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Essay: Zip Coon

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Lyr Req: Old Zip Coon (50)
Lyr Req: Old Zip Coon (17)

GUEST,Josepp 13 Nov 11 - 03:27 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 13 Nov 11 - 03:48 PM
Bob the Postman 13 Nov 11 - 05:51 PM
GUEST,josepp 13 Nov 11 - 09:11 PM
GUEST,josepp 13 Dec 11 - 07:09 PM
GUEST,josepp 13 Dec 11 - 07:15 PM
GUEST,josepp 13 Dec 11 - 07:17 PM
GUEST,josepp 13 Dec 11 - 07:25 PM
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Subject: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,Josepp
Date: 13 Nov 11 - 03:27 PM

Zip Coon was an unusual blackface character because he was a freedman rather than a slave. He dressed like a dandy but in ill-matched clothing. He spoke like a "larn'd" man but used wrong words causing great hilarity among audiences. He was portrayed by George Washington Dixon in the very early days of minstrelsy--early 1830s--and was a contemporary of Thomas D. Rice who invented the blackface character of Jumpin' Jim Crow.

The Zip Coon song shown below we get an unusual window into America's past. Zip Coon carries a besom or broom which was common in the days of early minstrelsy when shows were put on at people's houses in their kitchens and bears an uncanny resemblance to the English mummers of that period even though the mumming play never reached the shores of the US to any significant degree. The broom is used to sweep out an area in which the entertainment will unfold. It is a tool of sanctification and purification. Today, Wiccans use their besoms to sweep out a circular area before casting a spell.

The line, "Did you eber see [t]he wild goose sailing on a ocean" is the opening line of "Wild Goose Shanty" according to the version I have by Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd.

The reference to "a nullifier what they call Calhoun" refers to John C. Calhoun who was "ole general" Andrew Jackson's vice-president who anonymously backed the Ordinance of Nullification enacted in the state of South Carolina against his boss's policies which resulted in declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 (which favored Northern manufacturers over Southern planters) null and void which essentially gave South Carolina the right to refuse to recognize or enforce a federal law passed by Congress which was and still is viewed as unconstitutional. South Carolina even threatened to secede from the Union when Jackson responded with military force. With no backing from the rest of the Southern states, however, South Carolina eventually withdrew the Ordinance of Nullification.

But after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 and the election of Lincoln in 1860 South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union by opening fire on Fort Sumter in 1861 touching off the Civil War. But that was still decades away when this song was sung.

The other interesting thing about this song are the AAB lyrics many decades before 12-bar blues. Or was it?

Zip Coon handbill

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 13 Nov 11 - 03:48 PM

Three previous threads on this character and song.
See comments by rich r posted in 1998 in thread 7876:
Zip Coon

Also comment by Charley Noble in that thread re "Wild Goose" version of chantey.

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: Bob the Postman
Date: 13 Nov 11 - 05:51 PM

The verse form, as can be seen from the first verse, is actually AAAB, just like Zip Coon's descendant Turkey In The Straw. In subsequent verses the third A is included in the"etc".

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,josepp
Date: 13 Nov 11 - 09:11 PM

But we can still see a burgeoning of blues since a lot of blues songs had four lines. Hooker's "Dimples" used a line repeated 5 times and then tagged:

Well, I like the way you walk
Well, I like the way you walk
Well, I like the way you walk
Well, I like the way you walk
Well, I like the way you walk
You're my babe I got my eyes on you.

And the Zip Coon lyrics are closer to a traditional blues format than "Dimples."

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,josepp
Date: 13 Dec 11 - 07:09 PM

[I'm working on an essay of minstrelsy which is too long to repeat in its entirety here. But I'll post a few excerpts. Any feedback is welcome.]

So how then did whites in America see the blackface minstrel? Did the burnt cork on the face mean only that this person represented a black slave or freedman or did it signify something else? Seeing the close ties between mummers, Morris-dancers and Zwarte Piet to blackface minstrelsy, we see something else at play than simple crude racism—although there is plenty of that too. In many areas where minstrelsy was quite popular, blacks had been all but run out and kept out.   Why would whites do that only to crowd into the theatres to watch a minstrel performance of whites with blackened faces? Because they did not wish to see real blacks. What they wanted to see was themselves from a past they viewed as idyllic. Minstrelsy was popular in the urban areas and in large cities, northern cities in particular—New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and on into California. The whites that populated these cities had left the farms and rural existences of their childhoods were vicariously returning to it through the watching of minstrel performances.

In the minstrel show, blacks were not worked from sunrise to sunset, were not whipped or punished to any significant degree and had an inordinate amount of leisure time on their hands—much of it spent on finding ways to get out of work than actually working. Even then the work was nothing more than sweeping up, polishing the silverware, cleaning up after supper, etc. In other words, the blackface slaves, who rarely if ever called themselves slaves, were really children with their daily chores around the house. In the minstrel shows, massa and missy were rarely seen and, when they were, they were there to be deceived by a slave trying to get out of work. Sometimes, they delivered a light scolding or rebuke for the slave's deception or laziness but there was always easy forgiveness and security in the form of love, food and clothing. In turn, the slaves loved their masters in spite of constantly deceiving them. The slaves were happy but knew that their happiness depended upon the moods of their masters and even outright lying to them was acceptable if it kept them happy. Again, this was nothing more than the family relationship of parent-to-child and child-to-parent. The slaves thought of the masters as their parents and the masters treated the slaves as though the latter were children.

Minstrelsy then provided an outlet for the white city-dweller to relive his or her idyllic childhood back on the farm. As earlier stated, the country was in the grip of tremendous changes—physically, socially, technologically, demographically, economically, politically, culturally, etc. Many white Americans suffered a culture shock. Instead of living off the land as their own bosses, they now worked in factories for meager earnings and a boss who didn't care about them and thought nothing of overworking them or throwing them out on the street. They were largely wage slaves not particularly better off than the black slaves in the South. Those slaves at least had a roof over their heads and some amount of food in their bellies and no fear of being fired or laid off. The wealthier whites had social respectability to maintain and upon them fell the white man's burden. They were expected to lead the way and pay for it.

So what was the meaning of the blackened face? Even many black minstrel singers donned the burnt cork residue. Why would they have to? We must remember that the concept of "white" as a race was new.   What did it really mean to be white? White Americans were not sure. As hard as they looked into it, the concept of being white meant nothing without differentiating it from being non-white. In the modern age, we are used to white supremacists counting every technological innovation to come out of Europe as proof of the superiority of the white race, but in the 19th century such a device was rarely resorted to for the simple reason that most Americans today termed as white did not think of each other as white. Americans of English descent, for example, often did not regard those of German descent as white and vice-versa. After all, the English had a global empire, why should they include anyone else as being on their level who was not part of building it? Neither English nor Germans regarded Italians as white and so on. The Irish and the Dutch (who once dominated the extremely lucrative spice trade via the Dutch East India Company or VOC as it was known before the British took over) were often excluded from the white race in the American mentality as were Jews, Poles, Slavs, Spaniards, Portuguese, Danes, Greeks, Gypsies and others. Basically, white Americans were just starting to embrace the idea of being "white" as a globally dominant race rather than as disparate cultures rooted in Europe. The idea that all these various European nations—England, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, etcetera could or should be combined into one and whose innovations, inventions and cultures were the expression of a single great race was only just tentatively taking hold in the 1830s. It ascended in the national consciousness along with minstrelsy and progressed in step along with it until the culmination of Theosophy and Aryanism in the late 19th century that seemed to fill in the missing pieces (even if in a pseudo-scientific, non-verifiable fashion) at which point minstrelsy began a slow decline.

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,josepp
Date: 13 Dec 11 - 07:15 PM

Perhaps the earliest expression of white supremacy in the American conscious was the concept of Manifest Destiny. Not surprisingly, it too arose with minstrelsy starting in 1845 when John L. O'Sullivan coined the term in an article entitled Annexation that appeared in the July/August issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In the article, O'Sullivan urged to the annexation of the Republic of Texas because, he wrote, the United States had a "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."   O'Sullivan again used the term later that same year in another article to advocate the annexation of the territory of Oregon. However, what needs be noted is that Manifest Destiny was not explicitly based on the idea of a type of lebensraum, i.e. expanding white race taking up new lands as living space, but rather it championed the spread of democracy across North America as something divinely ordained. That this expansion would present extremely serious problems for the Native Indians and possibly expand the practice of slavery into these new lands became part of the struggle for white Americans to understand who they were and what they were doing and whether or not their actions were morally correct by the laws of God or man. Minstrelsy was one of the attempts they made to find an answer. White supremacy was implicit in Manifest Destiny because if democracy, "liberty and federated self-government" were divinely ordained to spread over the American continent, the ones doing the spreading were not going to be black slaves, Native Indians or Chinese railroad slaves. To look at the plight of these people and reconcile that with American Exceptionalism may have caused Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun and Lincoln to oppose further expansion but the idea of a white super race chosen by God to hold dominion over the earth was not explicitly expressed in Manifest Destiny and the original conception died by the time of Lincoln's election in 1860 when he switched it over to foreign policy where it remains a dominant theme to this day.

Manifest Destiny planted the seeds of white racial consciousness in America that slowly shifted ideological superiority over to racial superiority. But the steps required to accomplish this shift were not a clear path but many tentative paths, most of them abandoned and incomplete. As far as minstrelsy was concerned in this shift, whites tried to understand who and what they were by ironically re-imagining themselves as black. Having done so, they then drew themselves a picture of racial harmony and indemnity by depicting the slaves as errant, mischievous but lovable children—themselves in "idyllic" times (i.e. back on the farms of their childhoods). These slaves were best off in the employ of white people because they cannot care for themselves. Since the idea of liberty was not inherent in their nature, they will basically make the best of any situation and be perfectly content with it. In 1895, a black minstrel extravaganza called "Black America" received a write up in The Illustrated American that read in part:

Note the yard-wide laugh of "God's image in ebony" over the card game and the eager interest displayed by the bystanders, and you seize the essence of the character of this easily-pleased, happy-go-lucky people!

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,josepp
Date: 13 Dec 11 - 07:17 PM

As stated earlier, in areas where minstrelsy was most popular they had kept blacks out but, having done so, found themselves in a white America that could not determine its own nature, could not figure itself out. If to be white was to be privileged or free, then who does the manual labor and menial jobs in an all-white America? White Americans realized that they could not define themselves without comparisons to the non-whites around them. Without these non-whites present, white Americans were like a single finger trying to touch itself.   In this way, they found themselves as much owned by blacks as owning them. Minstrelsy offered them a way to find themselves and on their own terms. The blackened face then was an attempt to erase their race in an effort to see themselves through fresh eyes. They were saying to themselves, "If we are superior because we are white, there must be something there that accounts for it other than simple skin pigmentation. It must be something in our character and not magically bestowed upon us by dint of our lightness otherwise we are superior by complete accident or by a totally random choice of God (who could have as easily chosen someone else) rather than chosen by Him because He made us better or because He recognizes our superior character and talents. To be superior means we must conquer other lesser peoples and employ them doing what is necessary work but beneath our important station but for which they are perfectly suited."

So the audience at the minstrel show was as much a part of the performance as the act onstage. The blackface performer showed the audience a mythical black man who was innocent, child-like and at least likable if not lovable—the white people themselves before their fall into urbanization. The audience was white people in whiteface watching the antics onstage with a pang of nostalgia for their lost childhoods. Here, they could set aside all their social responsibilities for a while and re-live their fun, innocent days by imagining themselves as black people living the way they thought black people lived, namely as easily-pleased and happy-go-lucky. All was well with the world after all. After the show, shouldering the white man's burden seemed a bit lighter and more purposeful. Their mission as white people seemed a bit clearer to them and they were able to make some sense of themselves as a race of white people. They could stop worrying if they were doing the right thing. It had to be right because there was no other way.

The other important thing about presenting blacks as children in the minstrel show was to always make the black man sexually non-threatening. In minstrelsy, the adult black male is a man-child whose goal is to please massa and missy while doing as little as possible to achieve it. From this, we can see that there had to be an underlying feeling of insecurity in general on the part of white males even if only mildly. The psychology behind this fear was that light-hued people tend to regard dark-hued people as sexually superior to themselves. In the South, the idea of the sexually threatening black man was so great that preserving the purity of white Southern womanhood became a battle cry revealing both the sexual insecurity of the Southern white male as well as the moral and intellectual vacuum that was really white superiority. The idea that black men must be stopped from raping white women by any means necessary is too ridiculous to entertain seriously. Obviously, no one should be allowed to rape anyone else under any circumstances. A black man raping a white woman is certainly no worse than a white man who does the same. They may as well have demanded that black men must not be allowed to burn down apartment buildings with white women in them or be allowed to run into the streets firing shotguns and throwing firebombs indiscriminately where it might possibly injure or kill a white woman. The white supremacist argument is completely ridiculous and insulting to anyone who can think with any clarity. If this was the superior white Southern culture, it was a pitiful thing indeed worthy of nothing but contempt.

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Subject: RE: Zip Coon
From: GUEST,josepp
Date: 13 Dec 11 - 07:25 PM

Minstrelsy as a comedy designed to point out and therefore avoid certain social pitfalls was a failure. Minstrelsy was originally driven by anti-slavery sentiments expressed by people as George Washington Dixon and Stephen Foster. But as the Civil War raged, whites wanted theatre to take them away from the turmoil, to show them joy and wholeness. So they were treated to the sight of a white man, dressed up as a black man singing, "Oh, I wish I was in de lan' ob cotton…" at a time when hundreds of real blacks were fleeing North. That the South would adopt the song as an unofficial anthem was a bit ridiculous and apparently the irony was not lost on the song's author, Dan Emmett, who was furious when he heard what the Confederacy had done. The song was intended as racial harmony and happiness and to have the slaveholders adopt it was galling to him. But the song also demonstrated the failure of minstrelsy for depicting what could not be true: that blacks were happy down South, so much so that those up North long to return to it. And since whites could not apparently be happy without convincing themselves that blacks were happy, the fact that blacks were really not happy meant that whites were really not happy either. Minstrelsy simply sold a blatant illusion that could not be maintained once the war ended and the slaves freed because white=free, black=chattel was simply not true anymore and so all such associations in minstrelsy had to be redefined.

New innovations in minstrelsy occurred such as clogging, female impersonation, redface (Native Indian) minstrelsy and cakewalking. Although the Yellow Peril hysteria was strong, there was little of yellowface minstrelsy to be seen. Shortly after the war, there was a minstrel troupe known as The Flying Black Japs but they soon disbanded.   Most of America had no experience of the Chinese who were enslaved on the railroads or running tiny businesses on the West Coast in hopes of eking out an existence. Even on the West Coast where the hatred of the Chinese was strong, whites seemed not to notice them except to segregate themselves from them. Robert Louis Stevenson traveled from his native Scotland to ride the rails of the Union Pacific Railroad across the plains to California in 1879 and noted that Chinese passengers, many of them men who had slaved sunup to sundown to lay the tracks their train was riding on, were forced to ride in a segregated car. Stevenson noticed that the whites took these Chinese railroad builders for granted, totally ignoring them except to occasionally vent "the stupid ill-feeling" as he called it.   By 1897, Dan W. Quinn sang "Mr. Jappy Jap Jappy" and James T. Powers followed this in 1898 with "Chin Chin Chinaman" but yellowface minstrelsy never seemed to click. These Asians came from a foreign land and could not represent an idyllic pre-Fall life for the white audiences. There was no relating. Asians are, after all, "inscrutable."

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