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A Bad Rap

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


Background | Reading a 19th-century Music Sheet Cover

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A historian would want to know how much real choice Cook and Dunbar had when they wrote their lyrics. Clearly they had to "pander," to some extent, to what white people thought was "real" African American culture. The lyrics may make modern readers cringe. But Cook had an African American audience as well, and he also wanted to write music that genuinely expressed something of African Americna culture. Remember that Cook himself was a middle class, educated man of rare talent and experience. He would have been distant, in many ways, from the people he wrote about.

How would you judge these lyrics to “Darktown is Out Tonight”?

1. Hey dere Sal, come on gal! Jine dis promenade!
2. Tek mah ahm, What's de harm? Needn't be afraid!
3. Dar's old Dan, watch that man, comin' down the line
4. Dat 'ol coon, Hot-tah'n June, Longin' sweatin' time
5. Howdy do? Hope dat you, Joy yo-se'f immense!
6. Reckon Bess, got dat dress, Off Miss Lucy's fence
7. Clear de paf! Needn't laf! Dat'll be alright!
8.White fo'ks yo' got no sho'; Dis heh's Darktown night, And there'll be
1. Warm coons a prancin' Swell coons a dancin'
2. Tough coons who'll want to fight
3. So bring 'long yo blazahs, Fetch out yo razahs
4. Darktown is out tonight!
1. Watch dat pair, dey 'doan care, how dey lif dere feet
2. Gracus me, Jul'us he, nevah could be beat!
3. Whah's dat Lize? I'se surprise! Rekon she can't come
4. Neveh know, her so slow, Jinin' in de fun.
5. Yondah's Lize, wid heh size, What's she spec to do?
6. Needn't grin, she can't win, thought she'd wa'k wid you
7. Bless de lam! Heh come Sam, Wid Clorinda too!
8. Now's de time, Git in line, Sho' what you kin do. For there'll be

Cook's song makes extensive use of dialect, as did all minstrel show tunes. Sometimes the dialect was an attempt to convey African American accents acurrately; other times it served merely to demonstrate "ignorance." For example, "sho" for "show" in line eight of the first verse. The dialect spelling reflects how everyone pronounces "show." Similarly, "laf" for "laugh" in line seven:"laf" is an accurate description of how the word sounds when properly pronounced.

The song also makes frequent reference to "coons." Before the Civil War the word was used to describe young men of all races, especally fancy-dressed men out for a good time. In the minstrel show it gradually came to be identified soley with African Americans. "Darktown" was also a popular word used to describe any African American neighborhood: it appears in many minstrel songs

Though Cook did not avoid the almost obligatory description of "razors"—a staggering number of minstrel tunes make reference to razors as weapons—he also, in line 8 of the first verse, makes a clear call to black pride, as it says "white folks got no show." The song, in the context of the times, is earthy, joyous, and celebratory. The music is infectious, optimistic, and triumphant, and the song was a big hit with both white and black audiences

Updated | April 2004