July 21, 2006
I’ve just stumbled across a weird little corner of the Internet that’s twisted my honky head off, causing me to re-examine some of my long-cherished attitudes about music.
I’ve always argued that music has been a positive force in our culture. I believe that rock ’n’ roll played a role in ending segregation, cutting short the carnage in Vietnam, and tearing down the Berlin Wall; that Woody Guthrie’s guitar killed fascists; that somewhere in heaven Louie Armstrong still blows his trumpet, standing on a corner beside a celestial Jimmie Rodgers singing “Blue Yodel No. 9” for all the assembled saints.
During the past couple of years I’ve written in this very column about songs pertaining to issues such as the death penalty and Mexican immigration, offering the theory that the songs of America reflect a more compassionate and humanistic vision than the modern political rhetoric concerning those topics.
However, there’s a cache of musical weirdities from about 100 years ago that makes that theory seem naive and Pollyanna-ish. Spending time downloading songs in an innocuous-sounding section of the Internet Audio Archive called 78RPMs forces you to consider an era in which music was used as a tool of oppression.
This “collection of 78 rpm records released in the early part of the 20th century contributed by Archive users” includes several recording artists you should have heard of — such as Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Enrico Caruso — and early recordings of songs that are revered cornerstones of American music: “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Ain’t We Got Fun?,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” and other chestnuts.
But there are also weird and even frightening recordings to be uncovered here — some funny, some strangely beautiful, and some outright despicable stuff -- what was referred to at the time as “coon songs.”
Yes, it’s what you think it is. These are recordings from around the turn of the 20th century that stereotyped African American life. They were popular until around the time of World War I. And yes, they’re as bad as you think they are. I’ve always known these tunes were out there. But actually listening to them in their original form and realizing how popular they were with mainstream America is a startling revelation.
Coon songs were born out of blackface minstrel acts, an art form that goes back to pre-Civil War times. With the rise of the recording industry in the late 1800s, coon songs were a popular genre. An advertisement for singer Arthur Collins in a Victor Records catalog from that era says, “The charm of this special kind of art seems to have a never-ending appeal for the American public.” The Internet Audio Archive has some examples of Collins’ work. He recorded a version of one of the most notorious of these songs, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”
Collins also performed on “A Possum Supper at the Darktown Church,” which consists mainly of dialogue in an incomprehensible, phony dialect The supposed love of eating possum was a preoccupation of the coon songsters. “Carve Dat Possum” by Peerless Quartet with Harry C. Browne (dated 1917) is a more musical number. “The possum meat am good to eat/you always find it good and sweet,” Browne sings. The chorus — “Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, chillun” — is majestic in a troubling way, a prototype for the soundtrack of Disney’s Song of the South.
But there’s nothing quite like “The Whistling Coon.” I found two versions: the original 1896 cylinder recording by George W. Johnson, the author of the song (which unfortunately is so scratchy and lo-fi it’s barely listenable), and a much clearer 1911 version by Billy Murray.
The song is about “a colored individual” who doesn’t talk much and always whistles. Well, OK, the image of the simple, easygoing black man with musical proclivities is just a little racist, but then the song gets uglier as the singer describes the whistler’s appearance strictly within the confines of racist cartoon images (which Robert Crumb later would sardonically appropriate).
“Oh he’s got a pair of lips like a pound of liver split and a nose like an Indian rubber shoe. ... He’s an independent, free and easy, fat and greasy ham with a cranium like a big baboon.”What’s truly shocking is that Murray doesn’t sound hateful. There’s no peckerwood sneer like that found in 1960s Ku Klux Klan records by “Johnny Reb” or “James Crow.” Murray sounds almost loving as he sings the gentle, catchy melody — the way you might sing about the antics of a favorite dog.
But, in the last verse, when “a fella hit him with a brick upon the mouth,” the singer doesn’t seem to condemn the attacker — or even explain the attack. All we know is that the singer is impressed that the man just keeps whistling, even though “his face swelled like a big balloon.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as ignorant but ultimately harmless humor. However, as Richard Crawford observes in his book America’s Musical Life, these songs emerged during “a time when black Americans felt increasingly under political siege, with racial segregation established as law in the South and lynching on the increase.”
Indeed, in 1915, toward the end of the golden age of the coon song, the Ku Klux Klan would officially begin its second act, and the movie Birth of a Nation would reinforce white America’s fear of the black man.
It’s significant that the namesake of the “Jim Crow” laws was a character out of minstrelry — credited to Thomas Dartmouth Rice and made famous in the 1836 song “Jump Jim Crow.” But even more puzzling is the fact that Johnson, the man who wrote “The Whistling Coon,” was a former slave who became one of the pioneer African American recording artists of the 1890s.
Johnson wasn’t alone. “All Coons Look Alike to Me” was written by Ernest Hogan, another black songwriter of the era. He got famous for the song, but reportedly said on his deathbed he regretted ever writing it. (The song was published in 1896 by M. Witmark & Sons, the same company that would publish Bob Dylan’s early music in the 1960s.)
As Crawford explains in American Musical Life, “Any African American who worked in show business was faced with the conflict between pleasing an audience and knowing that many standard crowd-pleasing devices reinforced the racial divide.”
Johnson, Hogan, and others were carrying on a tradition that began earlier in the 19th century with minstrelry. Though it started with white performers in blackface parodying the music and dialect of black slaves, beginning about 1855, black singers donning the blackface mask of burnt cork joined in.
Minstrelry, according to author and jazz critic Stanley Crouch, was on its way out by the end of the Civil War.
But the coming of black performers ironically revitalized the art form. “They came and reinforced the bars on their cages,” Crouch said in an interview on the DVD of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a 2000 film that takes a hard look at minstrelry, coon songs, and other racist images of African Americans in American culture.
If there is a bright side to this ugly period, it’s the fact that it served as fertilizer for good, serious American art.
Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime, started out as a minstrel. W.C. Handy, the bandleader whose “St. Louis Blues” introduced the blues to mainstream America in 1914, started out in a black minstrel show. Handy said his most famous song was a love story, told “in the humorous spirit of bygone coon songs.”
As tempting as it is to assign coon songs and minstrelry to a shameful footnote of American musical history, some say the spirit lives on. Music writer Nick Tosches wrote in his book Country, “Years later, the Rolling Stones gave us a new sort of minstrelry. It was minstrelry without blackface, but minstrelry just the same.” And in Lee’s Bamboozled, fictional hip-hop troupe The Mau Maus are just as ignorant and stereotypical as the shuffling coon singers of centuries past.
Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields said of gangsta rap in a 2004 interview with Salon.com, “I think it’s shocking that we’re not allowed to play coon songs anymore, but people, both white and black, behave in more vicious caricatures of African Americans than they had in the 19th century. It’s grotesque. Presumably it’s just a character, and that person doesn’t actually talk that way, but that accent, that vocal presentation, would not have been out of place in the Christy Minstrels. In fact, it would probably have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels.”
Some say we should suppress coon songs, metaphorically burn this music like right-wingers torching the Dixie Chicks. But I say listen to these songs and shake your head. Then watch Bamboozled and listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s defiant musical commentary, “Coon on the Moon”:
“You know they call us coons/Say we don’t have no sense/You gonna wake up one morning/And the old coon gonna be the president.”
Other fun songs in the 78s archive:
* “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle” sung by Frank Crumit (1920). A shipwreck never sounded so sexy. “But by heck there never was a wreck like the wreck she made of me/For all she wore was a great big Zulu smile.”
* “O’Brien Is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian” by Horace Wright (1917) A twofer for ethnic humor, this one is sung in a phony brogue with that cool slack-key guitar that was sweeping the nation back then.
* “Navajo” by The Columbia Band with Billy Murray (1903) written by Egbert Van Alstyne and Harry Williams for a Broadway play called Nancy Brown. There’s a tom-tom beat at the very beginning, but not much else “Indian” about this tune. It’s about a guy in love with a Navajo woman. At least, unlike that other Murray song, nobody hits her in the face with a brick.
* “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” by Harry Champion (1911) Yes, this song was around way before Herman’s Hermits. Champion, born William Crump, was an English music-hall star known for singing cockney songs. In this version, he still marries the widow next door, but the second verse is not same as the first.