African American Songwriters and Performers in the Coon Song Era: Black Innovation and American Popular Music

Posted: November 18, 2011 in James M. Salem, Minstrelsy

Author:  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]”




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