WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN

When Sousa Comes to Coon-Town

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “When Sousa comes to coon-town”

Composer:  Jim Vaughn & Lemonier

Lyricist:  Alex Rogers

Publisher:  Shapiro, Bernstein and Company

Year & Place:  1902, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-184

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0184

Basic Description

The scene in this two-color (red and blue) lithograph is an outdoor parade, dominated by the banner “WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN.”  Underneath the banner is an orchestra of regimented white men, marching in unison in blue uniforms and led by a baton-wielding man with a beard and spectacles.  Surrounding the band are an enthralled audience of caricatured, white-lipped, beady-eyed, black people.  Most prominent among the caricatured throngs are: a top hat-wearing elderly man (on the far right); a bandanna- and apron-wearing rotund woman (parallel to the bandleader); and, just underneath the bandleader, six grotesque children who seem to be imitating him.

Personal Description

The inset box in the sheet music’s lower left corner, featuring formal photographs of African American performers Bert Williams and George Walker (along with titles and accolades), creates a fascinating counterpoint to the sheet music’s comical and stereotypical illustration.  Although the photographs convey a conceptual truth about these specific African Americans, the illustration does not operate without its own “truths” (i.e., the drawn “portrait” of the legendary bandleader John Phillip Sousa).  So the dilemma this sets up for viewers is: do these real portrayals in any way counter the adjacent images of absurd and degenerative African Americans?

Reality Check

jamesreeseeurope

The Clef Club Orchestra (with James Reese Europe), circa 1910

The Clef Club was a part fraternal organization, part union for African American entertainers at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The building it purchased on West 53rd Street served both as the club’s headquarters and as an office for theatrical bookings.  Legendary bandleader and musician James Reese Europe was the Clef Club’s first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.

The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912.  They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914.  The Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society and, as a result, they regularly performed at elite functions in New York, London, and Paris.  The club functioned as a clearing-house not only for musicians, but for all types of entertainers and, under Europe’s leadership, it was actively involved in improving the working conditions for African American entertainers.  When an act was booked through the Clef Club, the musicians were considered professionals and received a good salary, transportation expenses, room, and board.  The club proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at the height of its popularity.

One Clef Club Orchestra performance boasted 150 musicians, although not everyone who was on stage in some shows could actually play an instrument. Some were purely window-dressing, taught just enough to get them through performances, while others simply pretended to play their instruments.  In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned as its leader and Ford Dabney took over his spot as bandleader.

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