The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator

Matthew D. Morrison

Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, New York University
Assistant Professor
A Decade in Transition: The “Coon Song” and American Popular Music in the 1980s

The 1890s is the epitome of a decade “in flux” within the U.S. popular music industry. As the phonograph, along with other industrial developments, went from a novel invention to a commercial product, the sounds that were once reserved for live stage performance could now be recorded, replayed, and widely disseminated without the live performer(s). At the top this decade, a virtuosic African American street entertainer named George Washington Johnson, born in Virginia in 1846, made two of the first commercial phonographic recordings in New York City. These recordings went on to become the best-selling records in the United States by 1895. Johnson’s wildly popular tunes, “The Whistling Coon'' and “The Laughing Song,” were recorded during the same decade in which the modern music industry became centralized in NYC through what was eventually dubbed “Tin Pan Alley.” This paper investigates how Johnson’s recordings, along with the sheet music and performance of other “coon songs” during the last decade of the nineteenth century, helped to lay the aesthetic, cultural, and economic foundation of the burgeoning popular music industry. As popular music had already been shaped by the first original form of popular entertainment to take hold of the nation during slavery—blackface minstrelsy—the “coon songs” that emerged in the last decade of the century were built upon the aesthetic and racist foundations of blackface, while black performers made attempts to push against its legacy in the creation of popular music during the 1890s. This paper will demonstrate that early recording technologies relied upon the (exploited) labor, aesthetics, and intellectual (performance) property of African Americans that became a standardized practice in the making of the modern commercial music industry.

Matthew D. Morrison, a native of Charlotte, NC, is an Assistant Professor in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Columbia University and has held fellowships at institutions from Harvard University, to the Library of Congress, to the Center for Popular Music Studies. He is currently completing a book titled, Blacksound: Making Race and Popular Music in the U.S.