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

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Blackface minstrelsy, in which white performers caricatured Negroes and Negro life, made possible black minstrelsy, which Robert C. Toll calls for African American professionals the "first large-scale entrance into American show business." Virtually all black composers, writers, singers, and performers of the time emerged through the minstrel show. [12] After the Civil War blacks organized minstrel companies in imitation of white minstrel shows—that is, black imitations of white imitations of black music and dancing. [13] The important result, Charles Hamm argues, was that black performers were able to take the stage in front of white audiences, so that when the minstrel show died out at the end of the nineteenth century black professionals in live theater were "firmly established through the minstrel show," paving the way for African American performers. [14]

Though black performers and writers constituted "a new generation who brought fresh energy and subject matter to the music of Tin Pan Alley," Richard Crawford observes that those emerging at the end of the nineteenth century in New York were put "in a bind" by the minstrel tradition. Certainly the tradition was too restrictive for their full talents, but the minstrel character types were too established and conventional for black entertainers to disregard. On one hand, it was necessary to give audiences what they wanted, but on the other hand "many standard crowd-pleasing devices reinforced the racial divide." This was especially true when the character of the coon ("a shiftless black male who could be dangerous") emerged in the 1880s. This black stereotype, Crawford says, "made some older stereotypes seem almost benign." [15] The next decade was even worse. The new songs of the 1890s "ridiculed Negroes with a new vehemence," Robert Toll suggests. "Besides continuing minstrel stereotypes of blacks as watermelon- and chicken-eating mindless fools, these new 'coon songs' emphasized grotesque physical caricatures of big-lipped, pop-eyed black people and added the menacing image of razor-toting, violent black men. These lyrics almost made the romanticized plantation stereotypes seem good." [16] While the lyrical content of the coon song was mostly old and tired, it should be noted that musically it was cutting edge, employing the verse-chorus structure of the modern Tin Pan Alley song (emphasis on the chorus), sung up-tempo with syncopation. [17]

The coon song as we know it today was introduced to live audiences in the 1880s. Many of the songs had the word in the title ("New Coon in Town," "Whistling Coon," and "Little Alabama Coon"), [18] but some did not ("The Bully," in which two black rivals settle their claims with razors: "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"). [19] The coon song genre apparently came directly out of urban America's tenderloin districts—saloons, bars, and brothels—where songwriters and professional entertainers first heard them. More than the lyrical content, it was the syncopated rhythm that created the excitement. Sanjek believes this syncopated popular music "began to change the character of American songs" even before the famous Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Afterward, he says, the new music was "being described as the 'coon song.'" [20] Popular music historian David Ewen credits May Irwin, a white songwriter/performer, as the "first outstanding exponent of coon songs" and the one who developed the singing style in live venues. [21] If so, the fact merely mirrors the general history of American popular music—African American innovation covered by white appropriation. It was, after all, black minstrel performers who first sang their own coon songs on stage.

James T. Maher, in his introduction to Wilder's American Popular Song speaks of the late 1880s and early 1890s as the years "that the Americanization of our popular song gathered momentum that was to carry the process forward to World War I, by which time a native matrix, generous in its confines, had been established." He says we know the white songs and performers of the day but not the "anonymous pioneers, probably Negro musicians for the most part, who gave impetus to the Americanization process remain silvery shadows on the daguerreotypes that have yielded their images to time. They are of a period of popular music, and popular dance, that deserves the sort of contemplative study that would go beyond research to imaginative reconstruction based upon archeological analogy." [22] Ernest Hogan, Gussie Davis, and George Washington Johnson still remain, in spite of their successes, silvery shadows in the daguerreotype that purports to illuminate the history of American popular music in the 1890s.

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

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