THE COON SONG AND THE ORIGINS OF RAGTIME
By G.C. Watkins
Before there was Jazz, which is accepted as the first American style of music to influence artists worldwide, there was another unique form of music created in the United States –Ragtime.
Ragtime predates the “Jazz” genre by almost two decades and was the early influence that helped develop Jazz and Blues music.
But what are the origins of Ragtime music?
The answer can be found in a genre of music known as “Coon Songs.”
Most usually associate the early history of Ragtime with Scott Joplin and his historic “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was published in 1899 and sold over a million copies of sheet music.
But the origin of Ragtime actually predates Joplin’s creations by at least four years.
“Ragtime: An Encyclopedia, Discography, and Sheetography” defines Ragtime as “a musical composition for the piano comprising three or four sections containing sixteen measures each, that combines a syncopated melody accompanied by an even, steady duple rhythm.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, popular composers of Ragtime included Scott Joplin, who scored an even bigger hit with “The Entertainer” in 1902, as well as groundbreaking African American composers like Jim Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Tom Turpin, Luckey Roberts.
The style of music became an influential force on popular culture internationally, from 1906 and the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.
Ragtime is a descendant of “Cakewalk” music. The Cakewalk was an intricate, elegant form of dance/music popularized by slaves on plantations, for the entertainment of their white masters, in which the prize was an actual cake.
After slavery, the rhythm of the music was being popularized by trained white composers like Robert Russell Bennett, Claude Debussy and John Philip Sousa, although ground breaking black composer Ernest Hogan helped produce “Walking for Dat Cake, An Exquisite Picture of Negro Life and Customs” at Theater Comique on lower Broadway in 1877.
Additionally, Ragtime was formed from the variations of the march music played by various black bands in the mid to late 1800’s, in addition to piano players in the African American saloons and pubs of St. Louis and New Orleans.
By the late 1880’s, “Rags” were powering “Coon Songs” and “Cakewalk” songs. The first known usage of the word “Rag” in popular can be traced to two Coon Songs, both written by African-American men.
Ernest Hogan’s 1896 song “All Coons Look A Like To Me” contains the first reference of stylization to the form of Rag, while Bert Williams song “Oh, I Don’t Know, You’re So Warm!,” uses the word in lyrics from 1896.
The Coon Song usually enforced white stereotypes and portrayed blacks as drunk, oversexualized, violent, natural dancers who loved chicken and watermelon and was written in broken English, as if to imitate the speech of black people.
Check out the lyrics to “All Coons Look A Like to Me
Pretty shocking that an African-American would write lyrics like this, but when one considers the extreme racism of the time, its amazing to think, that these were the earliest, published, black songwriters to achieve fame.
Ernest Hogan said that “All Coons Look A Like To Me” had a much more deeper meaning than one might suspect.
According to a very obscure article on Hogan in The Seattle Republican on May 29, 1903 that historians on the subject seemed to have overlooked, the song was created thanks to a racist police officer in Chicago.
“He was attending a ball in Chicago by colored people,” the paper reported. “At a late hour there was a disturbance so great as to need interference from the police, who commenced arresting indiscriminately. One soon laid his hands upon Mr. Hogan, but a brother officer recognized him as the man who had sung at the policeman’s benefit the night before and requested that he not be arrested, the reply was:”it makes no difference: all Coons look alike to me.”
Ernest Hogan wrote the first stanza of the song while riding on a street car and just three months after it was published he raked in over $26,000.
“Coon Songs reaffirmed the neccessasity of subordinating and controlling African Americans and they justified segregation, voting restriction and even lynching,” according to the The Greenwood Encylopedia of Daily Life in America.
Although some of the most popular “Coon Songs” were written by African American men like Will Marion Cook, Sam Lucas, George Walker, Bob Cole, Ernest Hogan and Bert Williams, white men like Paul Dresser, Walter Hawley and others wrote the majority of the more than 600 songs that were issued during the time period.
During the live stage performances, white men usually dressed in blackface and performed the tunes.
The “Coon Song” eventually died out as the first decade of the 1900s came to a close, due to the overtly racist lyrics, stereotypes and images, as Ragtime music took hold of American popular culture.
By the 1910’s, the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley were dominating the New York music scene, where a new form of Ragtime developed, mostly associated with white composers like Irving Berlin, Fred Fischer and Gus Edwards.
Waxfact: Amazingly, in 1974, composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch hit #1 on the charts with an adaptation of Scott Joplin’s rag “The Entertainer,” which was featured in the movie “The Sting.”