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African American Songwriters and Performers in the Coon Song Era: Black Innovation and American Popular Music James M. Salem

The first influence of African American music on American mainstream culture was the minstrel show, which was inspired by black music. Before the popularity of jazz in the 1920s, when African American music exploded on the scene to more widely influence American popular music, a holdover from the minstrel show—the coon song—presents an interesting case study in the role of African American culture's impact on the mainstream. The coon song emerged as a popular musical phenomenon in the decade of the 1890s, widely considered the nadir of the black experience in America. C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow chronicles the "cumulative weakening of resistance to racism" in the decade. [1] In the so-called Gay Nineties southern states disenfranchised black voters with literacy tests and poll taxes, a wave of race violence swept the nation, Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the concept of separate but equal, Jim Crow material culture became part of the American mainstream, and black players were purged from professional baseball. All of this was, historian Nina Silber would say, part of the "1890s cult of Anglo-Saxonism." [2]

It is not surprising that this era would find the "coon song" so enjoyable. The coon image (blacks as comic, ignorant, lawless, and uninhibited) confirmed in the minds of white Americans after Reconstruction the position of blacks as inferior and subservient. James H. Dorman says in American Quarterly that coon songs featured blacks "as not only ignorant and indolent, but also devoid of honesty or personal honor, given to drunkenness and gambling, utterly without ambition, sensuous, libidinous, even lascivious." Generally performed in dialect, coon songs employed "catchy' rhythms," and were meant to be "hilariously funny." [3] Russell Sanjeck dates the first use of the term coon—"the now distasteful word in popular music"—as 1834, with the publication of banjo-playing minstrel performer George Washington Dixon's song "Old Zip Coon." [4] As a character, Zip Coon was a somewhat scary citified dandy—in stark contrast to his more innocent rural counterpart, Jim Crow. The word coon as a short form for raccoon dates from 1741, and before Dixon's use of coon it meant a "frontier rustic." [5] In 1767, a black character named "Raccoon" sang a version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in the first British opera published in America. [6] Several generations later in 1840, the Whig party (established to counter the strong presidency exerted by Andrew Jackson) used the raccoon as its political symbol. Coon songs in the 1840s and 50s were merely Whig political songs, but by 1862 the term "had come to mean a Black." [7] One explanation for this is, according to the American Dictionary of English (1944), that it denoted "the name of the animal which Southern Negroes were supposed to enjoy hunting and eating." [8] In The Wages of Whiteness, David R. Roediger argues that the term coon, like "buck" and "Mose," became a racial slur only "gradually." [9] The Parlor Songs Association also insists that the term was not a racial slur originally but rather "evolved into that" with some additional confusion: some contemporary composers who didn't know better confused the raccoon with the possum, often using the two animals interchangeably. There is, however, no existing legacy for the "possum song." [10]

Within the context of the cultural racism of the period, however, is this contradictory fact: in the world of American popular music black performers and songwriters were accomplishing racial border crossings that were unprecedented. Black performers were appearing more and more before white audiences. Black songwriters were succeeding not only in the kind of Negro genre music that may have been predictable but in the realm of sentimental white popular music as well. And finally, in the emerging field of acoustically recorded music, black performers came to represent notable leaders in this new technology. In an era of such severe racism, how were African American performers able to cross the color line to white audiences? Where did African American songwriters learn their craft? How were African American writers and performers, in spite of their personal feelings and beliefs, an integral part of the coon song tradition? When were African American songwriters finally free of white cultural expectations of black life and experience? Why was the popular music business—both traditional and emerging—more open to African American participation than other enterprises? To what extent was the coon song an important interface between the music of the old minstrel show and that of the new ragtime era? Who were the African American pioneers, and why are they so forgotten today?

I wish to tell three stories associated with African American writers and performers in the coon song era. The first attempts to explain the importance of the role of the minstrel show as a vehicle to launch black performers before white audiences, but with a concomitant demand for traditional minstrel character types—thus the coon song. The second centers on the late nineteenth century American popular music business (primarily song writing, song plugging, and song publishing) and the mechanical royalty income it produced: sheet music. The third story focuses on the emergence of commercial musical recordings in the 1890s. Once the technology existed for the manufacture of first cylinders and then records, the coon song represented a popular genre of recorded music that was quickly connected to the next wave of African American contribution to mainstream popular music: ragtime and the syncopated song. Interestingly, the success of the coon song on recordings—the new technology—was concurrent with the success of the coon song in printed sheet music—the old delivery system, probably because the consumption of recorded songs was disproportionately male, while sheet music was primarily marketed to females. Sentimental parlor songs dominated the sheet music business during the 1890s, but sound recordings broadened the boundaries of American popular music. In addition, Russel Nye points out that the displacement caused by this new novelty almost ruined both the sheet music business and the piano business itself. [11]

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James M. Salem is Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

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