Ragged but Right

Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz

LYNN ABBOTT
DOUG SEROFF
Copyright Date: 2007
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv7s9
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  • Book Info
    Ragged but Right
    Book Description:

    The commercial explosion of ragtime in the early twentieth century created previously unimagined opportunities for black performers. However, every prospect was mitigated by systemic racism. The biggest hits of the ragtime era weren't Scott Joplin's stately piano rags. "Coon songs," with their ugly name, defined ragtime for the masses, and played a transitional role in the commercial ascendancy of blues and jazz.

    InRagged but Right, now in paperback, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff investigate black musical comedy productions, sideshow bands, and itinerant tented minstrel shows. Ragtime history is crowned by the "big shows," the stunning musical comedy successes of Williams and Walker, Bob Cole, and Ernest Hogan. Under the big tent of Tolliver's Smart Set, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, and others were converted from "coon shouters" to "blues singers."Throughout the ragtime era and into the era of blues and jazz, circuses and Wild West shows exploited the popular demand for black music and culture, yet segregated and subordinated black performers to the sideshow tent. Not to be confused with their nineteenth-century white predecessors, black, tented minstrel shows such as the Rabbit's Foot andSilas Green from New Orleansprovided blues and jazz-heavy vernacular entertainment that black southern audiences identified with and took pride in.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-653-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-2)
    LYNN ABBOTT and DOUG SEROFF
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-9)

    In 1897 an African American stage singer named Bessie Gillam, on the road with P. T. Wright’s Nashville Students, drew praise from a black entertainment reporter for her “artistic rendition of coon songs.” The writer took stock of Bessie Gillam’s situation: “Being a young lady she has a bright future and we look forward to see her hold positions among the many bright lights now lighting the dark pathway on to the road of success for the colored race.”¹

    To the modern ear, the phrase “artistic rendition of coon songs” is oxymoronic, but in context it speaks to a compelling...

  5. PART ONE Coon SONGS, Big SHOWS, and Black STAGE STARS of the RAGTIME ERA COON SONGS AND COON SHOUTERS
    (pp. 11-80)

    In the late 1890s, ragtime sung and performed by black musicians reached the mainstream popular stage in a form ignobly dubbed the “coon song.” Coon songs, with their ugly name, typically featured lyrics in Negro dialect, caricaturing African American life, set to the melodious strains of ragtime music. The designation first took hold during the 1880s, under the in uence of such por - tentous hits as “The Alabama Coon,” “I’m the Father of a Little Black Coon,” and “New Coon in Town,” but the real “craze” commenced in 1897 with the inception of the “ragtime coon song.”

    As ragtime...

  6. PART TWO THE SPIRIT OF THE SMART SET
    (pp. 81-156)

    The comedian-producers of the big shows weaned mainstream audiences away from the crude character delineations of nineteenth-century minstrelsy and conditioned them to appreciate verisimilitude in black comedy representation. “Natural expression” in racial caricature became the cutting edge of black comedy. Still in blackface makeup, black comedians dared to bring forth modern, recognizable characters who spoke more directly to black audiences, creating a revolutionary dynamic that became a cornerstone of twentieth-century African American minstrelsy and vaudeville.

    The Smart Set Company was a singular vehicle for constructive change on the American stage. The originators of the Smart Set were comedian-producers Ernest Hogan...

  7. PART THREE BLUES for the SIDESHOW TENT
    (pp. 157-208)

    Only since the 1980s has there been any significant representation of African American circus performers under the big top. In his 1990 study,The American Circus: An Illustrated History, John Culhane reveals that in 1968, “Irvin Feld introduced to the circus a troupe of basketball-playing unicycle riders, the King Charles Troupe, and proudly billed them as ‘the first all-black circus in America’ . . . When he hired the King Charles Troupe, Feld told me, ‘there wasn’t a black person in the circus.’ One of his executives . . . said, ‘Kid, you’re gonna have total rebellion...

  8. PART FOUR “UNDER CANVAS”: African American TENTED MINSTRELSY and the Untold Story of Allen’s New Orleans Minstrels, the RABBIT’S FOOT Company, the FLORIDA BLOSSOMS, and SILAS GREEN from New Orleans
    (pp. 209-356)

    The great African American minstrel companies of the 1890s—Mahara’s Minstrels, Isham’s Octoroons, the Black Patti Troubadours, Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels, etc.—all held forth in mainstream theaters. The onset of ragtime made possible the full realization of “genuine” African American minstrelsy; by the turn of the century, black minstrel performers had seriously undermined their white counterparts, especially in the South. In response, the powers that be attempted to choke off access to mainstream theaters in the southern states. Richards and Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels were traveling in Alabama in 1903 when theirFreemancorrespondent reported: “I hear of late...

  9. APPENDIX I Rosters of Alexander Tolliver’s Shows
    (pp. 357-358)
  10. APPENDIX II Itinerary of Alexander Tolliver’s Big Show/Smart Set
    (pp. 359-360)
  11. APPENDIX III Circus and Wild West Side Show Annex Band and Minstrel Rosters, 1911–1920
    (pp. 361-370)
  12. APPENDIX IV BAND ROSTERS OF ALLEN’S NEW ORLEANS MINSTRELS, THE RABBIT’S FOOT COMPANY, THE FLORIDA BLOSSOMS, AND SILAS GREEN FROM NEW ORLEANS, 1900–1940
    (pp. 371-382)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 383-426)
  14. GENERAL INDEX
    (pp. 427-451)
  15. SONG INDEX
    (pp. 451-461)