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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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The 1890s is the era in which popular music became big business through the sale of sheet music. Before this period, a successful song like Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" ("Way down upon the Sewanee River"), introduced in 1851 by the Christy Minstrels, was able to sell "a very slow million." But in 1892, Ian Whitcomb says, Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" became "the first million seller to be conceived as a million seller, and marketed as a million seller." Harris advertised "SONGS WRITTEN TO ORDER," and he aggressively pushed to have "After the Ball" interpolated (inserted) in the Broadway musical A Trip to Chinatown. The song was a sentimental ballad about lost love that had nothing to do with Chinatown, but it struck a chord with the public. The song portrays an old man answering his young niece's questions about why he has no wife or children or home. Long ago, he says, he witnessed his sweetheart kissing another man after the ball. He could neither forgive her nor permit her to explain her behavior. Many years later, after her death (presumably of a broken heart) he received a letter explaining that the man she was kissing was her brother. The maudlin song virtually exploded on the scene. "Within a year," Whitcomb observes, "'Ball' was bringing in 25,000 dollars a week; within twenty years sheet sales topped ten million. It was translated into every known language." The songwriter's "head was in the twentieth century," Whitcomb says, "but his heart was in the nineteenth." [23]

African American songwriters who came out of the minstrel show may have known that other black and white minstrel performers were not only singing their songs but publishing them under their own names as well. It was a "common practice" at the time, Eileen Southern says, along with selling compositions "outright for ten or fifteen dollars each." A writer had to be prolific, like James Bland, to be properly noticed. Bland, a northern Negro whose "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" are probably the best known of his 700 songs, mostly wrote conventional minstrel songs, plantation songs, and sentimental ballads. Everyone sang his songs: black minstrels, white minstrels, college students, and regular people at home and on the street. He was "The World's Greatest Minstrel Man" and "The Idol of the Music Halls." He toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels but stayed in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface. [24] Appearing as "The Prince of Negro Songwriters," Ewen reports that he was invited to give command performances for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, and that after Stephen Foster Bland is "the most distinguished creator of sentimental songs about the Negro and the South" and the "first major black popular song composer" to emerge from the black minstrel show. [25] He appears to have had multiple sheet music publishers in New York and Boston, [26] which is why Eric Wilder calls Bland the black writer who "broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices" before 1880. [27]

In terms of music publishing after 1880, the establishment of M. Witmark & Sons in 1886 was important in the development of the coon song. The firm was, incredibly, founded by three teen and preteen brothers Witmark: Isadore, 17; Jay, 13; and Julius, 11—with the "M" denoting the first letter of their father's name, who had no financial interest in the firm but who could sign contracts. [28]According to Sanjeck, it was, in fact, the move of M. Witmark & Sons from Union Square to West 28th Street in 1893 that began the era of the supremacy of the American popular song named for this new section of New York City: Tin Pan Alley. [29] Probably best known for such American pop standards as "When You Were Sweet Sixteen" (1898) and "Sweet Adeline" (1903), M. Witmark & Sons was one of the first firms to sell sheet music of verse/chorus ragtime songs to both black and white Americans—an instance of racial democratization of the music business at the turn of the century. [30]

M. Witmark's was "the most prominent of the new breed of music houses" in the "vogue for coon songs." It's most famous product of the genre, "All Coons Look Alike to Me" (1896) was written by the black entertainer Ernest Hogan. Hogan was a professional black songwriter/entertainer who performed his compositions onstage as a member of the Black Patti Troupadours, where he was billed as the "Unbleached American." [31] He was "a veteran minstrel quartet singer and end man" who turned into a "national figure as a result of the song's popularity." [32] The publication of "All Coons Look Alike To Me" also represents the "earliest association of the word rag with instrumental music." [33] On page five of the sheet music, the second chorus of the song notes "Choice Chorus, with Negro 'rag' Accompaniment. Arr. By MAX HOFFMAN." The "rag" (short for ragtime) arrangement by this Witmark employee was "the first of its kind to be published and did much to make the song famous internationally." Hoffman so successfully brought out the "inherent musical qualities" of the song that "in 1900, when an international ragtime pianist championship was held in New York, those who reached the semifinal level were required to perform it in original variations." [34]

At the top of the three-color cover of this striking first edition sheet music of "All Coons Look Alike To Me," [35] (a "Witmark Popular Publication") the song is promoted as "By the Composer of the Famous 'Pas-Ma-La'"—a song that Hogan published the year before. Sanjek says the origin of this "jig-time dance melody" was the "Streets of Cairo" sideshow on the midway of the Chicago World's Fair. [36] At the time, "Pas-Ma-La" may have been called an animal dance—probably a Turkey Trot. Underneath and at the top are two stereotypical minstrel end men near the corners. In a banner, the song is presented as "The New Sensation." The large font for "All Coons Look Alike To Me" is black, ribbed in red, appearing to be made of letters roughly hand-cut from wood—a visual reminder, perhaps of the essential primitiveness being communicated. In the center, four Zip Coon comic figures are lined up, vying for the attention of the lone female. The men are all ostentatiously dressed in jackets and ties, affecting civility, but actually advertising personal wealth. All of them have diamonds glistening from their ties or shirt buttons. Two have canes, one has spectacles that highlight his bug-like eyes, and one is portrayed as more primate than human. For her part, the woman is a seductive Jezebel figure, dressed stylishly with her own diamonds: a broach the size of the men's diamonds as well as a hair ornament with more bling than all of theirs put together. She seems to be waiting patiently while they practically drool over her. All of the figures appear to be made up in blackface; their huge and distended lips are dark red, lined with white. "A Darkey Misunderstanding" is suggested as the subtitle of the song, "Written & Composed by Ernest Hogan." His name is presented in the same font as the song title.

The persona in "All Coons Look Alike to Me" is a black barber whose "honey gal," the properly named Lucy Jane Stubbles, has dumped him for "another coon barber from Virgina" who is more socially important. Though he always treated her right, was sensitive to her feelings, and bought her "presents by the score," about the only way he believes he can win her back is to achieve great wealth by playing the numbers (policy gambling). [37] He's been "Jonahed," he says, "abused" and "confused" because of what she told him (her words constitute the chorus):

All coons look alike to me

I've got another beau, you see

And he's just as good to me as you, nig!

Ever tried to be

He spends his money free,

I know we can't agree

So I don't like you no how

All coons look alike to me

Richard Crawford says that Lucy Jane's "sneering dismissal in the chorus mocks the very idea of love, except perhaps as a ploy to corral a partner for display in public and sex in private." He correctly observes that the men portrayed on the cover look entirely different from one other, so it is obvious that all coons don't look alike, and Lucy Jane can tell them apart. What she is really interested in is finding the one who will spend his money her way. "In an era when songs tended to idealize, sometimes even spiritualize, romance," Crawford argues, "an outlook like this, no matter how thickly layered with irony, allowed sheet-music buyers to glimpse a realm of male-female relations beyond the limits that Tin Pan Alley had explored." It was, of course, not so much the song that took America by storm, but the hook line that started and finished the chorus—"a title line that, detached from the song, could be turned into a racial slur, dismissing a whole people in one jeering epithet." [38]

When Hogan died, Sanjek believes, "he was acknowledged to have been the greatest performer ever seen in the American black theater." Only in his forties, his death may have been "hastened by despair over the scorn shown him by members of this own race" because of the song most associated with coon songs. "When pressed, Hogan had always argued that the song had come along at a time when music needed a new direction, and, as a result of it success, the way was made easier for blacks to find a place in the world from which they had long been barred." Unfortunately, the song's success with a white audience did nothing to endear the black songwriter personally. In a race riot in New York City in 1900, white mobs searched for black writers, including Ernest Hogan, to lynch. [39]

Another black songwriter had a different kind of success in 1896. Gussie Davis, now largely forgotten, may have been the most published black songwriter of the1880s and 1890s, having written as many as 300 compositions, including minstrel songs ("Dance, Picaninnies, Dance"), coon songs ("The Coon I Suspected"), and sentimental ballads ("In the Baggage Coach Ahead"). In 1895, he won a second place ($500) award in a newspaper competition for America's best songwriter. [40] In 1896, Davis sold "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" to Howley, Haviland & Co. outright "for a few dollars." The firm offered it to "the queen of song" Imogene Comer, who used it on stage as a "show stopper" for the next three years. [41] It was also published in sheet music that year, and recorded. Southern calls Davis the "first black songwriter to succeed on Tin Pan Alley." [42]

Like the sentimental mega hit "After the Ball," "Baggage Coach" features a pitiable male figure—this one is a young man with a baby in his arms. It is, literally, "a dark stormy night" in which all the rail passengers have gone to bed except for the young man, whose head is "bowed-down." When the baby starts to cry "as though its poor heart would break," the other passengers begin to complain. "Stop its noise," an angry man demands. "Put it out," says another. Finally, a woman passenger asks where the mother is. "She's dead in the coach ahead," he replies sadly. Given the pathetic story, the song inexplicably moves into a refrain in which the music rolls and dances as if it were celebrating a wedding party (in the sentimental ballad the music is often at odds with lyrical content). In the third verse, he tells the story of the happy life he built with his "faithful and true" wife and how she died shortly after giving birth to their baby. "Every eye is filled with tears," now, and since there were "mothers and wives on that train," by the end of the song "Every woman arose to assist with the child."

The sheet music cover for "Baggage Coach" [43] stands in marked contrast to "All Coons Look Alike." The title and the author's credit is in elegant red type decorated with white pearls with no textual or graphic information about the composer's race. The main image is a photograph of a passenger train traveling west with a baggage coach immediately behind the locomotive. In an insert, there is a photograph of a white vocalist with the caption "Sung by Jeremy Mahoney." Presumably the publishers permitted Mahoney to record the song first, but he did not have a hit with it. However, Dan Quinn, who "recorded some 2,500 titles in his 20-year career" did have a hit with "In the Baggage Coach Ahead"—number 1 for five weeks beginning November 7, 1896. [44] "Most of Davis's songs during this time were waltzes which were featured by white minstrel singers around the United States, none of whom knew the writer's color," Sanjek says. One of his waltzes, "Irene, Goodnight," may be the original of the American standard said to have come from folk tradition. [45] In addition, according to a methodology devised by popular music chart authority Joel Whitburn, "Baggage Coach" ranked as the number 6 song for the entire year of 1896. [46] It is worth pointing out that "All Coons Look Alike To Me" was also recorded in 1896 by Len Spencer, a pioneer of the early recording era with some 65 hit songs. "Coons," however, charted for only three weeks with a peak position of number 2. [47] In terms of music publishing and songwriting, it appears that Gussie Davis is the final interface between the old-fashioned minstrel show on its way out and the vibrant black musical theater on its way in. Indeed, as Sanjek suggests, Gussie Davis's position as "America's top professional black songwriter" was soon replaced by the team of Bob Cole, J. Rosamund Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson. [48] Paul Laurence Dunbar and Will Marion Cook constituted another team. Within a three month period in 1898, Cole and Billy Johnson, his first collaborator, launched the historic A Trip To Coontown (an Off Broadway offering representing the first successful "full-length musical play written and produced by blacks"), and Cook and Dunbar produced Clorindy: The Origin Of The Cakewalk (a musical revue that opened "in a major house on Broadway"). [49] Coontown "represented a total break from the disjointed, plotless minstrel show," Toll says, and Clorindy "set precedents" for ragtime rhythms, big choruses, and flamboyant dancing. [50] As the result of this musical theater success, Cole and the Johnson brothers entered into a multi-year exclusive contract with major publishers (Joseph W. Stern and Edward B. Marks)—the first such contract ever signed between a New York publisher and black songwriters. [51] Not all racial barriers for African Americans were falling in the world of music publishing, of course. When the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) organized in 1914, the membership requirements were so rigorous that out of 170 eligible writers only one was African American: James Weldon Johnson. [52]

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

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