Wednesday, July 23, 2008

'Clar de Kitchen'

Perry's Selection; or, Singing for the Million: Containing the Choicest and Best Collection of Admired, Patriotic, Comic, Irish, Negro, Temperance, and Sentimental Songs, Ever Embodied in One Work. Philadelphia: John B. Perry, 1850. 224-225.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Racism, minstrels and 'Old Zip Coon'

An etymology of how "coon" came to be a racial epithet ... from stage characters like Raccoon, a black character who sang an early variant of "Yankee Doodle" in an 18th-century American play, and "Old Zip Coon" of minstrel show fame to a well-known and thoroughly vicious (although perhaps unintentionally so) song called "All Coons Look Alike to Me" in 1896. In a word, the stereotype became more racist as the 19th century wore on. At first, in fact, it didn't refer especially to blacks. Social historian David Roediger explains its early origins:
A song like 'All Coons Look Alike to Me' could, quite simply, not have been written before 1848, because human coons were typically white until that point. It is true that Zip Coon and Raccoon strutted on early American stages, but the word coon referred to a white country person, to a sharpster or, in phrases like a pretty slick coon, to both.

To complicate matters, the eagerness of the Whig party to identify with rural white common people led it to adopt symbols like Davy Crockett's coonskin cap and, in the 'log cabin and hard cider' presidential campaign of 1840, to nail coonskins to supporters' cabin doors and to use live coons as signs of party loyalty. Thus Whigs also became 'coons, especially in the speech of Democrats, who cursed Whigs in 'coongress' and Whig 'coonventions', Whig 'coonism' and a lack of Whig 'coonsistency'. The Whigs, to New York City Democrats, were a "Federal Whig Coon Party' -- a slur that, though sometimes seen in historical writing as racist, probably had nothing to do with the Whigs' slightly greater tolerance for antislavery. Instead, the accusation was that Whigs were sly political manipulators, posturing in coonskin as friends of the common man. (80)
But ... but ... the context is important here. Roediger suggests the term "first emerge[d] as a racial slur" on the minstrel stage, probably from Old Zip Coon and "the many references to coon-hunting and eating coons in blackface songs" (80-81)

For an overview of the "coon" stereotype, especially in its later and more dehumanizing manifestations, see Ferris State University sociologist David Pilgrim's webpage "The Coon Stereotype" for the Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University.

Work(s) Cited
Roediger, David R. Excerpt from The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. 1991. In The Nature of History Reader. Ed Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow. London: Routledge, 2004. Roediger is described as a "leftist historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign US who specialises in the history of labour, race relations and the South" (79).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spirituals in WWII classical oratorio

Mentioned in passing in an article in the July print issue of Grammophone, the British classical music magazine, on Britten's War Requiem and other classical music written in the aftermath of 20th-century wars ... an oratorio by the British composer Sir Michael Tippett called A Child of Our Time. Composed between 1939 and 1941, A Child incorporates African-American spirituals in a choral work about events leading up to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Says Lisa Traiger, writing for the website All About Jewish Theatre about a 2005 production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.:
Gordon Hawkins, a Phoenix-based soloist who has sung with the Metropolitan and the Washington National operas, will fly in from a Miami engagement with the Florida Grand Opera, to sing with the chorus on Sunday.

He considers Tippett's use of Negro spirituals a curative: "I think he uses spirituals not only as commentary, but as a healing. There's a difference between those who persecute and those who are persecuted. If [the Negro spirituals] were just for the persecuted, there would be a psalm that said, 'Don't worry, things will be better for you in another lifetime, in another place.' "

But, when Hawkins sings the spiritual, "Go Down Moses," it is used not as a palliative, but as a means of igniting the passion to fight back, to challenge what took place in Nazi Germany.

"The whole thrust of the piece," he said, "of course, has to be in the context of World War II. While everything happening in the United States [during that period] was in the context of the races, Tippett did not just make a Negro spiritual oratorio. That's not the point.

"The point," Hawkins continued, "is the universality: There's a component of the Negro spiritual that contains something in common that we can all simply relate to." (Brackets in the original.)
Added Robert Schaffer, director of the Washington Chorus, which performed the piece, "Many of these spirituals are very familiar to American audiences -- 'Deep River,' 'Go Down Moses' and others -- so there's an American impact and contribution to the piece. Negro spirituals came out of another time of great oppression with slavery during the 19th century and before."

A Child of Our Time has been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, directed by the composer.

The article in Grammophone, by Armando Ianucci, is titled "Finding My Place" (p. 24). Its lede paragraph is especially memorable:
In the middle of The-War-on-Terror-and-the-Taliban-and-Iraq-and-Insurgents-and-Saudi-Funded-Jihadists-and-as-inevitably-as-night-follows-day-Iran, there will no doubt soon be a whole catalogue of musical works that celebrate, commemorate or commiserate the frightful mess of the world we seem to have made. At stupefyingly awful times like these, the composer becomes political, emerges as someone who feels obliged to come up with a definite response to international events."
Not only do I think that's an apt characterization of the last seven years of U.S. (and British) foreign policy. The way Ianucci uses his hyphens appeals to the recovering English teacher in me.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

'Clar de Kitchen' -- notes on a minstrel tune

A popular song by minstrel showman and singer "Daddy Rice," dated in 1832, was parodied -- apparently pretty well -- in the spring of that year when a steamboat made it up the Sangamon River within hailing distance of Springfield. Printed in The Sangamo Journal, it was to be sung to the melody of "Clar de Kitchen" (minstrel-show dialect for "Clear the Kitchen"). I found enough material on line to get a good start at learning the song, with a little help from Interlibrary Loan and ordering a CD from

It's on a collection of minstrel tunes by contemporary drop-thumb banjo players Joe Ayers, Clarke Buehling, Bobby Winans, Bob Flesher, Bob Carlin, and Tony Trischka on the Rounder label.

The 2nd South Carolina String Band also has a version, a little livelier to judge by the mp3 snippets available on the Internet. Apparently it went into oral tradition, too, since the Ben Gray Lumpkin Digital Folk Music Collection at the University of Colorado has a field recording collected in 1962.

The lyrics and a MIDI file are linked to Benjamin Robert Tubb's "Music from 1800-1860" page (incidentally a handy year-by-year source for minstrel songs and parlor music of the day) in the Public Domain Music website. Tubb also has listings for hymns, spirituals and Sacred Harp songs.

The blurb on has this to say:
Popularized by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, the text is close to the tradition of Negro humor. In a succession of nonsense verses we meet various animals, an old blind horse; a joy bird sitting on a hickory limb; a bull frog dressed in soldier's clothes; and a little whip-poor-will whose sad fate is to be eaten. The tag "I wish I was" was destined to become a stock item in minstrel songs and folk music.

George Nichols was the first to sing "Clare" in public and is said to have adapted it from a melody which Nichols had heard sung by Negro fireman on the Miss. River. Stephen Foster's family musical group, the "Thespian Company" sang this on their programs. The song uses the cakewalk rhythm in its melody.
Unless I'm missing something, I'd guess the cakewalk was a later development that no doubt came down from earlier songs like "Clar de Kitchen." It sounds like a jig to me.

Steve Leggett's All Music Guide says in a review of the Rounder album excerpted on the Yahoo! shopping guide the "tunes are pleasant enough sounding on the surface, the banjo tones are round and gentle, ... if one can set aside the ugly racial problems in America that really drove the minstrel phenomenon," but the lyrics are "are layered with subliminal cultural baggage and cruel ironies that are difficult to set aside even all these years later." This song isn't as bad as some of the others, though, and, as the folks at suggest, the talking animals might -- possibly -- suggest a derivation, however indirect, from African American folklore of the day.

The music is printed in The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, at pp. 277-78. under XII, Blackface Minstrel and Negro Songs; and in The Voices that Are Gone by Jon Finson, at pp 173-174.