Blackface, Reconsidered





I wrote a piece in yesterday's New York Times about Sophie Tucker, whose earliest recordings, some almost a century old, have been released for the first time in decades on a new CD. I describe Tucker's rise from the burlesque and variety stage circuit to vaudeville stardom and note her origins as a "coon shouter"—a performer of blackface songs.

In Salon, Sady Doyle has written a response to my Times article titled "Can a feminist hero do blackface?" Doyle says some generous things about my piece. She also writes: "Rosen begins his piece with a list of Tucker's nicknames, but leaves one out: ‘Queen of the Coon Shouters.' Her fame came through minstrelsy." Later, Doyle concludes that "without letting Tucker off the hook," the singer's eventual abandonment of blackface performance and "move towards authenticity" makes her "worthy of lasting consideration."

Strictly speaking, Doyle is wrong on the facts: Sophie Tucker's fame didn't "come through minstrelsy." Her stardom arrived only after she stopped wearing burnt cork, sometime around 1909. (Also, for the record, an earlier draft of my Times piece included the mention of a different Tucker nickname: "A Revelation in Coonology." It was removed by my Times editors for space considerations.) More important, despite my obvious enthusiasm for Tucker's music, I'm totally uninterested in the notion of her heroism, feminist or otherwise...

... It's especially important to understanding popular music, whose history—from Stephen Foster to Tucker to Bing Crosby to Janis Joplin to Mick Jagger to Eminem and on and on ad infinitum—is enmeshed with blackface tradition. For years, minstrelsy was such a hot-button topic that scholars dared not touch it. This is one reason why important musicians like Tucker have received little serious attention in the last many decades.


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