Americans have long been fascinated with the African-American culture and most often in the past, that fascination has been expressed in very negative and ugly ways. American popular music, as a reflection of society, was no exception and as a result, in our travels through the past, we encounter many, many songs that in today’s society are offensive, mean-spirited and uncomfortable to look.
Most of us will find the content of this posting offensive. That hopefully is the point. The subject matter is offensive. I am not trying to make anyone feel uncomfortable or hurt anyone in any way Nor do I wish to perpetuate prejudice at all, but I do hope that everyone reading this month feels more than a little uncomfortable. Music reflects society at any given time. We can’t change history or really forget about it. The music of those times has become an important historical document and serves to remind us of the continuing need for tolerance and the elimination of prejudice, stereotypes and hatred.
Some of the lyrics here may be the most disturbing that you have ever seen. Coon songs; just that title alone can cause one to wince in pain at the intolerance and hurtful nature of the phrase. The definition of a coon song as stated by the New Grove Dictionary Of American Music is:
A genre of comic song, popular from around 1880 to the end of World War I, with words in a dialect purporting to be typical of black American speech.
Hugely popular during the early decades of sound recording and then wiped from the culture like they never existed, coon songs nevertheless produced not only the recording industry’s first black stars, but some of the first hit singles ever. Minstrel shows in general led to vaudeville, the root of modern American show biz. And yet Al Jolson’s blackface performance of “Mammy” in the ground-breaking film “The Jazz Singer” is probably the only experience most people have had with this genre.
From the pre-master disk era of he late 1800s when, incredibly, a mass of recording cylinders had to be set up to record each performance individually (so the poor singer had to sing the song over and over) up to the genre’s apparent demise in the 1920s, the era of the “Great Migration.” Black Americans started moving from the rural South, transforming the culture of Northern cities like New York (hence, the “Harlem Renaissance”) and Chicago. With the Jazz Age in full swing in the Twenties, the old stereotypes of country bumpkins pining for them good ol’ plantation days were no longer too convincing.
Ernest Hogan’s 1896 song “All Coons Look Alike To Me” contains the first reference of stylization to the form of “Rag” on the sheet music.
Bert Williams song “Oh, I Don’t Know, You’re So Warm!” uses the word in lyrics published in 1896.
Sadly, Coon Song usually reinforced white stereotypes and depicted African-American men as drunk, over sexualized, violent, natural dancers. These types of songs also popularized images of African-Americans who loved chicken and watermelon.
Most of the times, the songs were written in broken English as if to imitate the speech of black people.
Check out the lyrics to “All Coons Look Alike to Me”
It’s very shocking to think that an African-American would write lyrics like this. But when considering the extreme racism of the time, it is also important to note that these were some of the earliest, published, black songwriters to achieve fame.
Ernest Hogan said, “All Coons Look A Like To Me” had a deeper meaning than one might think. It was created thanks to a racist police officer in Chicago.
He (Hogan) was attending a ball in Chicago by colored people. At a late hour there was a disturbance so great as to need interference from the police, who commenced arresting indiscriminately. One soon laid his hands upon Mr. Hogan, but a brother officer recognized him as the man who had sung at the policeman’s benefit the night before and requested that he not be arrested, the reply was:”it makes no difference: all Coons look alike to me.”
Ernest Hogan wrote the first stanza of the song while riding on a street car, and just three months after the song was published; he raked in over $26,000.
It must be noted that in an interview the same year, Hogan also claimed a girl used the phrase as she denied his amorous advances.
“Coon Songs reaffirmed the necessity of subordinating and controlling African-Americans and they justified segregation, voting restriction and even lynching,” according to The Greenwood Encylopedia of Daily Life in America.
It cannot be dismissed that some of the most popular “Coon Songs” were written by African-American men like Will Marion Cook, Sam Lucas, George Walker, Bob Cole, Ernest Hogan and Bert Williams.
But White men like Paul Dresser, Walter Hawley, and others wrote the majority of the more than 600 songs that are believed to have been issued during the period.
During their live stage performances, White performers usually dressed in blackface and performed the popular tunes of the day. African-American performers did it too.
The “Coon Song” eventually died out as the first decade of the 1900s came to a close. It was due to the overtly racist lyrics, stereotypes, and images, as Ragtime music took hold of American popular culture.
By the 1910’s, the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley were dominating the New York music scene, where a new form of Ragtime developed. This style became mostly associated with legendary white composers like Irving Berlin, Fred Fischer, and Gus Edwards.
In reality, most of these songs just reflected the ignorance of their white composers and lyricists, offering cartoonish images of gambling men and high-falutin’ women, all speaking (or singing) with buffoonish accents, with razors at the ready to cut down opponents. But the genre remained popular with white and black audiences well into the 20th Century, including songs by such respected composers as George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. A racist nation from its inception, America has never fully expunged racism from its cultural mindset. (In fairness, almost every nation on earth has a skeleton of bigotry in its historic closet – but America was the only place where such hatred gave birth to a form of song and dance entertainment.)
The American musical has one shameful chapter in its history –minstrel shows. The most popular musical stage shows of the early and mid 19th Century, minstrelsy embodied racial hatred. Both white and black performers donned blackface, and audiences of all colors loved it. Hateful as their content was, minstrel shows were the first form of musical theatre that was 100% American-born and bred.
Minstrel shows developed in the 1840’s, peaked after the Civil War and remained popular into the early 1900s. Minstrelsy was a product of its time, the only entertainment form born out of blind bigotry. In these shows, white men blackened their faces with burnt cork to lampoon Negroes, performing songs and skits that sentimentalized the nightmare of slave life on Southern plantations. Blacks were shown as naive buffoons who sang and danced the days away, gobbling “chitlins,” stealing the occasional watermelon, and expressing their inexplicable love for “ol’ massuh.”
“Blackface” and “minstrelsy” are not true synonyms. Blackface performers were around several decades before the first minstrel shows evolved.
America was crazy for blackface. To the twanging thwang of the banjo, and the clatter of tambo and bones – tambourine and bone castanets – white men smeared burnt cork on their faces to sing, waggle their legs in imitation of blacks dancing, and tell jokes in “negro” dialect. Between 1750 and 1843, over 5,000 theater and circus productions included blackface.
– David Carlyon, Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), p. 46.
“If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity,
I should have little use for opera.” — Mark Twain
Blackface performers are, “…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.” — Frederick Douglass
Minstrelsy evolved from several different American entertainment traditions; the traveling circus, medicine shows, shivaree, Irish dance and music with African syncopated rhythms, musical halls and traveling theatre.
The “father of American minstrelsy” was Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice (1808-60), who in 1828, in a New York City theatre, performed a song-and-dance routine in blackface and tattered clothes. Rice’s character was based on a folk trickster persona named Jim Crow that was long popular among black slaves. Rice also adapted and popularized a traditional slave song called Jump Jim Crow.
Come listen all you galls and boys
Fist on de heel tap,
His act was an immediate sensation and while continuing to prefect the routine, Rice gained fame and fortune by performing it throughout the U.S. and in England
In 1842, the songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett and three companions devised a program of singing and dancing in blackface to the accompaniment of bone castanets, fiddle, banjo, and tambourine. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they made their first public appearance in February 1843 in a New York City theater.
The show was so popular that many imitators emerged while the demand for minstrel shows quickly became insatiable. In 1844, only one year after the first performance of the Virginia Minstrels, a blackface minstrel troupe called the Ethiopian Serenaders played at the White House for the “Especial Amusement of the President of the United States, His Family and Friends.”
Over time, minstrel shows developed into a standard format of three parts, developed by Edwin Christy, incorporating skits and songs performed in an imitation of black “plantation” dialect. In the first part, the show began with a walkaround — the company marching onto the stage singing and dancing. A staple of walkaround was the cakewalk. White audiences loved the cakewalk, not realizing that it originated with plantation slaves imitating their master’s walk.
The troupe was then seated in a semicircle, with one member on each end playing the tambourine or the bones. The endmen were named Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, and they engaged in an exchange of jokes between the group’s songs and dances. It was customary for Tambo to be slim and Bones to be fat. A character called Mr. Interlocutor sat in the middle of the group, acting as the master of ceremonies. As the interlocutor took his place in the middle of the semicircle he uttered the time-honored phrase: “Gentlemen, be seated. We will commence with the overture.” During the performance he conducted himself in a dignified manner that contrasted well with the behavior of the rowdy endmen.
Minstrelsy’s comic characterization of Negroes was often hateful, but it marked the unintentional beginning of a lasting trend in American popular culture.
The olio was the variety section and a precursor to vaudeville. It included singers, dancers, comedians, and other novelty acts, and parodies of legitimate theater. A preposterous stump speech served as the highlight of this second act, during which a performer spoke in outrageous malapropisms as he lectured. His demeanor was reminiscent of the hilarious pomposity of Zip Coon; he aspired to great wisdom and intelligence, but his hilarious mangling of language always made him appear foolish and ignorant.
Part three ended the show with a one-act play, typically a vignette of carefree life on the plantation. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and the play became famous, minstrel shows appropriated the major characters for sketches that changed the abolitionist themes in the original into an argument for the supposedly benign character of slavery.
Although the structure of minstrel shows changed over time, the images — blackface — and the content — caricatures of Blacks — continued. Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), pro-slavery Whites used the racist stereotypes as a way of countering the abolitionist movement. Performers defended slavery by presenting denigrating stereotypes of Blacks who supposedly needed the civilizing influence of slavery to keep them in check. Black slaves were portrayed as happy and content with their lot in life and fearful of life outside of the plantation.
With the dramatic increase in the popularity of minstrel shows in the years following emancipation, Whites continued to wear the blackface mask in performances that would serve to define the meaning of blackness for many Americans who by choice or geography had little contact with Blacks.
One of the first Blacks to perform in blackface for White audiences was William Henry Lane, the inventor of tap dancing who was known to audiences as Master Juba. When Blacks began to work as minstrels in the mid-1840s, becoming established as performers by the 1860s, their contribution ironically did little to alter the tradition. Indeed, it only reinforced the racist Black stereotypes already ingrained both in the theater and in the society.
Initially, Blacks were able to participate in minstrel shows only by declaring themselves “real coons.” To meet the expectations of both White and Black audiences, Black minstrels donned burnt cork to blacken their already dark skin and performed comedy routines using the traditional caricatures and racist stereotypes.
Some of the most popular songs in American history began as minstrel songs — “Dixie”, “Oh! Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), ” Polly Wolly Doodle”, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair”, and “Blue Tail Fly”. All were written by Stephen Foster, the most famous songwriter of the 19th century in the United States.
As laws changed, several all-black minstrel companies toured America and Great Britain. Black performers still had to wear blackface makeup in order to look “dark enough,” performing material that demeaned their own race. Despite such drawbacks, minstrelsy provided African-American performers with their first professional stage outlet.
Minstrelsy remained all-male until 1890, when The Creole Show offered a female interlocutor and women in the ensemble. After a successful tour, this troupe settled in at New York’s Standard Theater (an off-Broadway burlesque house) for a sensational run of five continuous seasons. Women became a common presence on the minstrel stage, but the form was losing appeal. By the early 1900s, Lew Dockstader’s troupe was the last major minstrel company. Although blackface remained in use, minstrel shows were no longer commercially viable by 1920.
The most famous graduate of minstrelsy was Al Jolson. He toured with Dockstader’s Minstrels before achieving lasting stardom in vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. Jolson immortalized blackface in several films, including the talking landmark The Jazz Singer(1928).
Jolson was not a racist. A Russian-born Jew, he openly befriended black performers at a time when it was unpopular to do so. In Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life(Oxford Univ. Press, NY, 1988, p. 171), historian Herbert Goldman tells of a night when the black song writing team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were refused service in a Hartford restaurant. Jolson heard about it, and the next night treated them to a meal and a private performance. Jolson and Blake remained friends from then onwards.
Jolson said that blackface gave him the emotional freedom he needed to take risks as a performer. As Goldman explains –
Considered one of the greatest entertainers of his time, Jolson’s films are often dismissed as embarrassments today. Whatever his intentions were, the sight of a white man covered with burnt cork singing “Mammy” has become an unsettling reminder of the racial/cultural mindset that minstrelsy embodied.
It was perhaps inevitable that someone would eclipse minstrelsy with a classier version of variety. This new form would provide America’s future musicals with their comic soul. It was born in New York City, and in time they would call it vaudeville.
From 1850 to 1870 minstrelsy was at its height, and in the 1850s ten theaters in New York City alone were devoted almost solely to minstrel entertainment. After 1870, the popularity of the minstrel show declined rapidly, and in 1919 only three troupes remained in the U.S. However minstrel show acts continued to be depicted in the cinema and on television well into the 1950s.
Amateur minstrel shows continued to be performed in the 1960s and high schools, fraternities and local theater groups would usually perform the shows in blackface. The amateur minstrel shows in blackface finally died out in the US in the late 1960s as African-Americans asserted more political power, but even today minstrel shows are still used as a theme for amateur productions.
The Black And White Minstrel Show
And blackface minstrel shows lived on in other parts of the world. One hundred years after minstrel entertainment began in London’s music-halls, the convention was revived on television in the form of The Black And White Minstrel Show. This variety series was first screened on BBC Television in 1958 and it was on the air until 1978. At the height of its success, The Black and White Minstrel Show was watched by 18 million viewers a week and had become one of the world’s best known musical/variety shows on television.