Ragtime and the "Coon song"
By 1900, African American musicians and performers moved beyond minstrelsy and made artistic innovations, starting with ragtime. White audiences around the country responded enthusiastically. Ragtime bubbled to the surface of popular culture during the 1890s, and starting in 1897, exploded onto the scene.
Scholars Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff note, “Ragtime released a pent-up reservoir of modernism in African American culture, providing the antidote to ‘Ethiopian minstrelsy,’ which had stifled the development of race entertainment for most of the nineteenth century. Just as the century drew to a close, the lid blew off, unleashing a torrent of creativity that swept thousands of black writers, performers, musicians, and entrepreneurs into the professional ranks.”
Born in Kentucky in 1865, Ernest Hogan got his start in minstrel shows, but he is best known for his innovations in music, which he dubbed “ragtime.” He became the first black producer and performer in a Broadway show, “The Oyster Man” (1907). But Hogan would dwell in the shadows cast by his 1896 hit, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” He admittedly lifted the cakewalk rhythm from obscure backroom musicians and lifted the title from a line he heard sung, “All pimps look alike to me.” His variation tapped into the strong currents of racism in the U.S. and gave rise to a whole new sub-genre of ragtime called “coon songs.” A glut of coon-themed songs flooded the market after his smash hit.
In Hogan’s song, the lyrics are attributed to a woman who left her man for a wealthier mate. She reasoned, “All coons look alike to me, I have got another beau you see / And he is just as good to me as you 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.” The imitative “coon songs” that followed were often far more degrading than the break-up depicted by Hogan.
The surge of racism in coon songs was an outgrowth of white fear that African Americans would migrate from rural to urban areas, particularly in the North. Between the 1880s and the “Great Migration” during World War I, that is just what happened. Coon songs tend to reinvent the archetypical antebellum “Zip Coon” as a black urban dweller whose primitive nature is both revealed and disguised by fancified clothes and habits. Whereas the old “Zip Coon” satirized pretentious, effete eastern socialites, the new coon represented backward blacks who wanted to impress with ostentatious speech, dress and jewelry. Earlier songs of the 1880s and 1890s often portrayed blacks cutting one another with razors over games of chance. Sheet music covers often portrayed blacks wearing top hats, tail coats, and watches on chains. Ragtime made the "Zip Coon" the most recognizable character in American music by 1900.
Although the music changed, the residue of minstrelsy still colored the spirit and content of the material. Writing in the Indianapolis Freeman, a black newspaper, “Tom the Tattler” wrote in 1901, “The colored man writes the ‘coon’ song, the colored singer sings the ‘coon’ song, the colored race is compelled to stand for the belittling and ignominy of the ‘coon’ song, but the money from the ‘coon’ song flows with ceaseless activity into the white man’s pockets.” The racist nature of the music was coupled with the exploitative music industry, which poorly compensated black performers and writers.