinning of these “coon songs”? As is also the case with instrumental ragtime, there are a few gems and there are a lot of others that are best forgotten. A few early White ragtime composers recognized the musicality contained in some “coon songs” and crafted instrumental medleys using some of the better themes. Max Hoffman released Ragtime Medley in 1897 and we will listen to a recording by Dick Zimmerman. [Track 1.]

[Jack invites Tom Brier to the piano to play a couple of medleys: Ragtown Rags, 1998, by Max Hoffman, 1898, and 1899, At a Ragtime Reception, by Ben M. Jerome.]

Some “coon songs” that didn’t use the word “coon” in the title have remained popular. Here is one you might recognize At A Georgia Campmeeting. [Track 2.] How many of you have seen or heard the lyrics to this? The song version contains only the A and B sections; the instrumental version has an added C section (Trio). A few other songs have benefitted from a name change. Here is a recording by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra of a cakewalk by Arthur Pryor which they are calling A Cakewalk Contest. [Track 3.] Careful listening reveals this to actually be Pryor’s composition, A Coon Band Contest.

Some brave souls have recorded a few of these offensively named pieces under their original titles. In 1987, John Arpin recorded The Coon’s Cakewalk to the Pawn Shop by Laurent Comes, 1899, as part of an album of Creole Rags produced by Al Rose. [Track 4.] Knocky Parker recorded The Coon Band Parade by James Reese Europe, 1905, as part of his “Golden Treasury of Ragtime” series. [Track 5.] I have seven recordings of Pryor’s Coon Band Contest by various artists, all issued under its original name. I have eight recordings of Coon Hollow Capers by Frank Gillis, 1899, also by various artists. Here are the twin pianos of Glenn Jenks and Dan Grinstead. [Track 6.] And in 2001, the Lake Arrowhead Early Jazz Band released a CD called “The Cakewalk,” which included Coontown Capers, Koonville Koonlets and Coon’s Birthday Party, as well as Pryor’s aforementioned cakewalk. [Track 7.]

But the vast majority of the 1,305 titles in the Brown University collection, as well as many others that quickly came and went, comprise a generation of good melodies that have been lost to history and will undoubtedly remain so, doomed by their ugly, overt racism. I am not in any way suggesting that they all be resurrected, although perhaps a few will survive under various guises. I do, however, maintain that these skeletons in ragtime’s closet must not be denied. They existed, however embarrassing they are to us today, and we will continue to apologize to our African-American brothers and sisters for the demeaning actions of our forbearers. But they are a part of our history, and not all of mankind’s actions throughout history have been honorable.

So let me end with a famous quote from George Santayana:

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Thank you.

Jack Rummel
West Coast Ragtime Festival
November 17, 2012