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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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Though the 1890s was an era of severe limits for African Americans, whose social and civil rights were rapidly shrinking, aspiring black songwriters and performers did enjoy some notable measure of professional successes. Black performers, we have seen, were more of less obligated to perpetuate the racial conventions of the minstrel tradition that white audiences expected and demanded, but they established their permanent presence on the white stage. The extent to which the consuming public knew the ethnicity of songwriters seems to have depended on the racial content of the song itself. If an African American created a "dignified" work (by the Victorian standards of the day), race was virtually erased from public view: the sheet music cover of Gussie Davis' sentimental "Baggage Coach Ahead" featured, besides a train, a photograph of a white vocalist. When a songwriter's race was identified to the consuming public, blackness was exaggerated in cartoonish and degrading ways. Ernest Hogan's career as a performer and the gross caricatures on the sheet music of "All Coons Look Alike To Me" provide examples. In the new field of recorded music, the ethnicity of the black songwriter was consciously used to verify authenticity, as in the case of George Washington Johnson's "The Whistling Coon" and "The Laughing Song." Johnson may have been "the original haw-haw man" and the "Jolly John Nash of the States," but he seems also to have been the poster child for Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask":

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties. [78]

Nevertheless, Arnold Shaw concludes that musically the coon song was "a positive influence in popular music." Unlike the sentimental ballads of the time ("smaltzy" waltzes like "After the Ball" and "The Baggage Coach Ahead"), coon songs had "verve, drive, buoyancy, humor, and syncopation." They were a "phase" of Ragtime songs, contributing "excitement and fresh, vibrant sound to popular music." [79] Indeed, Charles Hamm writes of the "difficulty in separating songs now thought of as ragtime songs from 'coon' songs." [80] Even the instrumental ragtime song of the era was of mixed origin. "It might represent a piano arrangement of a coon song or the 'ragging' of a nonsyncopated piece (vocal or instrumental)," Southern says, "or it might be an original composition." [81] It was also, according to some mainstream critics, abominable and outrageous. In 1899 the Musical Courier editorialized: "A wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music has inundated the land. The pabulum of theatre and summer hotel orchestras is coon music. Nothing but ragtime prevails and the cakewalk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. It is artistically and morally depressing and should be suppressed by press and pulpit." [82]

Finally—and this might represent a kind of cultural progress— by the twentieth century coon song lyrics broadened and became more democratic. When World War I began, Tin Pan Alley popular songs had expanded the number of ethnic groups to ridicule and exploit. Besides African Americans, the new songs featured stereotypical protagonists who were Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, or merely country "rubes." [83] By that time the coon song craze was clearly over, and ragtime, initially an African American innovation, had become, according to Whitcomb, "white-faced in both song and dance." [84] More importantly, however, the musical excitement, syncopation, and dance rhythms of the coon song and ragtime served to inform the African American contribution to the jazz age that was just around the corner.

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

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