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Table of Contents What Is A Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What Is the Song's Structure? What Was the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Song American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try It Yourself! Download Entire Essay (Adobe PDF) Who created the song? When? Why?

If the musical item at hand is a piece of printed music, then by law the names of the lyricist and composer will be printed at the top of the music. If it is an LP or CD, then the names will be printed on the label and/or the cover. Perhaps the same person composed both words and music, a practice that became much more common in the twentieth century. Even if we are dealing with a “folk song,” it is reasonable to assume that someone must have been the first to sing those words, to sing that tune, and to put words and tune together. In this case, however, the song’s creators are typically unknown to many people who sing the song, although research will sometimes reveal the identity of an author and lyricist in the not-too-distant past. Most people in the United States know “Auld Lang Syne” (1788, 1799) and “Happy Birthday” (1893). But how many know that Robert Burns wrote the words to the former or that Mildred and Patty Hill composed the tune of the latter and published it in 1893 in a kindergarten songbook with the lyric, “Good morning to all”?

To assign credit to a lyricist and a composer, however, does not always tell us who created the song we see, much less the song we hear. Who created the harmonies? Who worked out the accompaniment on piano or guitar? If we’re listening to a recording, who produced it? If we’re watching a video, who created the choreography and the visual sequences? In this sense, most songs have many creators, particularly when we talk about songs as they are performed and recorded. Many of these creators can be identified, their roles explored.

We often want to date the creation of a song—for example, to understand the circumstances of its creation or to understand its place in the creator’s biography. Printed music almost always transmits a date of publication; by the 1970s recordings often included a date on the label. For earlier recordings, try to find the date in a discography like those published by Brian Rust and his collaborators, listed in the annotated bibliography. But in many cases a song was not published or recorded until several years after its creation, and here the search for an earliest date becomes a matter of research on biographies and performance history. If there are several versions of the song, then we may want to ask which versions are earlier, which are later, and what is the relation of the versions to one another.

Many songs were created for a specific purpose, often having to do with publication or performance and profit. To pick a few examples from songs mentioned above: Henry Clay Work wrote “Come Home Father” (1864) for publication; Irving Berlin composed “God Bless America” in 1918 as a response to the First World War. But songs often transcend the purposes for which they were written. “Come Home Father” gained tremendously in popularity when it was interpolated into Timothy Shay Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar Room, a play promoting the temperance movement. Berlin reworked “God Bless America” and published it in 1939, as the Second World War approached in Europe. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “God Bless America” became a sign-off tune for TV stations, and its title became a bumper sticker.

Sometimes (but not very often) the creators of a song say why they originally composed it. Merle Haggard stated in an interview that “Okie from Muskogee” (1969) “started as a joke” when he and his band mates saw a road sign for Muskogee, Oklahoma, and speculated that no one there smoked marijuana. That did not stop people from taking Haggard’s song literally and turning it into an anthem of rural conservatism in the 1970s. The creator’s statement of intent may help answer the question of why was the song first created, but it does not answer questions about why the song appealed to people and what it meant to them.

Examine turn-of-the-century song lyrics for clues about their authorship

The most popular form of music in the United States during most of the nineteenth century was blackface minstrelsy. Since its beginnings in the 1830s, most minstrel performers were white men who pretended to be African-American singers and dancers. Minstrelsy promoted images of African Americans that were based more on the fantasies of the white performers than on the realities of black culture and experiences. Minstrel shows presented derogatory, stereotypical images of African Americans as unintelligent, ugly, and often violent. By the late nineteenth century, many African-American performers also participated in the blackface minstrel industry, since the only opportunities available to them within national theater circuits involved donning burnt cork and performing racist caricatures. Some, but not all, African-American performers and songwriters attempted to challenge the racist caricatures of blackface from the minstrel stage.

Many minstrel songs were published and sold as sheet music. With close examination, this printed music can give us a number of clues about the stereotypes prevalent in minstrelsy, the history of the music publishing industry, and the politics of the era. Read the following songs carefully; can you tell if the song was written by an African-American or a white composer?

A. “All Coons Look Alike to Me”
Ernest Hogan, 1896

Talk about a coon a having trouble
I think I have enough of ma own
It's alla bout ma Lucy Jane Stubbles
And she has caused my heart to mourn
Thar’s another coon barber from Virginia
In soci’ty he’s the leader of the day
And now ma honey gal is gwine to quit me
Yes she’s gone and drove this coon away
She’d no excuse to turn me loose
I’ve been abused, I’m all confused
Cause these words she did say

All coons look alike to me
I’ve got another beau, you see
And he’s just as good to me as you, nig!
Ever tried to be
He spends his money free,
I know we can’t agree
So I don’t like you no how
All coons look alike to me

Never said a word to hurt her feelings
I always bou’t her presents by the score
And now my brain with sorrow am a reeling
Cause she won’t accept them any more
If I treated her wrong she may have loved me
Like all the rest she’s gone and let me down
If I’m lucky I’m a gwine to catch my policy
And win my sweet thing way from town
For I’m worried, yes, I’m desp’rate
I’ve been Jonahed, and I’ll get dang’rous
If these words she says to me

Repeat Chorus

Was this song written by an
African-American songwriter
White songwriter


B. “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”
William A. Heelan and J. Fred Helf, 1900

The leader of the Blackville Club arose last Labor night
And said, “When we were on parade today
I really felt so much ashamed, I wished I could turn white
‘Cause all the white folks march’d with banners gay

Just at de stand de German band
They waved their flag and played ‘De Wacht am Rhine’
The Scotch Brigade each man arrayed
In new plaid dresses marched to ‘Auld Lang Syne’
Even Spaniards and Sweeds, folks of all kinds and creeds
Had their banner except de coon alone
Ev’ry nation can brag ‘bout some kind of a flag
Why can’t we get an emblem of our own?”

For Ireland has her Harp and Shamrock
England floats her Lion bold
Even China waves a Dragon
Germany an Eagle gold
Bonny Scotland loves a Thistle
Turkey has her Crescent Moon
And what won’t Yankees do for their Red, White and Blue
Every race has a flag but the coon

He says, “Now I’ll suggest a flag that ought to win a prize
Just take a flannel shirt and paint it red
They draw a chicken on it with two poker dice for eyes
An’ have it wavin’ razors ‘round its head

To make it quaint, you’ve got to paint
A possum with a pork chop in his teeth
To give it tone, a big hambone
You sketch upon a banjo underneath
And be sure not to skip just a policy slip
Have it marked four eleven forty four
Then them Irish and Dutch, they can’t guy us so much
We should have had this emblem long before”

Repeat Chorus

Was this song written by an
African-American songwriter
White songwriter


C. “Evah Dahkey is a King”
words: E. P. Moran and Paul Laurence Dunbar; music: John H. Cook; 1902

Dar’s a mighty curious circumstanced Dat’s a-botherin’ all de nation
All de Yankees is dissatisfied wid a deir untitled station
Dey is huntin’ after titles wid a golden net to snare ‘em
An’ de democratit people, Dey’s mos’ mighty glad to wear ‘em, Ho!
But dey ain’t got all de title, fu it is a ‘culiar ting,
When a dahkey starts to huntin’ he is sho to prove a king

Evah dahkey is a king!
Royalty is jes’ de ting
Ef yo’ social life’s a bungle
Jes’ you’ go back to yo jungle
An’ remember dat a yo’ daddy was a King!

Evah dahkey has a lineage dat de white folks can’t compete wid
An’ a title, such as duke or earl, why we wouldn’t wipe our feet wid
Fa a kingdom is our station, an’ we’s each a rightful ruler
When we’s crowned we don’t wear satins, Kase de way we dress is cooler. Ho!
But our power’s jest as mighty, nevah judge kings by deir cloes
You could nevah tell a porter wid a ring stuck through his nose

Repeat Chorus

Scriptures say dat Ham was de first black man. Ham’s de father of our nation
All de black folks, to dis very day, B’longs right in de Ham creation
Ham he was a King, in ancient days, An’ he reigned in all his glory
Den ef we is all de Sons of Ham, nachelly dat tells de story. Ho!
White fo’ks what’s got dahkey servants try an give dem ev’ry ting
An’ doan’ nevah speak insulting, fo dat coon may be a king

Was this song written by an
African-American songwriter
White songwriter



What Is a Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What is the Song's Structure? What WAs the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Songs American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try it Yourself! Go to MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN POPULAR SONG Home Page Go to MAKING SENSE OF EVIDENCE Browse Page