Jim Crow and the ‘Coon songs’…

I listened to a discussion on Thinking Allowed on radio 4 today about the role of comedy in racism, and anti-racism. It reminded me again of something close to home.

I have written previously about this rock, known as ‘Jim Crow’ which is across the road from where I live-

 

Photo by Scott Adams- http://www.flickr.com/photos/10021898@N02/797575782/in/photostream

The history of the rock is the subject of much debate- some of my friends who are local to Dunoon feel protective of it as a local landmark- it has been decorated in this way for well over 100 years, and is one of those local features that people remember, and celebrate, from childhood.

It has been suggested that the rock was so named after a garage owned by Jim Crow in the vicinity, although I know someone who has done some research in the public records and can find no sign of such a business, or of a person with that name.

In my earlier post, I pointed out the link with a tradition that emerged in another place- the ‘Minstrel shows’ of 19th Century America, in which ‘Jim Crow’ was a negative caricature of  a black man. The words ‘Jim Crow’ became an insult that was used alongside other offensive words like ‘Nigger’ and ‘Coon’. It also became a catch-all phrase for a set of segregation laws adopted by states across the USA that were oppressive and amounted to state sponsored rascism- the Jim Crow Laws.

The question remains however as to why a rock came to be decorated in this way in a sleepy little seaside town on the West Coast of Scotland?

I think the answer lies in the incredible popularity of the minstrel shows, and the wave of songs and dances that captured popular imagination at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries. Quite why this form of entertainment became so popular is difficult for us to understand from a post modern perspective. It was carried along by a new beat and verve brought by ragtime music and cakewalk rhythms but perhaps also by a rather more sinister human characteristic- the need to look down upon, or even demonise the other.

Coon songs‘ sung either by black performers, or more often, white men with black painted faces, were incredibly popular. Some of these songs sold millions of copies of sheet music all over the world.

The Coon songs were performed in popular shows wherever entertainment was required- particularly in mass holiday destinations- like 19th Century Dunoon, at the height of the age of steamers on the Clyde. According to an entry on Wikipedia, this is what they were all about-

Coon songs’ defining characteristic, however, was their caricature of African Americans. In keeping with the older minstrel image of blacks, coon songs often featured “watermelon- and chicken-loving rural buffoon[s].”[14] However, “blacks began to appear as not only ignorant and indolent, but also devoid of honesty or personal honor, given to drunkenness and gambling, utterly without ambition, sensuous, libidinous, even lascivious.”[14] Blacks were portrayed as making money through gamblingtheft, and hustling, rather than working to earn a living,[14] as in the Nathan Bivins song “Gimme Ma Money”:

Last night I did go to a big Crap game,
How dem coons did gamble wuz a sin and a shame…
I’m gambling for my Sadie,
Cause she’s my lady,
I’m a hustling coon, … dat’s just what I am.[15]

Towards the end of the era of Coon songs, it seems that people began to object to the racism at the heart of the formulae. There is also some evidence that black performers began to subvert the songs by turning some of the humour back at the white listeners. Laurie Taylor, as part of the discussion on the radio today placed these songs in a longer line of black comedy, including Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, who use humour to confront their audience with the narrow stereotypes they might otherwise regard as acceptable. However, there also appears to be a danger in this form of activism, as in some ways it gives permission to air these views.

There was also an interesting point about how certain popular performers can be seen  ‘exceptions’ to a more wider prejudicial view. In this way, they confirm the stereotype as much as they confront it.

Richard Pryor stopped making jokes using the word ‘Nigger’- here he is (WARNING– as ever, his language is a bit fruity.)

Back to the rock.

I had previously suggested that I would like to see it redecorated.

I certainly would still like to see more local knowledge of the tradition that this rock comes from, as I think we always need to learn the lessons of history, lest we repeat the mistakes again.

Lest we find a new section of the population to demonise.

3 thoughts on “Jim Crow and the ‘Coon songs’…

  1. Pingback: The battle against racism returns to Dunoon’s foreshore… « this fragile tent

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