White girls trying to sing like black girls is not a new phenomenon in pop music. A century and more ago, a less polite and sensitive time, such white performers were called “coon shouters.” They were in many ways the female equivalent of minstrels, and some began their careers in blackface. They sang what white folks took to be blues and jazz and rag; they belted and moaned and shimmied; they exuded raw desire and humor, and generally performed in ways white folks thought black folks did. Just as the first minstrels, primarily of Irish or German descent, passed the form down to mostly Jewish ones by the 1900s, coon shouters of the twentieth century tended to be Jewish. It was entry-level schtick, especially for those who in one way or another didn’t conform to contemporary standards of stage pulchritude.
May Irwin was one of the first coon shouters, and helped set a pattern followed by many others. Born Ada Campbell near Toronto in 1862, she was large and fleshy even by expansive Victorian standards, with a milk-and-roses complexion that showed her Irish heritage. She and her sister Georgia, who took the stage name Flo Irwin, became a singing sensation at Tony Pastor’s variety theater in the mid-1870s. They split up in the 1880s, and May went on to belt out coon songs both in blackface and not. “The Bully Song,” her biggest hit, begins: “Have yo’ heard about dat bully dat’s just come to town/ He’s round among de niggers a-layin’ their bodies down.” She performed it in a Broadway musical review of 1895, The Widow Jones, which also included a lingering kiss with her co-star. Thomas Edison caught the show and got the stars to come to his studio, where he filmed The Kiss. The first recorded osculation in American cinema, it’s only twenty seconds long and they actually talk and giggle more than they kiss, but it was denounced anyway by moralists who were already seeing film as a tool of the devil. Like many coon shouters after her, Irwin was as noted for her comic skills as for her singing and her sexy scandals.
Irwin has since come to be known as “the first of the red hot mamas.” That’s a nod to her pioneering the trail followed by Sophie Tucker, who famously billed herself as the last. Tucker was born Sonya Kalish in 1886 while her mom was fleeing Russia for America, where her dad was waiting for them. The family settled in Hartford, and she grew up doing kitchen work in their restaurant. She married a guy named Tuck, then left him and an infant son to become Sophie Tucker. Another big, moon-faced gal, she started out in blackface when, as she records in her autobiography, the manager of an amateur hour show declared, “This one’s so big and ugly the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up.”
From that ignominious start she brazened and brassed her way to stardom in vaudeville, the Follies, nightclubs, records and movies. Along with The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, she was billed as The World-Renowned Coon Shouter and, least appositely, The Queen of Jazz. A bit like Mae West in her day or Madonna later, what she lacked in looks and performing skills she made up for with the power of her persona, bowling audiences over with humor, schmaltz and innuendo, whatever it took. In Portland, Oregon in 1910 cops hauled her off a vaudeville stage for performing “The Angle Worm Wiggle.” It wasn’t the song itself, she wrote, but the way she “used my hands snakily up and down my body as I sang, producing, as I hoped, a naughty effect to put the song across.” A district attorney who read the lyrics but evidently didn’t see the show dropped the charges. “I was left sitting on top of the world with pages and pages of publicity and a line at the box office three blocks long. The theater held me over for two more weeks…”
As she expanded her repertoire Tucker became known for all sorts of numbers, from coon songs like “It’s Moving Day in Jungle Town” (performed at the Follies in blackface, with a chorus costumed as jungle animals) to that tear-jerker nonpareil “My Yiddishe Momme,” from the torchy “Some of These Days” to the ragtimey “There’s a Blue Ridge ‘Round My Heart, Virginia.” She flourished in nightclub floor shows, where she could flirt and joke around with the swells at their tables to maximum effect. Long after she’d blown out her voice she continued to charm and tickle her fans. She ended her career as a grande dame of nostalgia, talking her songs on stage and on tv into the mid-1960s. It’s said that when she died in 1966 at the age of eighty she was booked solid for the next two years.
Irving Berlin owed his first success to yet another zaftig, round-faced belter, Emma Carus. In 1910, still a struggling nobody, he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” an odd mixture of ragtime and a march with coon song lyrics (“That’s just the bestest band what am”). The deep-voiced Carus, “The Whoop-Em-Up Singing Star,” introduced the song on the vaudeville stage. Her singing it was a key endorsement, because she too was a renowned coon shouter who claimed that she had learned "the negro dialect from a colored man, known only to posterity as ‘Frog Eyes.’" She also called herself "the human dialect cocktail" and sang novelty songs in a variety of other then-popular stage accents, including Irish, Cockney, Scottish and "Dutch" (German). The last was no doubt easiest for her: She grew up in Berlin and only came to the States with her family in her early teens. After Carus debuted it, everybody in vaudeville started sticking Berlin’s song into their acts and recording it on cylinder and disc, and it blew up huge. The press took to calling Berlin the Ragtime King, which galled Scott Joplin, who was convinced he heard a few of his own riffs in the tune.
At around the same time, Berlin helped the gawky twenty-year-old Fanny Brice break through to the big time doing another ethnic novelty number. As a knock-kneed teen with more chutzpah than chops, Brice (nee Borach) had started out doing her own coon shouting in amateur-hour talent shows. In 1910 Berlin gave her one of his songs to introduce, “Sadie Salome Go Home!” Known in the trade as Salomers, dancers doing various takes on Salome’s striptease had been a mainstay on burlesque and vaudeville stages for so long by then that some performers got big laughs doing parody versions. The wide-hipped Carus did her own joke version in Flo Ziegfeld’s first Follies in 1907. “Sadie Salome” was Berlin’s idea of a parody song. Sadie is a nice Jewish goyl who wants to be an actress but can only find work doing the Salome strip. The song is sung by her boyfriend Moses, who when he sees her doing her dance jumps out of his seat and cries:
Oy, Oy, Oy, Oy, where is your clothes?
You better go and get your dresses,
Everyone’s got the op’ra glasses.
Oy! such a sad disgrace
No one looks in your face;
Sadie Salome, go home.
Brice had to learn a whole new stage dialect to put the song across. Although she was born Jewish on the Lower East Side, she’d grown up in New Jersey and Brooklyn in an assimilated household with Western European roots. No one on her family knew Yiddish or spoke with the stereotyped oy-oy-oy Eastern European accent. But once she picked it up to sing “Sadie” she ran with it all the way to the bank. While she continued to do the coon shouting on songs like “Please Don’t Take My Lovin’ Man Away,” she became better known as a “Yiddish delineator,” as in her signature song “Second Hand Rose” from the 1921 Follies, where she makes hats hets and dollar dolleh. (In 1968, Barbra Streisand would add her own layer of Yiddish delineation playing Brice in the movie Funny Girl, produced by the notoriously hardcase Hollywood macher Ray Stark, who happened to be Brice’s son-in-law. The year before, the funny and eccentric Ian Whitcomb, sort of a British Tiny Tim, had resuscitated “Sadie Salome” in a knees-up music hall rendition on his album Yellow Underground.)
In the long last phase of her career, from the 1930s until her death in 1951, Brice became a big radio star doing yet another type of delineation as the bratty four-year-old Baby Snooks. In her forties and fifties she wore a baby costume when broadcasting the show before live audiences, effectively bringing the dialect cocktail tradition from blackface to babyface. The 1938 musical Everybody Sing offers the weird spectacle of a teenage Judy Garland in a Buster Brown outfit playing the older sibling to the middle-aged baby Brice, who towers over her.
As the twentieth century progressed, blacks shamed whites into not using terms like coon, coon song and coon shouter quite so cavalierly. But that didn’t stop the performing style. The gravel-voiced Rose Marie of The Dick Van Dyke Show started out as the bizarrely adult child star Baby Rose Marie in the late 1920s. Her act, another sort of babyface, was pure kiddie coon shouting, like a strange little three-year-old Bessie Smith impersonator. Janis Joplin was surely the premiere coon shouter of the 1960s. And all the white girls belting their melismatic hearts out trying to out-Whitney Whitney and out-Mariah Mariah have brought the tradition into this century.
by John Strausbaugh