They don’t write ’em like they used to

Another essay project from my recent music course – Early Ragtime and Blues lyrics.

It was something of a surprise to read, in Edward Berlin’s contribution to Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music[1], that ragtime in its heyday is not typified by renditions of piano gems such as Joplin’s The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, but rather by a large and very popular set of songs. Considering that the only song I, and probably most other people, associate with ragtime is Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a song that isn’t even in ragtime – it’s clear that we are dealing with largely buried history here. The early blues songs may also be largely unknown outside of W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues but at least there is a sense that the song was the fundamental manifestation of the blues, even as the form was incorporated into the developing instrumental style of early New Orleans jazz. So why bury ragtime song?

The answer is not in the music clearly. The ragtime revival that began in the 1940s and gathered pace ever since has reintegrated ragtime instrumental music into the vernacular idiom, where is remains popular if not massively so. But the songs have died, and the reason has to lie with the texts. It is instructive here to introduce a song that is considered one of the first, if not the first, ragtime songs. From the pen of African-American songwriter, Ben Harney, we have the 1895 song All Coons Look Alike To Me and this chorus:

All coons like alike to me

I’ve got another beau, you see,

And he’s just as good to me

As you, nig! ever tried to be,

He spends his money free[2]

Not a song that most performers would be comfortable with today. The sad fact is that a large number of ragtime songs are also what came to be called coon songs, and the main lyrical content is based on an outgrowth of the minstrel song’s stereotypical and dehumanizing view of the African-American. An outgrowth that seems even more starkly racist and degrading, in that the stereotype is more negatively drawn and what initially might across as amusement has turned to ridicule and belittlement. And yet, these words came from the hand of an African-American, and Harney was not the only example. Why?

The reason is quite simple. These songs sold. In fact, they were so popular that newspapers included free coon song sheet music in their Sunday supplements, thereby spreading the coon song throughout middle class America[3]. They clearly amused and delighted the predominantly white audience that played and listened to these songs. In doing so, they tell us a great deal about contemporary white society’s attitude to the black man that was clearly patronizing at best and contemptuous and hateful at worst. The fact that an African-American composer such as Harney was able to make some money through these debasing songs might seem like small compensation, but in reality it was a sign of significant financial empowerment of African-Americans in the entertainment industry that compensates in some ways for the acceptance of the negative stereotype. But that was a high price to pay.

So if the ragtime song began and flourished as a series of racist generalizations aimed to amuse whites, where does the concurrently developing blues song fit into this?

The most important point to make about the blues song, and one that is responsible entirely for its character and content, is that it is a song aimed at the African-American listener. Blues was not a music for whites. Indeed it was not even a music for educated middle-class blacks. W.C. Handy may be known as ‘the father of the blues’, but he was ignorant of the music until he came across it in a Southern railway station as an adult. This illustrates the deep folk roots of blues music, and blues songs share the characteristics of folk songs. They are songs about real people, their real lives and their real feelings. There are lyrical conventions and poetical formulae in blues songs, but these serve to support the reality conveyed in the lyric, whereas similar structural elements in the coon song serve to prop up the stereotype.

The coon song survived only as long as it was publicly acceptable to voice such sentiments, and as ragtime developed the public taste for such songs diminished. Ironically, the continuing distaste generated by such songs has led to their expulsion from collections of 1890s songs, such as Favorite Songs Of The Nineties[4]. One can understand this from a political point of view, but it creates bad history that mirrors the selective forgetfulness that applies to much of the chronicle of the slaves and their descendents in the United States. How can one hope to understand if one does not know?

A different kind of forgetfulness applies to the blues song. Largely insulated from commercial consideration until the explosion wrought by the recording industry in the mid-1920s, it developed as a folk music, indifferent to commercial concerns and very much dependent on the oral method of promulgation. Unfortunately, the inherent fragility of maintaining music in this way makes for a spotty history. One is always struck by how the blues appears to spring fully formed, like a Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus, into the vernacular of the fin-de-siècle. One would suppose, though, that the form existed, evolved and was promulgated through African-American society well before it was transcribed or recorded. Such pre-blues developments died with their practitioners, leading only tantalizing clues with a handful of black musicians who lived long enough and were fortunate enough to be recorded[5].

So what we have to work with when we compare these songs is inevitably restricted by the mask of history. Nonetheless, there is enough to get a feel for the differences between the texts of the blues and the ragtime song.

Frankly, there is no better place to begin with than All Coons Look Alike To Me[6]:

Verse 1.

Talk about a coon a having trouble

I thing I have enough of ma own

Its all about ma Lucy Janey Stubbles

And she has caused my heart to mourn

Thar’s anotherer coon barber from Virginia

In soei’ty he’s the leader of the day

And now ma honey gal is gwine to quit me

Yes she’s gone and drove this coon away

She’d no excuse, To turn me loose,

I’ve been abused, I’m all confused

Cause these words she did say

Chorus:

All coons like alike to me

I’ve got another beau, you see,

And he’s just as good to me

As you, nig! ever tried to be,

He spends his money free

Verse 2.

Never said a word to hurt her feelings

always bou’t her presents by the score

And now my brain with sorrow am a reeling

Cause she won’t accept them any more

If I treated her she may have loved me,

Like all the rest she’s gone and let me down

If I’m luck-y I’m a gwine to catch my policy

And win my sweet thing way from town

For I’m worried, Yes I’m desp’rate

I’ve been Jonahed, And I’ll get dang’rous

Repeat Chorus

Hogan’s song does make one attempt to lift itself up, I’ve been Jo-nahed, And I’ll get dang’rous, with the biblical reference and the sense that the story is not over yet. Furthermore, he is clearly sufficiently prosperous to have established a life-insurance policy. This puts it outside the mainstream of ragtime coon songs where even a narrative is jettisoned, and the song serves simply to stereotype. Other songs clearly tip the balance in favor of white supremacy. For example Coon! Coon! Coon![7], published in 1900 by Gene Jefferson and Leo Friedman with the completely unedifying lyric:

Verse

Although it’s not my color

I’m feeling mighty blue

I’ve got a lot of trouble,

I’ll tell it all to you

I’m certainly clean disgusted

With life, and that’s a fact

Because my hair is woolly

And because my color’s black

My gal she took a notion

Against the colored race

She said if I would win her

I’d have to change my face

She said if she should wed me

That she’s regret it soon

And now I’m shook, yes, good and hard

Because I am a coon

Chorus

Coon! Coon Coon!

I wish my color would fade

Coon! Coon! Coon!

Morning night and noon

I wish I was a white man

‘Stead of a

Coon! Coon! Coon! Coon!

Verse

I’ve had my face enameled

I’ve had my hair made straight

I dressed up like a white man

And certainly did look great

Then started out to see her

Just shortly after dark

But on the way to meet my babe

I had to cross a park

Just as I was thinking

I had things fixed up right

I passed a tree where two doves

Sat making love at night

They stopped and looked me over

I saw my finish soon

When both those birds said good and loud

“Coo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oon”

Repeat Chorus[8]

The first year of the 20th century can fairly be said to represent a nadir in the fortunes of African-Americans and no better social commentary than “Coon! Coon! Coon!” could be found to illustrate the point. With the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, racial discrimination was legalized, and local governments on Southern states lost no time in disenfranchising African-American citizens of their voting rights. Jim Crow laws codified endlessly humiliating forms of discrimination, and lynch mobs and the growing Ku Klux Klan terrorized and murdered. In 1900 alone, 107 African-Americans were killed by white mobs[9].

Ragtime coon songs persisted well into the new century, but as the years went by, some of the more vicious language was moderating. A new genre, the “jungle song” emerged to rival the coon song, most prominently Under The Bamboo Tree by Cole & Johnson:

Down in the jungles lived a maid

Of royal blood though dusky shade

A marked impression once she made

Upon a Zulu from Matabooloo

And every morning he would be

Down underneath a bamboo tree

Awaiting there his love to see

And then to her he’s sing

Chorus

If you lak-a-me, lak I lak a-you

And we lak-a-both the same

I lak-a say, this very day

I lak-a-change your name

Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true

And if you-a love-a me

One love as two, two live as one

Under the bamboo tree[10]

Another later and perhaps less celebrated example is The Aba Daba Honeymoon by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan “as featured by Ruth Roye, The Princess of Ragtime”.[11] This, at least, had the good graces to shift the subject from African to simian:

‘Way down in the Congo-land

Lived a happy chimpanzee

She loved a monkey with a long tail

(Lordy, how she loved him!)

Each night he would find her there

Swinging in the cocoanut tree

And the monkey gay, with the break of day

Loved to hear his Chimpie say

Chorus

Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

Said the Chimpie to the Monk,

Baba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

Said the Monkey to the Chimp

All night long they were happy and gay

Swinging and singing in their hunky, tonkey way

Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

means “Monk I do love you”

“Baba, daba, dab” in monkey talk

means “Chimp, I love you too”

Then the big baboon, one night in June

He married them, and very soon

They went up on their

Aba, daba honey moon, moon

And they say they don’t write ‘em like they used to…(Flintstones excepted)! The lyrics of both these songs are infantile – these are practically nursery rhymes, but, and perhaps as a consequence, became widely known. So much so, as Berlin points out, that T.S. Eliot parodies the style in his poem “Fragment of an Agon”[12] – although this seems hardly necessary given the element of self-parody already present in these songs. Coon ragtime songs did not die out under with the new fad for “jungle” songs, but, again, there was strong evidence of moderation in tone. Consider Herm Siewert and E. Gil Perry’s The Coon-Town Rag[13](1913)

Down across a border lives a ragtime coon

Who plays upon a banjo such a ragtime tune

We slides and sways as he sings and plays

Such a syncopated trance

And I’m gone, that’s all

When that man does call

Oh that Coontown Rag, Coontown Rag

Don’t you want to come and dance that Moontown Rag

First you wiggle then you giggle, dance it now

If you don’t know how it’s done

Come to me, I’ll show you how.

Dance it here, dance it there

Make you think you’re doing a ‘Bear’

Spoontown , Loontown

Oh that Coontown Rag

Oh that Rag

Here we have the crazy loon who makes music to put you in a wonderfully altered state. Presumably a white authored song, one can sense the yearning to partake of this magic, underscoring the ambivalence of the white man who senses attractive qualities here beyond his natural understanding. This may not seem like much, but the change from downright derision to a kind of admiration is a long step.

Ironically (or perhaps not), having reached this level, the craze for ragtime song faded away. The later high water mark was a song that is perhaps the most famous ragtime song of all, Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a song that is really ragtime in name only. By this time the term ragtime had spread to cover all swinging popular music[14]. Including early blues songs. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues is subtitled A Southern Rag, and his Yellow Dog Blues was originally titled Yellow Dog Rag. So it would be instructive to examine these early songs, rags in name only, to see how they compare lyrically with what we have seen so far.

The Memphis Blues:[15]

You want to be my man, you got to give me forty dollars down

You want to be my man, you’ll give me forty dollars down

If you don’t be my man, your baby’s gonna shake this town

Mister Crump don’t ‘low no easy riders here

Crump don’t ‘low no easy riders here

We don’t care what Mr. Crump don’t ‘low

We gonna bar’lhouse any how

Mr. Crump can go and catch hiself some air

I’m goin’ down the river goin’ down the river

Goin’ to take my rockin’ chair

Goin’ to the river goin’ to take my rockin’ chair

Blues overtake me, goin’ to rock away from here

Oh de Mississippi river, Mississippi river so deep and wide

I said the Mississippi river’s so deep and wide

Man I love he is on the other side

The Yellow Dog Blues (Yellow Dog Rag)

E’er since Miss Susan Johnson lost her Jockey, Lee

There has been much excitement, more to be;

You can hear her moaning night and morn.

Wonder where my Easy Rider’s gone?

Cablegrams come of sympathy

Telegrams go of inquiry

Letters come from down in “Bam”

And everywhere that Uncle Sam

Has even a rural delivery.

All day the phone rings

But it’s not for me,

At last good tidings

Fill our hearts with glee,

This message comes from Tennessee.

Chorus:

Dear Sue your Easy Rider struck this burg today

On a south bound rattler side door Pullman car

Seen him there an’ he was on the hog.

(The smoke was broke, no joke,

Not a Jitney on him)

Easy rider’s got a stay away

So he had to vamp it but the hike ain’t far.

He’s gone where the Southern ‘cross’ the Yellow Dog.

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book,

Indeed I know the route that rider took

Every cross-tie, Bayou, burg and bog.

Way down where the Southern cross’ the Dog,

Money don’t zactly grow on trees

On cotton stalks it grows with ease;

No race horse, race track, no grandstand

Is like Old Beck an Buck shot land,

Down where the Southern cross’ the Dog.

Every kitchen there is a cabaret

Down there the Boll Weevil works

While the darkies play

This Yellow Dog Blues

The live-long day.

What we notice here? Well, firstly there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of the word coon! The only descriptive noun for the black man is the relatively neutral darkies. Consequently, neither song is condescending nor patronizing, and the protagonists are described in terms that reflect their real status as human beings. In many ways, this is the most important and significant difference of all, for everything else that follows in the blues relies on the deep seriousness with which the songs treat the humanity of the African American. Not that the blues cannot be humorous, deprecatory or afraid to reveal the darker side of living, but in every case the sentiment is grounded in real life.

Secondly, the lyrics reveal in much richer detail the minutiae of African-American life. W.C. Handy is probably a songwriter more akin to A.P. Carter than a truly original spirit – both artists were sensitive to the music around them, and then slightly distilled it to produce their songs. Thus, with Handy we first come across much of the terminology that fills blues songs – the easy rider[16]of Yellow Dog Blues is a good example here. The famous St. Louis Blues[17] introduces jelly-roll[18] (below)

I hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down,

I hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down,

‘Cause ma baby, he done lef dis town.

Feelin’ tomorrow, lak ah feel today,

Feel tomorrow, lak ah feel today,

I’ll pack my trunk, make ma git-a-way.

St. Louis woman, wid her diamon’ rings,

Pulls dat man roun’ by her apron strings.

‘Twant fer for powder and fer store-bought hair,

De man ah love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.

Chorus

Got de St. Louis blues, jes as blue as ah can be,

Dat man’s got a heart lak a rock cast in the sea,

Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me.

I loves dat man lak-a a schoo-boy loves his pie

Like a Kentucky Col’nel loves his mint an’ rye

I’ll love ma baby till the day ah die

Verse

Been to see the Gypsy to get ma’ fortune tole

To see the Gypsy to get ma’ fortune tole

Cause I’m most wile ‘bout ma Jelly Roll

Gypsy done tole me, “Don’t you wear no black.”

Yes she done tole, “Don’t you wear no black,

Go back to St. Louis, you can win him back.”

Help me to Cairo, make St. Louis by ma-self

Git to Cairo, find ma ole friend Jeff.

Gwine to pin ma-self close to his side

If ah flag his train, I sho’ can ride

Chorus

A black-headed gal makes a freight train jump the track

Said a black-headed gal makes a freight train jump the track

But a long tall gal makes a preacher ball the Jack

Lawd, a blonde-headed woman makes a good man leave the town

I said a blonde-headed woman makes a good man leave the town

But a red-headed woman makes a boy slap his papa down

Verse

You ought to see dat stove-pipe brown of mine

Lak he owns di Di-mon Jos-eph line

He’ll make a cross-eyed o’-man go ston blin’

Blacker than midnight, teeth lak flags of truce

Blackest man in de whole St. Louis

Blacker de berry, sweeter am de juice

About a crap game, he knows a pow’ful lot

But when work-time comes, he’s on de dot.

Gwine to ask him for a cold ten-spot

What it takes to git it, he’s certainly got

Chorus

Oh ashes to ashes – and dust to dust

I said ashes to ashes – and dust to dust

If my blues don’t get you, my jazzing must

The subject matter is diverse – lost love, gambling, magic, trains, sex, alcohol, the boll weevil, death, women, men, the Mississippi river, Southern towns and cities, the telephone, the morning, the evening, the sun and most importantly of all, pride in being black. All of these are touched upon in these three songs forming virtually a blueprint for almost every blues to follow, and Handy deserves great credit for his perception of the essence of the form. Musically, Handy’s blues are more complex than the 12-bar, no chorus, archetype that was to eventually define the form, but the structure is clear. These are true blues songs.

Thus from the very beginning it is important to realize that the blues is not just about being blue. The form implies a melancholy and a lamentation, but is flexible enough to convey completely opposite sentiments. What it does do is to radiate meaning through the prism of the African-American experience, and that, with its history of slavery, bigotry and condescension, projects a unique colored spectrum.

I could go on to introduce a number of other early blues songs, but it would not change the message already so clearly broadcast in these three progenitors of the form. The style and substance of the blues song and ragtime song, although ostensibly drawn from the same African-American culture, could not be more different as I think has been clearly shown here. There is good reason why, for example, St. Louis Blues is as renowned today as it was then (although perhaps less well known than in its heyday), and there is good reason why All Coons Look Alike To Me is forgotten outside of the history books. The former song is an affirmation of humanity, the latter an awful artifact of a time when it was fashionable to deny people with different colored skins the respect due to them.


[1] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985

[2] Harney, Ben All Coons Look Alike To Me quoted in Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 72

[3] Berlin, Edward in Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 74.

[4] Cole & Johnson Bros. Under The Bamboo Tree from Fremont, Robert A. (ed.) Favorite Songs Of The Nineties Dover Publications 1973 pp.330-33

[5] e.g Henry Thomas – see the Blues Guitar project.

[8] There is an online recording of this song, sung by Glen Orhlin, Mountain View, Arkansas on October 7, 1969, in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection archive http://www.missouristate.edu/folksong/maxhunter/1020/

It is sung in the, flat, unexpressive manner of an Anglo-American folk song, creating a weird disconnect between the lyrics and the performance.

[9] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 9

[10] Cole & Johnson Bros. Under The Bamboo Tree from Fremont, Robert A. (ed.) Favorite Songs Of The Nineties Dover Publications 1973 pp. 330-333

[11] Field, A and Donovan, Walter The Aba Daba Honeymoon collected in The Saint Louis Blues And Other Hit Songs of 1914 Sandy Marrone ed. 1990 Dover Publications p. 1

[12] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 79

[14] Berlin, Edward in Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 77

[15] Handy, W.C. The Memphis Blues (1912) from Handy W.C. (ed.), Blues, An Anthology McMillan 1926,1949,1972 pp. 70-73

[16] Typically a woman of easy virtue or sexual prowess – or both – although in the context of this song it could equally well apply to a man. See Oliver, Paul The Meaning Of The Blues Collier Books 1963,1969 pp.144-145.

[17] Handy, W.C. St Louis Blues from Handy W.C. (ed.), Blues, An Anthology McMillan 1926,1949,1972

[18] Although the meaning is still somewhat ambiguous at this stage, jelly roll as a term for sexual intercourse became popular and much less ambiguous – particularly in the songs of Bessie Smith and other early blues singers. See Oliver, Paul The Meaning Of The Blues Collier Books 1963,1969 pp.146-147.

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