Ragged But Right


Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

from http://www.upress.state.ms.us:

The commercial explosion of ragtime in the early twentieth century created previously unimagined opportunities for black performers. However, every prospect was mitigated by systemic racism. The biggest hits of the ragtime era weren’t Scott Joplin’s stately piano rags. “Coon songs,” with their ugly name, defined ragtime for the masses. Though the name itself is offensive to modern ears, it is impossible to investigate black popular entertainment of the ragtime era without directly confronting the “coon songs” which cleared the way for the “original blues.”

In Ragged but Right Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff investigate musical comedy productions, sideshow bands, and itinerant tented minstrel shows. Ragtime history is crowned by the “big shows,” the stunning musical comedy successes of blackface performers Williams and Walker, Bob Cole, and Ernest Hogan. Under the big tent of Tolliver’s Smart Set, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, and others were converted from “coon shouters” to “blues singers.” Throughout the ragtime era, circuses and Wild West shows exploited the popular demand for black musicians and performers yet segregated and subordinated them to the sideshow tent. Minstrel shows have long been marginalized in discussions of the history of blues and jazz. Yet this overlooked black entertainment industry helped to move blues and jazz into the mainstream.

Drawing from careful reading of the Indianapolis Freeman, Chicago Defender, and other black newspapers and mainstream entertainment trade papers, the authors reveal a torrent of creativity that swept thousands of black writers, performers, musicians, and entrepreneurs into the professional ranks despite the overt racism of the times.

Lynn Abbott works for the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. Doug Seroff is an independent scholar living in Greenbrier, Tennessee.

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