The Coon Song and How A Racist Chicago Cop Inspired Ragtime Music


[B]efore 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 predated the “Jazz” genre by almost two decades and was the early influence that helped develop Jazz and Blues music.

What are the origins of Ragtime music?

The answer can be found in a genre of music known as “Coon Songs.”
Most music lovers naturally associate the beginnings of Ragtime with Scott Joplin and his historic “Maple Leaf Rag,” a tune published in 1899, which sold over a million copies of sheet music.
But the true origins of Ragtime 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.”
Bert Williams and George Walker He's Up Against The Real Thing Now
In the first decade of the 20th century, famous composers of Ragtime included Scott Joplin, who scored an even bigger hit with “The Entertainer” in 1902.
Groundbreaking African-American composers like Jim Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, Tom Turpin, Luckey Roberts were popular as well.
The Ragtime style of music became an influential force in popular culture internationally, from 1906 to the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.
Ragtime itself 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 music created by the slaves was being popularized by trained white composers like Robert Russell Bennett, Claude Debussy and John Philip Sousa.
But pioneering African-American 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 influenced by the variations of the march music played by various African-American bands in the mid to late 1800’s. The music was also influenced by the many unnamed piano players in the African-American saloons and pubs of St. Louis and New Orleans.

 The “Rag Style

[B]y the late 1880’s, a “Rag” style of playing were backing up certain Coon Songs. The first known usage of the word “Rag” in popular music can be traced to two “Coon Songs,” both written by African-American men.

Ernest Hogan
Ernest Hogan was the first African-American entertainer to produce and star in a Broadway show, in 1907. He also regretted the success of one of his big songs “All Coons Look Alike To Me.”

Ernest Hogan’s 1896 song “All Coons Look Alike To Me” contains the first reference of stylization to the form of “Rag” on the sheet music.
Bert Williams song “Oh, I Don’t Know, You’re So Warm!” uses the word in lyrics published in 1896.
Sadly, Coon Song usually reinforced white stereotypes and depicted African-American men as drunk, oversexualized, violent, natural dancers. These types of songs also popularized images of African-Americans who loved chicken and watermelon.
Most of the times, the songs were 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
All Coons Look A Like To Me Lyrics
It’s very shocking to think that an African-American would write lyrics like this. But when considering the extreme racism of the time, it is also important to note that these were some of the earliest, published, black songwriters to achieve fame.
Ernest Hogan said, “All Coons Look A Like To Me” had a deeper meaning than one might suspect.
Thanks to technology, we uncovered a very obscure article in The Seattle Republican, published on May 29, 1903, that takes the racist slant of the song in an entirely different direction, in terms of its real meaning.
“All Coons Look A Like To Me” was created thanks to a racist police officer in Chicago.
“He (Hogan) was attending a ball in Chicago by colored people,” The Seattle Republican 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 the song was published; he raked in over $26,000.
It must be noted that in an interview the same year, Hogan also claimed a girl used the phrase as she denied his amourous advances.

 The Rise of Ragtime Music

Bert Williams Oh I Don't Know You're Not So Warm [A]ccording to “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life in America,” Coon Songs usually employed Black on Black violence since it was “tolerable to the white audience.”
“Coon Songs reaffirmed the necessity of subordinating and controlling African-Americans and they justified segregation, voting restriction and even lynching,” according to The Greenwood Encylopedia of Daily Life in America.
It cannot be dismissed that 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.
But White men like Paul Dresser, Walter Hawley, and others wrote the majority of the more than 600 songs that are believed to have been issued during the period.
During their live stage performances, White performers usually dressed in blackface and performed the popular tunes of the day. African-American performers did it too.
The “Coon Song” eventually died out as the first decade of the 1900s came to a close. It was 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. This style became mostly associated with legendary 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.” The song was featured in the movie “The Sting.”