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'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them

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Oversoul 27 Feb 00 - 10:56 PM
Sorcha 28 Feb 00 - 02:26 AM
Joe Offer 28 Feb 00 - 02:37 AM
paddymac 28 Feb 00 - 04:02 AM
Crowhugger 28 Feb 00 - 06:33 AM
Bud Savoie 28 Feb 00 - 08:04 AM
M. Ted (inactive) 28 Feb 00 - 09:54 AM
Uncle_DaveO 28 Feb 00 - 10:13 AM
Amos 28 Feb 00 - 11:12 AM
richardw 28 Feb 00 - 12:05 PM
Jeri 28 Feb 00 - 12:17 PM
GUEST,Petr 28 Feb 00 - 12:30 PM
Midchuck 28 Feb 00 - 02:15 PM
Amos 28 Feb 00 - 02:26 PM
Midchuck 28 Feb 00 - 02:36 PM
Amos 28 Feb 00 - 02:54 PM
Midchuck 28 Feb 00 - 03:06 PM
Amos 28 Feb 00 - 04:08 PM
Jon W. 28 Feb 00 - 05:10 PM
Amos 28 Feb 00 - 05:24 PM
paddymac 28 Feb 00 - 06:16 PM
GUEST,Frank Hamilton 28 Feb 00 - 06:19 PM
GUEST,jofield 28 Feb 00 - 06:31 PM
Uncle_DaveO 28 Feb 00 - 07:40 PM
GUEST,Jim Dixon 28 Feb 00 - 08:08 PM
McGrath of Harlow 28 Feb 00 - 08:32 PM
ddw 28 Feb 00 - 09:15 PM
Troll 28 Feb 00 - 10:05 PM
Crowhugger 28 Feb 00 - 11:01 PM
DonMeixner 29 Feb 00 - 12:09 AM
John in Brisbane 29 Feb 00 - 12:12 AM
M. Ted (inactive) 29 Feb 00 - 02:05 AM
Jeri 29 Feb 00 - 02:22 AM
Crowhugger 29 Feb 00 - 04:00 AM
Troll 29 Feb 00 - 07:27 AM
Grab 29 Feb 00 - 07:46 AM
Troll 29 Feb 00 - 07:55 AM
Bill in Alabama 29 Feb 00 - 08:32 AM
GUEST,jofield 29 Feb 00 - 08:49 AM
Amos 29 Feb 00 - 09:03 AM
canoer 29 Feb 00 - 10:05 AM
Jeri 29 Feb 00 - 12:01 PM
Jon W. 29 Feb 00 - 12:53 PM
Art Thieme 29 Feb 00 - 01:08 PM
Amos 29 Feb 00 - 01:14 PM
M. Ted (inactive) 29 Feb 00 - 01:43 PM
McGrath of Harlow 29 Feb 00 - 02:21 PM
GUEST,jofield, in Paris 29 Feb 00 - 02:50 PM
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Subject: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Oversoul
Date: 27 Feb 00 - 10:56 PM

What are your thoughts about racial stereotypes in recordings from the '20's and '30's? Sure, in some instances they are profane, in certain references they are funny, but they are numerous, too numerous for any serious listener to avoid. Period. How do you face them? Edit your playlist to suit the crowd? Or confront the audience with a bit of the troublesome truth? Does anyone today really care about this issue? I was born in the early '50's and I am sort of indifferent, I don't think people are as touchy as most musicians believe. I got to thinking about this again when I read of a banjo player feeling awkward about some of Uncle Dave Macon's lyrics. Forgive me if this is an old topic, but in my mind this has been an issue for many years.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Sorcha
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:26 AM

Coon songs are about RA-coons, in my book, you tryin' to stir up trubblle? They are related to possums, I think! :) ROAD KILL!


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Joe Offer
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:37 AM

Well, we've had some good discussions on this subject, and I think the opinions covered the spectrum. I tend to edit around the racist references if I want to sing the song for its merits as a song. If I'm singing it as a demonstration of the attitudes of the time, I leave the racist stuff in.
I think there are plenty of good songs from that era that just couldn't be used any more if they weren't edited a bit. I understand the original "Shortnin' Bread" starts out "two little niggers, lyin' in bed...." I don't think it's a horrible betrayal of accuracy to sing it the way I learned it in the 1950's, "two little children..."
Take a look at "The Cat Came Back" at the Levy Sheet Music Site (click here). It's a great song to sing with kids, but I sure wouldn't sing it to kids in its original version.
-Joe Offer-


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: paddymac
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 04:02 AM

I don't really have an axe to grind or view to propound here, but can't help thinking about folk music as a current embodiment of the ancient bardic tradition, and the role it plays is transmitting folk-ways and folk-traditions from one generation to the next. From that perspective, I think Joe's approach to the question is most appropriate, and constructive.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Crowhugger
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 06:33 AM

My concern is less with the blatant racism than with the sneaky stuff. When the racism is obvious, a context-sensitive choice as Joe suggests is more or less easy to do.

I am much more bothered by subtle assumptions, as in this example:

CATFISH JOHN (on a Garcia album, not sure who wrote it)

Chorus:
Mama said, "Don't go near that river,
"Don't be hangin' around ol' Catfish John."
Come the mornin' I'd always be there
Walkin' in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn.

[the first verse describes memories of magnolias and the south]

However, the 2nd verse - racism is underlined:

Born a slave in the town of Vicksburg
Traded for a chestnut mare
Lord, he never spoke in anger
Though his load is hard to bear
.

Racist assumptions:
(1) Yeah, like any white person is gonna hear a (former) slave ragging on the pr**ks who abused him. That kind of honest talk won't likely happen when the white folks are within earshot.
(2) The notion that not expressing anger is some sort of acceptance of the social order. Any woman can tell you, "It ain't so, Joe."

To my mind, this type of "systemic" racism is the tougher issue because it's often difficult to spot and even more difficult to communicate to those who've not been victimized in this way. When I sing this song, immediately after uttering "never spoke in anger," I make a face that (hopefully) says "who are you kidding! There's an occasional grin of understanding. Very occasional.

$0.02+allthose
s=$0.03


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Bud Savoie
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 08:04 AM

In our hypersensitive age, it is difficult not to offend someone. I suppose that a hundred years ago people took it all with a certain amount of equanimity, if not good humor. I find them very offensive, but I was born in 1944. That may make a difference. Brown University, by the way, has a collection of sheet music for old "coon" songs, all of which have the most offensive stereotypes of Blacks you can imagine. Should the University destroy them? No, that would be an attempt to rewrite history. Do you recall a few years ago when someone wanted to produce an edition of "Huckleberry Finn" with the offensive word bowdlerized?

As far as songs are concerned, if the sense would be altered by the changed word, it might be better to leave it as is. An example of the reverse might be the banjo tune called "Shaving a Dead Man." It was originally "Shaving a Dead Nigger," but since the race of the deceased is not the issue, why not change it?


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: M. Ted (inactive)
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 09:54 AM

This is an interesting problem--one that I have wrestled with for years--Much of the great popular music before the twenties came from the context of minstrel shows--which were the source of not only a lot of ragtime music, but much of the humor(jokes and routines that you still see worked into TV sitcoms and cartoons today) --everytime I sing a song with Mandy or Alexander, I flinch a little--

If you want to get the creeps big time, watch the scenes from the minstrel show in "The Al Jolson Story"--you'd like to ignore it, or forget it, but there it is, and too big a part of our musical and entertainment tradition to shove it all into the back of the drawer--

In the forties and fifties movie musicals, they had a big problem, in that people were nostalgic for the music and dance routines of the old days, but it had all been done in blackface--one solution I remember (I think from the film, "Summer Stock") was that the performers in a minstrel number had their normal skin colors, but wore a single red glove--sort of a censors block, letting you you know that something objectionable had been deleted--

Back in the 60's and early 70's, I remember that my black activist friends were fond of pointing out Mickey Mouse, (who really was, like Oswald the Rabbit, and Bosco, one of those horrible little blackface pickanniny characters (can I even use that word?) as an example of how the racist stereotypes were so deeply infused into our culture--

It's really still there, too--even in the most seemingly politically correct places--for example, I was idly plucking my way through Al Jolson's masterpiece of maudlin racist sentimentality, "My Mammy" when I realized, to my horror, that it was no other song than "Puff, the Magic Dragon"--


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 10:13 AM

No, Sorch, Racoons and Possums are not related, for what that may be worth. Possums are marsupial's--America's only marsupial. Racoons are not.

Dave Oesterreich


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 11:12 AM

I have fond memories of two sweet lullabies being sung to me as a child, both of them qualifying as "coon" songs; and I never thought of them as being racist in particular, but rather of reflecting the times in which they were written. It depends then on whether you are singing it for an audience that can maintain that critical distinction.

It is wrong headed to rpomote racism or to incite violence, under most circumstances. But it is equally thick, to my point of view, to rewrite history and pretend we have not lived through racism and violence.

That said, I think Joe's approach is balanced and intelligent. I have no desire to step on sensitive feelings, but I think some folks leave their sensitive feelings spread all over the sidewalk...


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: richardw
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 12:05 PM

I think Joe has it -- it depends on why you are singing the song. I have sung songs about Chinese in the goldrush which are horribly racist, but the racism is really obvious and i was using them to point out the racism of the time. I would never perform or record these songs for general listening.

We are currently working on a CD of songs sung in the goldrush of BC and have the "original" version of Yellow Rose of Texas in a diary. It uses the phrase " sweetest rose of color this darkey ever knew..."

We will change darkey to soldier, which fits with the story of who the Yellow Rose was, but will indicate the change in the liner notes.

Seems to me it is always a tough judgement call.

Richard


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Jeri
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 12:17 PM

My opinion on this subject is constantly changing, or I should say "evolving." I believe the songs should exist in the "original" form somewhere, if only to serve as a record of the roots of the song and a snippet of life from the past. As history they shouldn't be changed or made into something polite, epecially if the reason is we don't want to remember something we now find distastful.

Whether to perform songs with racially offensive lyrics, is a whole 'nother question. When you sing them, the song will not be questioned, but your motives will be. Sure, some people will be offended by any use of racial epithets - or what we now consider epithets. Most folks will be wondering what exactly you're trying to say by singing those songs. "Does this guy have a hooded white sheet in his closet?" or "Is this guy commited to historical accuracy, and trying to portray a past way of life?" If your audience doesn't know where you're coming from, you could be in trouble.

I actually was stupid enough to once e-mail a representative of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and ask this very question - what is your opinion on the singing of old songs with words now considered racially offensive? I never received a reply. Maybe he thought the answer was something like "you're going to have to ask each person who hears the song." Maybe he thought the question wasn't worth his time.

Personally, I cringe when I hear words like "nigger," even when I know the singer is far from being a bigot. Maybe it's a good thing I cringe. Maybe it's a good thing I'm reminded of the words and my distaste for them. And maybe it's a good thing to know that people once used the words in everyday speech and song, without any thought or care they might hurt someone. Personally, I'd love to hear the viewpoint of even one African-American on this subject, but that's yet to happen.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,Petr
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 12:30 PM

Ive just been listening to the New Ballards Bogtrotters version of Cruel Slavery days thinking that it would be a lovely & poignant song to sing. Its about a slave owner dying and all the slaves are dispersed and families are broken up. All sung from the perspective of the black slave, except its got the word darkies in it. Ill see if I can dig up the lyrics.

On another note when I was in Thailand a few years ago I picked up some toothpaste that feature a caricature of a smiling black mans face (as in a 19th century stereotype) It was originally called Darkie toothpaste. I think it caused a bit of a fuss when visiting Japanese businessmen arrived in the US in the 60's (?) and customs inspectors found it in their baggage. The company still features the same smiling face but it has since been renamed Darlie. Petr.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Midchuck
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:15 PM

Ever really listen to the lyrics of "Kingdom Coming" (a/k/a "Year of Jubilo")? It's a celebration of the end of slavery. It makes the "massa" out to be the fool, not the slaves. But since it was written in dialect and has a lot of references to "darkies," you can't sing it in public. And it's such a great song.

I also recall an encounter with this topic on an old-timey music newsgroup. Several well-known and often played old-timey tunes have, or had, the "N" word (Gawd, I feel like a hypocrite) as part of the title. The proposal was made to simply substitute "Elvis" for "that word" in all of the titles. Sounds as reasonable as any solution.

Peter.

Peter.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:26 PM

Well, that seems reasonable, and I think we should extend the principle to insert Elvis for any word we find to be marginally offensive.

I hope the Elvis on the list won't object, though since Elvis is such a ... well, Elvis-sounding word. I don't mean to cast aspersions on anyone's Elvis. Especially members of the fairer Elvis.

And if I can offer my Elvis by way of making amends, please, all you fair and tender Elvis consider my Elvis at your disposal for any Elvis you might consider appropriate. I will even Elvis your Elvis in order to keep the peace.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Midchuck
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:36 PM

Yeah, that's probably where it'd end up.

Peter.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 02:54 PM

Sorry -- I know it was a serious proposition...I think you always have to draw a balance between art which has been drawn from real life, and the feelings of those whohave been bruised by it. Compassion without humor is almost as bad as humor without compassion!


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Midchuck
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 03:06 PM

Humor without compassion is sadism.

Compassion without humor is political correctness.

It's a hard call as to which is worse.

P.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 04:08 PM

Right you are, pal...middle ground for me. Rational blend, and all that...


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Jon W.
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 05:10 PM

I've yet to sing any minstrel songs in dialect in public but if and when I do, "Kingdom Coming" will probably be the first one. I've thought of an explanation for the time and place and I'd like to run it by you fellow mudcatters for your opinions. I have no data to back this hypothosis as of yet. I will use the term "black" for African American because it was the politically correct term I was introduced to and used most of my life. Here is my hypothesis: Minstrel music was the original rock'n'roll. By that I mean that some white performers heard black performers making music, were smitten by it, and wanted to imitate it. They learned to play in the manner, but when they were ready to perform, they found that it would be socially unacceptable to do so unless they caved in to society's bigotry and made the songs into parodies rather than sincere imitations of the black musical style. Minstrel music, whether performed by whites or blacks, became extremely popular in the mid 1800's just as rock'n'roll did in the mid 1900's.

Am I right or wrong?


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 05:24 PM

Right twice


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: paddymac
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 06:16 PM

Egads! Mickey Mouse is racist? What about Mighty Mouse? Are they perhaps the ying and yang of mousedom? Why can't they just be mice like most folks (well, ok, like I presume most folks) thought they were. All these chinks (as in dents or nicks or flecks of concrete, etc.; no racial slur intended) in the Pillars of Society make this Irish-American want a drink (sorry, no stereotyping intended). I cry out for a pint of the black (merely a measure of opacity, no secret racial slur intended) stuff in my anguish over the deluge (sorry, no anti-biblical undertones intended) of masculine (sorry, no sexism intended) bovine (sorry, nothing against either cattle or vegans) fibrous excreta (sorry, don't wish to offend anyone with certain fetishes) known in the contemporary vernacular as political correctness. Hmm, maybe one of our more creative members might come up with a few new lines for the "Silly Slang Song".


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,Frank Hamilton
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 06:19 PM

I've gone back and forth on this question. A lot of traditional New Orleans jazz tunes are based on some racist references such as The Livery Stable Blues and Jimtown Blues. Also, the famous Louis Armstrong version of Black and Blue where the chorus goes "I'm white inside but that don't help my case." I think here that context is extremely important. Some of those old "coon" songs are pretty good melodies such as "Rufus Rastus Brown, whatcha' gonna' do when the rent comes round?" or I've Got A Bimbo Down in the Bamboo Ilse. They were commonly used jazz tunes but not so much amoung black jazz musicians, more as stage songs. Some of Bert Williams tunes might be considered offensive today although he is indisuputably one of the great black entertainers. Also, Cantor and Jolson in Blackface have to be recognized as offensive by some and great performers as well. Many early minstrel show actors were black. There was a crossover.

The minstrel show has to be shown in historical context. Even black people had to use the burnt cork to convey the characters to the public. Emmett Miller (white)was one of the great influences on Country Music in the 20's and 30's. He started as a minstrel man and traditional jazz singer) and was able to capture the speech of black people from his native Macon Georgia home. Amos and Andy were very popular during the forties and I used to go to their radio show for CBS in Los Angeles and the people standing in line to see white performers doing black characters were predominantly (75%) a black audience. Of course, this was the forties.

The problem is how do we keep from throwing the baby out with the bath water? It's not an easy problem to solve. You just can't cut out an important part of our musical history but you can't let it become offensive to those who rightly take issue with it.

It's an easier issue about the Confederate Battle Flag which should in my opinion not be flown over the South Carolina Courthouses. This is true for Alabama and Georgia as well.

Frank


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,jofield
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 06:31 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but were not nearly all the so-called "Coon" songs written by white Tin Pan Alley types? Except for some of their ragtime progressions, there is nothing very african-american about them at all. They are riddled with degrading stereotypical lyrics and plotlines that no self-respecting african-american would have written. Even W.C. Handy's commercial blues ("I wanna talk to that high brown of mine...") managed to retain the earthiness the white audience sought without being self-deprecating.

"Coon" songs were not composed out of any great admiration for black culture. They were composed because they sold sheet music and entertained a racist, white American public by feeding their cruel prejudices back to them as jokes at which they could laugh while simultaneously feeling like they were "getting down" with that "darky" music. OK, there are one or two where the music is so good, you can almost get past the lyrics: "Alexander's Ragtime Band" comes to mind. But by and large, you can take all of them and sink them in the ocean and the world wouldn't be a bit worse. This ain't political correctitude -- it's musical fact.

Where white musicians finally "got it", was in the rural South, where people like Doc Boggs and Jimmie Rodgers just tried their best to capture black music, not parody it. It makes me smile to hear Jimmie sing "Good mornin', Shine!" in "Muleskinner Blues" -- Shine being a Southern black folk hero.

There you have it, James.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 07:40 PM

Minstrel music was the mainstream of American popular music for a period of maybe fifty to sixty years. As such it both reflected and helped create the public attitudes of the time. The Year of Jubilo--not the right name, I believe, but you know the song--was written by a free Negro in the north.

Dave Oesterreich


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,Jim Dixon
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 08:08 PM

I don't sing old songs because I'm trying show people what life was like 100 years ago, or whatever. I'd probably fail at that anyway. I sing old songs because they're good songs, fun to sing and fun to hear. They just happen to be old. If people happen to learn something in the process of having fun, that's fine, but I try not to lecture the audience. I figure I'd just bore them and drive them away.

(That's probably why classical music bores me today. As a child, I heard it only when it came along with a lecture. Except when Bugs Bunny played it. That's the exception that proves the rule.)

Now, a song may be good in some ways and not good in others, and when that happens, I don't see anything wrong in changing it to make it better. It's not rewriting history; it's just rewriting a song, for Pete's sake. I have just as much right to rewrite it as the original writer had to write it in the first place! In fact, I think I have an obligation to change whatever offends my own sense of values. If a song has a "message" that you don't personally subscribe to, you have no business singing it.

Music is different from literature. If I were a publisher who wanted to bring out a new edition of "Huckleberry Finn," for instance, I might add some footnotes, but I would leave Mark Twain's text alone. On the other hand, if I were a screenwriter making a film adaptation, I would find it necessary to make a few carefully considered changes. It's OK to have different rules for different media.

I figure that's legitimate because actors, directors, screenwriters, and musicians -- unlike publishers, researchers, and librarians, for instance -- are artists in their own right, and collaborators, so to speak, with the original author. As an artist-collaborator, you have some rights and some responsibilities. Your responsibility is to produce a performance with some integrity, meaning it doesn't violate your own sense of decency or truth. I don't buy the excuse, "I can't help it; I don't approve of it; but that's the way the author wrote it." Yes, you can help it. The fact that you sing a certain song implies that you approve of it. If you don't approve of it, either change it into something you can approve of, or stop singing it.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 08:32 PM

One reason why some songs look uncomfortable and patronising in print in the original version is because of the convention of having spelling intended to indicate dialect. So you get "ebber" for "ever", and "de" for "the" and so forth.

This didn't just happen to somgs about black peole - it was a convention of the time, and it doesn't jusrt happen in comic songs. Yopu have it in Stephen Foster, you have it in stage Irish songs, you have it is Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads. Also in dialact poems by people like William Barnes in Dorset.

There's nothing intrinsically racist or patronising about this kind of thing - but it does serve to distance the song, implying that the people its about are very different from the listeners.

Generally in songs that have passed into general use, the odd spellings have evaporated, and people sing them in their own accents. Of course sometimes the actual sounds they are maming might be closer to the odd spellings - a lot of people think they are singing "The Camptown Races" are singing "De Camptown Races". But that doesn't really matter.

And the same kind of thing happens with other words that like "nigger" and "darkie", not just because they will offend people who don't desrve to be offended (and give encouragement to people who don't deserve to be envcouraged), but also because they put a distance between the song and people who want to sing it. If you want to sing a song about being homesick, these kind of words get in the way of identifying with the sentiments. So you sing "brother" or "sister" instead of "darkie" when you sing "Swanee River".


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: ddw
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 09:15 PM

As somebody who sings a lot of blues, I encounter this dilemma quite a bit, so I'll wade in.

To a large extent I agree with Joe Offer's approach — pick your audience for some songs, change some lyrics if it doesn't destroy the meaning of the song. After all, IMHO, the blues are as often about the HUMAN condition as they are about the BLACK condition. That's what makes them so lasting, so identifiable by all of us.

I also agree a bit with Jim Dixon — tho' I would quibble about who should or shouldn't be included in the "artist" categories. If I find a song that I really like for the tune, the instrumental work, etc., but which has words I would never sing in public — Victoria Spivey's "Black Gal" springs to mind, since I'm working on it at the moment — I use what I want out of it and rewrite the rest. That's part of the folk process, isn't it? When I perform one of those songs, I sometimes tell the audience that they might recognize the tune (or whatever), but somehow a white man singing
"Black gal, Black gal,
Why your nappy head so hard?"
just ain't gonna make it.

I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to substitute there, but I will substitute because I love the choppy, bouncy guitar work.

I have other songs I have to explain — which I agree can be boring if you lecture the audience, but can also be brief and save you enormous grief. A song that I have to do that on is — just coincidentally — called Black Girl. I tell the audience that when Josh White recorded it in the '50s, black technicians thought it was racist and wouldn't transcribe it from master tapes to records. Similarly, Leadbelly was booed off the stage by a black audience when he started singing the song. But the song has nothing to do with being black, except as a way of addressing the grieving widow. It's a lament — nothing more, nothing less.

As for the expurgated version of Huck Finn, it was performed here in Windsor a couple of years ago and the snippet of it I heard on CBC radio made me sick. If anybody has read Twain, they know he was arguing AGAINST racism, but to make it recognizable he had to use the racist words people of his day would understand. It seems to me a credit to him — and all others like him — that attitudes have changed as much as they have. I classify the people who want to "clean up" Twain's writing in the same category as a really stupid preacher I wonce had cover who wanted to expunge the Shakespeare texts used in high schools. But he wouldn't hear of cleaning up Song of Solomon in the Bible. Go figure!

cheers all,

david


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Troll
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 10:05 PM

I have run into similar problems with the klezmer band that I'm in. There are some very good songs from the 20's and 30's- both from vaudeville and the stage- involving Jews. Songs like The Sheik of Avenue B or Abie My Boy are funny songs but we have been criticised for singing them because they portray Jews in what they consider to be an unfavorable light. At the same time, the old ladies in the audience sing along with them and suggest new ones we ought to learn.

So what do you do? Do you cut a portion of the history of a people out because a few are uncomfortable with it. These are not overtly rasist songs.While they do poke fun at an ethnic group, it is gentle fun and not intended to hurt. Every group of immigrants went through the same thing;fun was had at their expense and then they became an accepted part of the community.

What we have done is to be careful in our selection of material and to deal with the critics on a one-to-one basis, explaining that htis was the way it was inthose days and that we are simply trying to shed light on the Jewish music that was being written at that time.

Still, it is a problem and there really is no good solution. If you try to do music that offends no ones sensitivities, you'll wind up doing only instrumentals and numbering the songs rather than giving them word titles.Thats not where I want to go.

troll


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Crowhugger
Date: 28 Feb 00 - 11:01 PM

Jeri,

No post yet from an African-American? What is the source of your belief that none of the posts is from an A-A?

This seems an example of the kind of slippery slope that is so darned ordinary that it goes unnoticed. I see it as a relative of systemic racism. Somehow, at some time, our society has decided that things must have been written or produced by euro-type folks unless it's announced otherwise. The logic of this escapes me. In fact, the emotion of it escapes me too.

Where is it written that we are supposed to declare "whiteness"? I know one 'Catter in person and he is caucasian.

Let me turn the table: It must be that every posting (except Max, and a few others whose pictures I've seen) is from POCs - persons of colour. This is "obvious" because no one opened with something like "well, from a white point of view..."

What colour is introspection?


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: DonMeixner
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 12:09 AM

WE can take this to amazing extremes if we wish. I for one don't wish to. I sing The Year of Jubilo and I sing

"Workers have you seen the master"

I sing it like a northern whiteman. I never sing in dialects unless as a broad burlesque. I want to be what I am not what I am perceived to be because of an affectation.

But I think its important to know these songs as they were written. Because of the history they carry and of the age they represent. (Those who forget their history are condemed to repeat it.) At one time, simultaniously nigger had two meanings. One was racist in the south and in the Windrivers, or along the Musselshell it meant hard worker among the mountain men. Doesn't make the word less distasteful for me, but there is a fascination to me.

And just cause you know them as written doesn't mean you have to sing them that way.

Don


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: John in Brisbane
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 12:12 AM

A few years ago I was asked to perform on a recording of Stephen Foster songs. I refused to do so on the basis of the lyrics that were to be used, not the Foster originals, but a PC re-write. To have allowed the censorship, in my view would have been an insult to the composer and the intelligence of today's audiences. On the other other hand, had the intention of the project been to create an album of rugby/naughty songs where the word 'darkies' was meant as a form of derision, then I would clearly have refused to do the original lyrics.

BTW, Darkie toothpaste is still a very popular brand of toothpaste throughout Asia, so much so that its competitors attempt to clone it with virtually idetical packaging and very similar names, such as Darlie. The same thing happens with Colgate, where the name might be changed to (say) Colgade.

Regards, John


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: M. Ted (inactive)
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 02:05 AM

It has been written that the minstrel shows were modelled after a sort of entertainnent that black slaves engaged in, where they parodied various and sundry folk, mostly white, with exaggerated movements, funny voices, and all sorts of mocking characterizations--

Stephen Foster's songs were minstrel songs, and, I believe, he had his own minstrel troupe--

I think that the point that rock and roll was a white copy of black music is an important thing to consider--it seems that most of America's popular entertainment is white people trying to imitate blacks--

In the Year of Jubilo was written by an Abolitionist--Henry Clay Work, I believe--

As to the term "shine", it is right in there with "coon" on the list of highly inappropriate racial epithets-- "Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? Track Twenty Nine! Boy, you can give me a shine!!"


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Jeri
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 02:22 AM

Crowhugger, you're right - I made an assumption. I assumed that the people posting in this thread were not African Americans. I did this because none of the 'Catters I have met or seen pictures of appear to be black.

Additionally, I assumed that if someone entered a discussion about songs with offensive slang directed at their race, they would wish to identify themselves as belonging to that race to describe their perspective. I certainly would have mentioned being white if the situation were reversed.

In other words, I'd be extremely surprised if someone now said "I'm black, but I didn't think it was pertinent to discussing songs with words referring to my people as niggers or coons."


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Crowhugger
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 04:00 AM

Well, Jeri,

My Mother is half black, er, excuse me African-American, and I've been called nigger and been denied access to various things on that basis. But in my life, all that crapola doesn't have anything to do with how I'm going to approach difficult lyrics. Perhaps it does mean that I'll notice some of the more subtle racism [perhaps?!! ;-) ]

I struggle with brutality in lyrics as a singer, as a caring person, and with awareness that history cannot just be re-written. I do this out of empathy and integrity, and not at all because I am a descendant of black slaves.

The part of me that struggles with appropriation of voice finds it thoroughly amusing that this group of people, probably mostly white, think they have any understanding of the real effect of the period music. Amongst my own, we are singing our history. It only becomes complicated when a bunch of white folks might get their knickers in a twist. When you see "darkies" smirking, usually it's because whiteys think they know what they're talking about in matters of black culture, be it 19th century music or yesterday's police shooting of yet another unarmed black man.

Bottom line: yes there was a post from someone of A-A descent. You didn't know it because there are some things that take way too much effort to explain to "you." These conversations are generally held amongst our own because there is a basic understanding that would take a lifetime to explain. It's almost like spending time at home speaking in your mother tongue after a day at work in English.

So I alternately giggle and groan as I read this thread. After this posting, will anyone remember that I am a person, a singer, a (wannabe) cellist, daughter, dog lover, in-law, niece, tree climber, arranger/composer, quilter, sister, writer gardener? Or am I forever just part-black? My experience says the latter. Which is why I didn't "declare" in my earlier posting.

I'll stop now. I can go a while on the subject, you may have noticed!


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Troll
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 07:27 AM

To someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.If you are looking for racism, you can certainly find it or at least what you perceive to be racism.

But it is not always so. One can see racist sentiments in a song where the writer meant no such thing.Yet, once the accusation is made, that song and that writer are forever called racist. The same holds true for singers.

You can't please everyone. I can't think of a single song-with the possible exception of 'Happy Birthday To You" that someone somewhere wouldn't be offended by.

In the final analysis, make your song choices with sensitivity, be aware of your audience, change 'em if you feel you must, and be aware that somebody won't like it.

troll


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Grab
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 07:46 AM

Re Chattanooga Choo-Choo, I'd always thought 'shine' meant 'smile'. Is this where the term 'shine' for blacks comes in (like the aforementioned toothpaste)? Or am I wildly off-key here?

Generally, I'd say it was courteous to avoid singing songs which would be considered offensive by ppl around. I know a few fun but 'non-family' (if you get my drift :-) songs which I wouldn't sing at my local folk club, but there's another place I know of where they'd go down a treat.

But I think there's some songs that just don't work if you're a white person singing them. It'd sound odd if I was to sing about being a hobo in a boxcar, just as a black person singing songs about how they fought in the Irish civil war might sound a little out-of-place - I do think that realism plays some part in it. Same thing as there being some songs which are really women's songs and others which are men's songs. Maybe it's just me - I know that if I don't feel comfortable doing it then it's not going to work properly, though.

Grab.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Troll
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 07:55 AM

RE. Chatanooga Choo-Choo, "shine" simply means "shoe shine" If you're going to get offended by that song, get offended by "boy".

troll


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Bill in Alabama
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 08:32 AM

c'mon, folks-- Those of us old enough to remember (barely) a time when train stations, depots, and terminals were in heavy use remember that in most of the larger stations there was always a shoe-shine stand. In Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the speaker asks the shoe-shine boy for information and then says "you can give me a shine." I grant that the shoe-shine stands were usually manned by African-Americans, and I grant that, possibly, that may be where the epithet "shine" originated. But in that particular line of lyrics, the term is perfectly innocuous.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,jofield
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 08:49 AM

Exactly. My reference to Shine is of an old folk hero first described to me by an african-american friend from Opalousas, Louisiana. He remembered an old song about a girl drowning who cries out, "Oh Shine, oh Shine, please save poor me." It has nothing to do with shoeshines or Chatanooga Choo-Choo. But, as I said, the character pops up again in Jimmie Rodgers "Muleskinner Blues" -- "Good morning, Shine.", where Jimmie reveals his 'source' -- and his plagerism.

Whoever said that the history of popular music in America is really the history of black music being appropriated and commercialized by whites is right on the mark. The progression goes through Stephen Foster to Al Jolsen, Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Rodgers, and Elvis, with plenty of other names along the way -- listen to early Bing Crosby, for instance.

I would never dither over tunes like "Black Gal", which clearly have very old roots -- "In the Pines" is another version. What I have no time for is the music that was the original subject here -- the so-called "coon songs" of 1890 - 1930 or so. I still consider them white exploitation of the worst kind. No matter what seemingly innocent ditties people learned at camp or wherever, I don't care if I never hear the likes of "Rufus, Rastus, etc." again. As history, I suppose they have some interest. As music -- with but very few exceptions -- they're trash.

James.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 09:03 AM

Dear Crowhugger --

I have never seen you, nor your picture, and I know you only from your posts. To my mind's eye, you have always been a spirited, intelligent, sensitive and comely woman. And, in my sort of weird virtual way, I have thought of you as a member of my own extended group or even family on the Mudcat...one of those people I am happy to associate with and belong among.

Now that you have "outed" yourself, I think of you as a spirited, intelligent, sensitive and comely woman, and even more so, one of those people I am happy to belong with and associate with. Thanks for being a Catter. Thanks for climbing trees and playing the cello. Thanks for the post.

Amos

James,

Pure Rufus music _is_ trash, I agree. It was born of a toxic bubble of false and hellacious condescension, hypocrisy and a sort of patently, grimly false gentility which has no place in an honest world. If you find such a world, let me know. I know a lot of people who would be a lot happier there.

A


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: canoer
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 10:05 AM

Hi all,

Just listening and learning back here --

May I say to everyone, it is a pleasure to find people who are willing to put a lot of effort into working on this hellacious problem history has bequeathed us. And 'willing' is the most important part, to me.

Thanks, all.

Larry C.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Jeri
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 12:01 PM

Thank you for giving us your opinion, Crowhugger. There are some times when I feel even talking about a particular subject is going to get me into trouble, never mind what I actually say. I believe once we stop talking because we think others won't understand, or we assume we know how everyone will think and react, that's when the real trouble starts. The more honest viewpoints are presented, the greater the chance of understanding.

As far as "Or am I forever just part-black?" - I doubt I'd think about it unless race was the topic of discussion - and then only to try to understand your perspective. You've written too many other interesting, intelligent posts for me to focus on one.

When I consider singing an old song with lyrics that may be offensive, I don't worry so much about what people think - I worry about how they'll feel. I don't care if some people will wish to correct my speech or tell me a word isn't used today. I care that someone who hears it may be embarrassed, angry, or hurt. I think most of the time, I'm more uncomfortable with lyrics than others would be and make an erroneous assumption based on my own feelings.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Jon W.
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 12:53 PM

So is "darky" anywhere near as offensive as "nigger"? I never thought so but being somewhat naive in that area, I would gladly have my conciousness raised if necessary.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Art Thieme
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 01:08 PM

To me, the term politically correct is a semantic ploy created by the religious right in order to denegrate strongly held points of view of folks they differ with. These day, to say something is P.C. is to say it is completely worthless. That said, I believe the proper term should be ethically correct. By making an ethical feeling political, one instantly relegates it to the scrapheap of disallowed and debunked philosophy. By calling it ethical I am simply saying that this is now a strongly held belief based on having taken a serious look at a difficult topic and balanced the available information and come to a decision of sorts. An example would be how I, personally, have decided about religion. It explains why I am more of an agnostic rather than the complete atheist I used to think I was.

I have made an ethically proper decision when I changed the song printed in Sing Out once as MASSA OB DE SHEEPFOL' (and all of it's lyrics) to the ethically proper title --- to me at least ---MASTER OF THE SHEEPFOLD. I also changed the lyrics to the one verse of CATFISH JOHN for the whole 25 years I sang it. I did that not for any political reason. I did it because it was ethically proper to do that from my viewpoint.

Art Thieme


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Amos
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 01:14 PM

Spot on, Art. The nail has been hit on the head.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: M. Ted (inactive)
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 01:43 PM

Crowhugger,

Thanks for the wake up call--it is pretty easy to get up on a soapbox and take on the role of the all-knowing, all-understanding, all-explaining guru--and then caught being simplistic and condescending while there are poeple around who know more and better--

James,

In Muleskinner Blues, when the Captain called one of the muleskinners "Shine" I don't think he was invoking the name of an old folk hero, he was speaking to one of the muleskinners--I didn't realize, until I read Alan Lomax's wonderful and disturbing book,"The Land Where the Blues Began", that the muleskinners who built the Levee were all black, and that they were particularly brutalize by the white overseers-- As for more on the subject of "shine"--I have been looking around for the words to Ford T. Dabney and Cecil Mack's "That's Why They Call Me Shine"--as I recall, it begins with the phrase "Just because my hair is nappy"--Louis Armstrong performed this song for many years, much to the disgust of many of his contemporaries, particularly Duke Ellington--

Troll,

As to your point about many of these references being innocent as opposed to having racist intent--Here are the lyrics to one of Kate Smith's somehow forgotten hits, from the pens of Henderson and Brown, who also wrote "It had to Be You" and other great standards--

"Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That's why darkies were born. Someone had to laugh at trouble, though he was tired and worn, had to be content witb any old thing, That's Why Darkies were Born. Sing. Sing, Sing when you're weary, sing when you're blue Sing! Sing! That's what you taught all the white folks to do. Someone had to fight the devil, Shout about Gabriel's Horn, Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God's Children to Green Pastures, That's Why Darkies Were Born"

I would welcome your comments on this bit of innocence--


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: McGrath of Harlow
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 02:21 PM

"there's some songs that just don't work if you're a white person singing them. It'd sound odd if I was to sing about being a hobo in a boxcar, just as a black person singing songs about how they fought in the Irish civil war might sound a little out-of-place - I do think that realism plays some part in it." (That's quoting Grab)

1) I've never heard that hobos in boxcars were particularly likely to be black.

2)There weren't many black people around in Ireland at the time of the Civil War back in the Twenties. But there are a few more these days - and I'm sure there are a few people who'd count as black whose grandparents were involved in it. And I suspect there are black Amwericans wqith a lot more personal understanding of resisting oppression than most of their white compatriots, whatever their ancestry.

3) Men sing songs in the first person as a women, and woman sing songs in te first person as a man. I can't see how realism comes into. What does come into it is whether the singer can show that they can get inside the person in the song, and inside the song.

4) Art's right about the label "politically correct" being a bigots charter to sneer. If we've got to have a label for it when we use language in a respectful and courteous way, I suppose ethically correct is better.

But when we refrain from spitting on the floor in someone's front room, we don't have to give that a label, it's just a matter of not behaving offensively. I can't see much difference. (Next time someone sneers at you for being politically correct, you might just spit on their shoes, and ask 'em if that's ok by them.)

And changing the spelling of "MASSA OB DE SHEEPFOL'" to "MASTER OF THE SHEEPFOLD" is just commonsense, makes it easier for everyone to read including people who might well actually pronounce it was originally written, but wouldn't spell it that way...


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: GUEST,jofield, in Paris
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 02:50 PM

I see what you mean that "shine" may have been a condescending term used by white foremen. I'm still positive that this and the bulk of Jimmie Rodger's blues material was lifted from black musicians -- and came out of him in a wonderfully unique adaptation -- he made the blues his own. I thought the lyrics to the jazz tune began:

Just because my hair is curly,
Just because my teeth are pearly,

Maybe something that seems very clear to me is not so to others: lyrics like these and Bert Williams "Black and Blue" talk about race -- an all-too heavy reality for the singer -- but they do not burlesque or denigrate african-americans, not to me anyway. I can listen to "Shine" (though I prefer it as an instrumental) or "Black and Blue" and sense it comes from a real place - and they're good songs. But "Rufus, Rastus", and the myriad other "Coon" songs that were so popular during the first 20 years of the 20th century are just crude and musically entirely forgettable.

I gather that the comment about "innocent" references to race were not directed to me. A white songwriter's reference to race can hardly be called innocent. When W.C. Handy writes "what's that you say? I can't talk to my brown? A storm last night blew the wires all down...", he's trying to capture the talk of contemporary Memphians. When Irving Berlin writes "it's the grandest band what am, my honey lamb", he's intentionally using the white burlesque fabrication of how black people were alleged to talk, and he's doing it to get laughs and sell sheet music. (Not that W.C. minded selling sheet music either.)

James.


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Troll
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 03:21 PM

James makes my point for me.The type of song that I was refering to is a song like Chattanooga Choo-Choo and the use of the word "shine" in that song. As I stated in an earlier thread, "shine" refers to shoeshine.Every train station had a shoeshine stanMany of the songs of the early 20th century were written by people who were insensitive. Most of those songs would not see the light of day in todays media.

Art

"politically correct" became a term of ridicule when the desire to offend absolutely no one,not even inadvertantly, reached the point where,if you said "mankind" when referring to the human race (and even that term was suspect) someone would scream "sexist". I mean COME ON! As I stated earlier, when what you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. I agree that ethical decisions must be made every day. But what I see as ethical might not fit your definition. I have no right to try to shove my beliefs down your throat and thats what the "PC" movement tried to do. One of the PC methods is to use the "if you disagree, you're a bigot" line.

troll


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Subject: RE: Help: 'Coon Songs' Your Thoughts About Them
From: Troll
Date: 29 Feb 00 - 03:24 PM

continuation of previous post.

This is called in Logic "Argumentum ad Hominum". If you discretit the man, you discredit his argument.

troll


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