Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Zip Coon" for President: A Popular Song of the Jacksonian Era

In the second quarter of the Nineteenth century, a new form of entertainment arrived on the American stage. First introduced in the cities of the Northeast, minstrel shows featured alternating sets of songs, jokes, comical speeches and dancing.The actors were almost always whites performing in blackface, utilizing familiar stereotypes of African-Americans to comment on the issues of the day.Bawdy, topical and unabashedly blue-collar, the minstrel show soon became hugely popular and a major fixture in the national culture.

The phenomenon of politics in minstrel shows is exemplified by one of the earliest songs connected with that entertainment genre. The origins of “Zip Coon” are mysterious. It is said to have been composed by a circus performer before 1830 (although its current-events verses can obviously be dated with greater certainty). It was around this year that “Zip Coon” became a regular feature of George Washington Dixon’s minstrel act.

The eponymous “hero” of the song is an African-American man noted for amatory prowess and delusions of grandeur.This character type was inspired by the large numbers of free blacks who became a fixture of Northeastern city life when that region emancipated most of its slaves in the early Nineteenth century. “Zip Coon” became the accepted name for the boastful urban dandy on the minstrel stage, while “Jim Crow” was his humbler country counterpart. The cover illustration for an 1834 version of “Zip Coon” shows him affecting the latest style and wielding a pair of pince-nez, totally oblivious to the absurdity of his appearance. This image follows minstrel actors’ portrayals of the African-American as a clown whose outlandish costume was matched by pretentious, grammatically-inept speech. Racially offensive to modern ears, there is nevertheless some authenticity in the black English dialect of minstrel shows. It has been argued that many of the colloquialisms in songs like “Zip Coon” can be verified by a study of African-American speech patterns in that period. For example, the th sound was uncommon among black American speakers--as it is today in African languages--and replaced with the t sound. Thus Zip Coon says “I hab many tings to tork about . . .” Here we have evidence that at least some writers of ethnic minstrelsy had done their homework.

In the 1834 sheet music noted above, the initial verse has our protagonist calling himself a “larned skolar,” only to end with the line “Sings possum up a gum tree an coony in a holler.” Zip Coon is introduced to his audience as a fellow who aspires to gentility, but whose plebeian backwoods origins are all too apparent. The white stereotype of black men’s reputation among women is revealed in the next verse, when “old Suky blue skin” tries to win Zip Coon’s heart. But the minstrel show’s habit of mixing politics with entertainment is compellingly evident in two later verses.

By the early 1830s, the Second Bank of the United States had become highly controversial among Americans of different social levels. When President Andrew Jackson vetoed the Bank’s recharter bill and began withdrawing government deposits, the Bank’s leadership responded with a reduction of earning assets. This effort to prompt public outrage over Jacksonian policy also led to bitter feelings toward the Bank, as noted in “Zip Coon”:

I tell you what will happin den, now bery soon,
De Nited States Bank will be blown to de moon;
Dare General Jackson, will him lampoon,
An de bery nex President, will be Zip Coon.

It is easy to imagine an audience of working-class men roaring with approval as Dixon or one of his competitors delivered this verse. Andrew Jackson’s heroic image is burnished in a stanza from an alternate version, published around 1835; it vividly describes the event which won “Old Hickory” national renown:

I pose you heard ob de battle New Orleans,
Whar ole Gineral Jackson gib de British beans;
Dare de Yankee boys do de job so slick,
For dey cotch old Packenham an rowed him up de creek.

President Jackson was not the only public figure to receive a nod in the song. Zip Coon admonishes “you tarnel kritter Crocket” to wait for him, for “Zip shall be President, Crocket shall be vice, / An den dey two together, will hab de tings nice.” By the early 1830s, Colonel David “Davy” Crockett had already served in Congress and was campaigning for reelection. The enormously popular frontiersman had become an outspoken critic of Jackson’s policies, and there were indeed plans to run Crockett against Jackson in the 1836 presidential race.

In the “Era of the Common Man,” the minstrel show developed as a source of both hilarity and social commentary, using clownish stock characters to seize the audience’s attention and loosen them up before treating them to a dose of reality. Minstrel songs are therefore a useful guide to the ways ordinary people interpreted issues in society, economy and politics, and none more so than “Zip Coon.”

2 Comments:

Anonymous Philip Rogers said...

The Second Bank of the US controversy is of interest to me as it relates to the Andrew Jackson and his era which promoted black-face minstrelsy. It would be good to receive information on resources that discuss details of the controversy and why it existed.

1:11 PM  
Blogger FortyRounder said...

Philip, thanks for commenting. There was a volume of Nicholas Biddle's correspondence (he was Bank president) published many decades ago which can doubtless be ordereed through interlibrary loan. For the Bank War portion of the paper I relied on a few journal articles: Jacob P. Meerman, "The Climax of the Bank War: Biddle's Contraction, 1833-34," from the Journal of Political Economy, and Harry N. Scheiber, "Some Documents on Jackson's Bank War," Pennsylvania History. Both of these appeared in 1963.

11:44 PM  

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