Monday, October 02, 2006

Coon songs available.

I have always been interested in the minstrel show. It is, arguably, the first uniquely American art, but in the last forty years it has been almost completely purged from our culture. All that's left is an easy punchline for people trying to sound non-racist. We're proud, by contrast, to point at jazz and keep it dusted and shiny on the national mantelpiece- the minstrel show, meanwhile, sits in the attic, wrapped in newspapers behind a box of anti-Kaiser WWI songs.

This is wrong, this selective memory of what is allowed to constitute America's musical past, and the result of our well-meaning cultural purges is a mythologized past that is curiously misaligned with our present reality. When you do see a genuine piece of Old America -- a southern restaurant shaped like a mammy, an old IWW banner, a tobacco shop indian -- it gives you a tingle, a sudden realization of what the past was really like, all slaughterhouses and barbed wire and gunpowder and mud and buffalo carcasses and sheet music with titles like "Little Coon Lullaby."

The truth is that America (and the world) loved the minstrel show, and coon songs were popular tunes that sold millions of copies. Moreover, the issue is more complicated than stating simply that 'people used to be racist', because, while they were indeed racist, it wasn't necessarily a vigorous, angry racism like the kind that motivates hate metal bands and certain Virginia would-be senators today. Racism against blacks in 1900 was a little like the treatment of indians in cowboy movies from the '50s- increasingly distasteful, by modern standards, but almost admiring by the standards of the time.

Moreover, coon songs were often -- and this is the part that is unfortunate -- musically good. Songs like "If The Man In the Moon Was A Coon" and "Coon, Coon, Coon" are gems of the tin pan alley music factories. Tuneful, memorable, possessed of admirably economy of harmony and charming gimmicks, these songs are fine pieces of American popular music, as good or better than many, say, Stephen Foster songs that are still polished up and presented to company.

It was with the intention of dredging up some of this real, hidden American music that I embarked on what I called (to myself) The Coon Song Project.

I selected a program of ten out-of-style tunes from the invaluable University of Colorado at Boulder sheet music archives and then set about arranging them for string quartet. I did this for a number of reasons:

(1) It is easier to confront the musical value of a coon song if you're not being distracted by the (invariably shame-inducing) lyrics.

(2) To toughen up my string-quartet-writing chops.

(3) I felt a certain amount of liberty inserting 'improved' harmonies, counter-melodies, dynamic surprises, and other interpretive changes into coon songs since, for all practical purposes, they've been thrown away by society.

At any rate, I'm done now with 'phase one', which would be arranging the songs. They are:

(1) "Abyssinian Patrol"
(2) "The African Glide"
(3) "If the Man in the Moon Were A Coon"
(4) "A Coon Band Contest"
(5) "The African Hunter"
(6) "Darkie's Dream"
(7) "Darktown Barbecue"
(8) "Ebony Funeral"
(9) "Little Coon Lullaby"
(10) "Hear the Pickaninny Band"

As you might have noticed, not all of these are strictly coon songs- some are rags or marches in an 'African' mood. Some, like "Ebony Funeral", are actually quite musically sophisticated in their borrowings, and I felt they justified considerable alteration to emphasize their inclusion of 'real' spirituals and folk tunes.

So, here's my offer:

I would like for these pieces to be played, ideally in a small public concert, but am too busy to arrange anything with a local string quartet at the moment. So: if anyone reading this has a string quartet, I'd be happy to send you parts as .pdfs for you to play through them, perhaps noting any rough patches in the arrangement that could use a polish. If you do decide to include any on a program, I'd be happy to write notes.

To contact me, just make a note in the 'comments' section and give me an email address or AIM account or something.

I must take pains to say that I didn't arrange these songs in order to present them as "An Evening of Old-Timey Racism!", although I suppose I did intend it as an act of provocation. I arranged them, as I said, in order to shed some light on a patch of American musical history that's been so strenuously buried that most people don't even know it exists.

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As a side note, I know that some people may take exception to my alterations of the songs, since according to some people a arranger is supposed to be the equivalent of the guy who translates the Bible from American English into Papua New Guinean. I wanted (although I know this has a little implicit hubris) to put these songs in their best possible light, and that meant introducing elements of 'classy' string quartet textures that are admittedly at odds with the music's origin as dime-store piano pieces.

2 Comments:

Blogger PWS said...

Ahh...the nights when we danced to "What If the Man in the Moon Was a Coon". Were we ever so young?

2:42 PM  
Blogger jarry said...

Glad to see someone talking about the now hidden history of American music. Political correctness shouldn't mean censorship of the truth.

I, too, find that the minstrel show form and its music is enchanting. And African Americans like Nolan wrote the biggest and most popular coon songs. Furthermore, American style singing owes its very existence to the style formerly known as coon shouting women, who were white and jewish. Sophie Tucker was a "red hot mama" for one reason only, because she wore black makeup and sang in the coon shouting style.

We often intentionally forget that the black stereotypes in minstrel and vaudeville shows were not any different than the Irish, German, Jewish or Polish stereotypes that ALL vaudeville humor was based on.

5:34 PM  

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