"Medicine Show, Huntington, Tennessee, 1935" by Ben Shahn. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Can You Blame Gus Cannon?
By Dom Flemons
I remember the first time I ever listened to Gus Cannon. It was an album called Walk Right In, put out by Stax Records in 1963, one of the first albums from the Memphis label that would become far better known for its soul music than for this obscure “folk” record. The recording featured an older Cannon on banjo accompanied by Milton Roby on washboard and Will Shade on the jug. It was 2003, I was in my third year of college, and I was taking a class called “Ethnic Notions” that examined racial stereotypes in literature. We read Nella Larsen’s Passing, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson,and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and we watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
Listening to Cannon's music, I was struck by his use of what I recognized from class as minstrel-like entertainment—exaggerated speech, jokes, and wordplay, and a repertoire incorporating elements from many traditional genres. And he played the five-string banjo, an instrument once synonymous with blackface minstrelsy. Everything I'd learned about minstrelsy in Ethnic Notions described its detriment and disgrace to the black community, the absurd racial insensitivity of white performers donning coal-dark makeup and exhibiting ridiculous "Negro" behavior. But I was also told that minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in America for more than sixty years, even spreading to England and Australia. I was intrigued and perplexed by Cannon's music, so I began to search further into the history of blackface minstrelsy, and I discovered a far more complex American phenomenon than I had imagined or been made to believe in school.
Over the course of nearly a century, the minstrel show absorbed and spawned dozens of musical and theatrical styles from both the black and white communities. Initially there were white minstrels in blackface, but soon enough there were black minstrel troupes—often called "Georgia Minstrels," right after the Civil War—and by the 1890s, a specialized song form called the "coon song" took black stereotyping to the extreme. I was surprised to find that many of the songs that were popularized by the ubiquitous blackface minstrel shows had trickled down into the repertoires of the first recording artists and traditional folk musicians, influencing the earliest forms of what we now fondly call "American" music.
Cannon was born in 1883—though his tombstone claims 1884—in Red Banks, Mississippi, near Memphis. He learned to play banjo in his neighboring communities, with ambitions to leave sharecropping behind. As a young man, he moved up to the city and spent close to twenty years on the black vaudeville and medicine show circuit, a black man in blackface performing as Banjo Joe. In the late Twenties, following the success of another Memphis songster, Will Shade and his Memphis Jug Band, Cannon formed his own group, Cannon's Jug Stompers, and recorded his most famous song, "Walk Right In," for Victor Records in 1928.
In his music I heard minstrelsy, but I could also hear a novel, legitimate black art form developed from minstrel roots. And not only that. Cannon's music was linked to both popular music and traditional blues and folk—he played country songs, he played popular songs, and he incorporated traditional music into his repertoire before there were any copyright or industry standards for codifying song ownership. He played what he liked, it seems, though that's not to suggest that he wasn't influenced by a popular demand for minstrelsy entertainment. He was a professional musician, after all.
With these ideas floating in my head, further questions arose: Did Gus Cannon feel belittled by his profession? Did he feel he was doing a service? And who was his audience? His music was old-fashioned, even when he recorded it back in the Sixties—so who was listening? Was his audience white, or were they black? Were they rich or poor? I listened and listened and one day I came across a song that broke the whole thing open for me. A song called "Can You Blame the Colored Man."
Not included on Gus Cannon's final album—the one he cut for Stax in '63, a few months before his eightieth birthday—"Can You Blame the Colored Man" was recorded only once by Cannon, for Paramount Records in Chicago, thirty-six years earlier in November of 1927. He hadn't yet recorded with Cannon's Jug Stompers, and was known professionally as the minstrel performer Banjo Joe.
"Can You Blame the Colored Man" plainly reflects its origins in the minstrel show in its structure, vocal inflection, and banjo style, and dates itself by the event it parodies, which occurred on October 16, 1901, when black leader Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt shocked America by having dinner together at the newly christened White House, formerly the Executive Mansion. Cannon sets the scene with a banjo flourish and begins:
Now Booker T. he left Tuskegee
To the White House he went one day
He was going to call on the president
In a quiet and a sociable way
Was in his car
A'was feeling fine
Cannon's approach is relaxed. He is comfortable with the material and plays his instrument with an ease developed over years on the professional stage. The opening lyrics may seem innocuous enough to the listeners of our time, but considering the true story of Booker T. and Roosevelt's dinner, they are laden with satire and shrewd social commentary.
Booker Taliaferro Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, to a black mother and a white father he never knew, and grew up with the dream of learning to read. As a boy in West Virginia, where his family moved after Emancipation, he not only taught himself to read but continued to educate himself while working hard jobs like salt packing, eventually making his way to college to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1872. When he was asked to be the principal of Tuskegee University in Alabama, at twenty-five, he arrived to discover that there was in fact no school; he was the only teacher on staff and there wasn't even a building in which to hold classes. From that point on, Booker T. would be more or less on the road for the rest of his life, traveling by train, fundraising for his school, getting support from bigwigs like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. As media exposure became a key element to his success, Booker T. began to deliver speeches about the principles of his school, stressing the need for blacks to become self-reliant and independent from white culture, with a strong focus on agricultural work. He even authored a best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery, to generate interest in his work with the school.
Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt was elected William McKinley's vice president in 1900, Booker T. sent Roosevelt a note of congratulations. Roosevelt wrote back, saying he'd like to visit Tuskegee in the near future. The vice president had read Up from Slavery and had been thinking of the possibilities of tapping into the black vote through Booker T. Washington's influence. He wanted to discuss "the Negro problem" with Booker T. But Roosevelt didn't get the chance to visit Tuskegee. Six months into the new term he was on a hunting and fishing trip in Vermont when he learned that President McKinley had been shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and was dying. By September 14, Theodore Roosevelt was being sworn in as the youngest president in American history, a month shy of forty-three. As Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers put it in "White House Blues":
McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doc said, "McKinley, I can't find that ball"
From Buffalo to Washington
Roosevelt in the White House, he's doing his best
McKinley in the graveyard, he's taking his rest
He's gone, long ole time
In a follow-up note, President Roosevelt apologized for not being able to come down to Tuskegee and instead extended an invitation for Booker T. to visit him the next time he was in Washington, D.C. Within a month, on October 16, Roosevelt received a telegram with the news that Booker T. was in town and responded with an invitation to dinner at the White House that night. Booker T. accepted, and the men met for dinner and discussed the issues of the day and race relations. But when the Southern press found out that a black man had dined with the president, the story exploded in a wave of controversy.
As I learned in Deborah Davis's recent book, Guest of Honor, reactions were split. Some people were all for it—if blacks are free then why would it be an issue? Others, especially in the South, felt differently. The Jackson Argus declared that the "dinner has undone the work of [Washington's] life, and the best thing he can do [now] is move North." "Roosevelt has ruined the best negro in Alabama," claimed the Atlanta Constitution. Many white people were scared of the social implications and irritated with Roosevelt for being so progressive—imploring him to leave "what he does socially at home and not involve the country in it." Southern whites sneered that they'd never get the "nigger smell" off the walls.
The black community was polarized on the issue as well, with disagreement between those who had been born under slavery and those born into freedom. The older generation felt that the fledgling Jim Crow laws were at least better than slavery, but freeborn blacks were interested in fighting for equal civil rights, and Booker T. seemed Uncle Tom-ish in the eyes of this new generation of black citizens who wanted to push for greater equality.
The sentiments of both sides of the argument slipped in and out of popular culture, of course, especially as blacks gained more experiences as the years went on and found new ways to move away from the South, including serving their country overseas. This notion is expressed so well by a hit song of 1919, that asked, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm / after they've seen Paree?" But sympathy like this is nearly two decades removed from the Washington-Roosevelt dinner.
Though the two men would continue to work together in private—with Booker T. serving as Roosevelt's de facto ambassador to the black community in the South—they were rarely seen together in public from then on. The fallout from the dinner not only stalked the two men for the rest of their political careers, but it dogged them for the rest of their lives, ultimately hijacking Booker T. Washington's place in American history until long after his death, and serving as a readymade reference for anyone who wanted to point out a shallow dilemma of racial equality.
Granted its proper historical context, "Can You Blame the Colored Man" emerges as a complex satire. Each line is completely tongue-in-cheek and the song can function as both a message of empowerment and one of disparagement—Booker T. as a black man deftly transcending social boundaries or as a rube come to the city, just another bon ton with a superiority complex. ("Bon ton" was a term used at the time to refer to a black person who wore fancy clothes and sported expensive carriages despite being actually financially broke.) For example, in the opening verse, the mention of Booker "in his car . . . feeling fine" implies that he is riding in a segregated train car, as he always traveled, and evokes an Uncle Tom-like character finding comfort being "in his place." Yet in the next verse the song exploits the ridiculousness of the situation in the first place:
Now when Booker knocked on the president's door
Ole Booker he began to grin
Now he almost changed his color
When Roosevelt said to come in
"We'll have some dinner
In a little while"
In the chorus, a subtle shift is employed as Booker T. "sits down at the President's table he begin to smile" compared with his grin at the door, suggesting that he is using different faces to handle whatever the social situation might call for. Booker T. eats "lamb, ham, veal, and roast / chicken, turkey, quail on toast," indulging in the riches of a white household, exaggerated to show how disproportionate American society was. (In fact, writer Gilson Willets described the eating habits of the Roosevelts as "plain food and higher thinking.")
In the second verse, the song jabs at Booker T.'s ideals in a different way. Washington was known for being very frugal and conscientious, never doing anything frivolous or extravagant to distract from his work, so I found the following image to be hilarious:
Now Booker was so delighted
That the social was given to him
Well he hired a horse and carriage
And he taken the whole town in
He was drunk on wine
A'was feeling fine
Given Booker T.'s real-life demeanor, the scene is ridiculous, but within the context of the song I had to wonder: Why is he drunk? Was it simply the result of an overstimulating dinner? Had he been nervous? Or was he celebrating the accomplishment of sitting as high up as a white man, eating at the president's table? The word delighted in the first line can suggest either plain happiness or surprise, thereby coloring the nature of Booker T.'s capers. All of these interpretations work for the song, and the title and chorus assert the central question: Can you blame him for acting this way? (Whichever way that may be.)
"Can You Blame the Colored Man" shares a number of themes with a Civil War minstrel song called "Kingdom Coming" (also known as "The Year of Jubilo"). In the earlier song, Union troops ("Lincum sojers") are coming to free the slaves of a plantation, and the master runs away before they catch him by trying to hide in the guise of a slave. He is too short, fat, and white to pull this off effectively and the slaves laugh at his efforts. What brings the song into grand satire is that after the master leaves, the slaves take over the whole plantation and turn it upside down, proclaiming,
De whip is lost
De han'cuff broken
But de massa'll hab his pay
He's ole enough, big enough
Ought to known better
Dan to went an' run away
Racial role reversal was an established form of satire. This is an important element to consider next to the climax of "Can You Blame the Colored Man." After dining with the president, Booker T. is riding around in a horse and carriage, drunk, and taking the "whole town" in, an image that shows the full transformation of Booker T. as a character. While at the beginning of the song he arrives in a private segregated train car and is "feeling fine," by the end he is going all about town—not just into the black section, but everywhere—in his ostentatious buggy with a bottle of wine and "feeling fine." Again, there are implications that he is taking his new rights as equal to a white man—the most powerful white man—and shoving it in society's face.
The central motif of Gus Cannon's song is delivered in the eponymous first line of the chorus: "Now can you blame the colored man for makin' them goo-goo eyes?" Truthfully, I didn't give the line much thought when I first heard the song. Based on my experience with minstrel music over the years, I wrote it off as a stereotypical image of the black buffoon at dinner in the White House—an image engendered by a racist genre of music promoted by a racist society in a racist era.
Later, I noticed that the South Memphis String Band, a sort of supergroup comprising Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther Dickinson, and Jimbo Mathus, had recorded a version of "Can You Blame the Colored Man." (In fact, it's the only officially released version of the song that I could find since Cannon's in 1927.) So I got in touch with Alvin—one of the great folk music interpreters and a master musician on guitar, banjo, and mandolin—for his thoughts on the song. Alvin told me that Luther's father, Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, had suggested they record it. "You know, I don't try to be too academic about what was going on in the song," he said. "For us, it's all about the comedy and irony more or less. That's what we're hearing in Gus's playing—the comedy. I think Cannon is more or less poking a joke at the stereotype of seeing those goo-goo eyes in movies."
I would say that Alvin's interpretation of "goo-goo eyes" is a fair representation of the popular understanding of the reference, and it's an interesting notion that Cannon is making fun of stereotypes that were created to deride blacks in the first place. Then I talked to another friend, Tony Thomas, who explained that Cannon's use of the term goes beyond just mocking a stock racial stereotype—in "Can You Blame the Colored Man" he explodes it.
Tony is a music collector and has done quite a bit of research on Gus Cannon. And as a member of the Ebony Hillbillies, a black string band out of New York City, he has focused on this string band music within the broader context of black American music overall. In my own career I've explored the intersection of traditional "folk" music and early strains of "popular" music, and wondered how much each genre informed the other. Tony explained that the overlap between the two was even deeper than I had imagined.
From Tony I discovered that in 1901 and 1902, a Harvard archaeologist named Charles Peabody surveyed the music of black laborers who were excavating some Indian mounds near Clarksdale, Mississippi, singing while they worked. Among their favorites, Peabody noted, were ragtime melodies like "Molly Brown" and "Goo-Goo Eyes." The latter turned out to be a song called "Just Because She Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes," published by European-American songwriters John Queen and Hughie Cannon in 1900. Peter Muir, the author of Long Lost Blues, points out that "Goo-Goo Eyes" was Hughie Cannon's "first proto blues," a genre Muir defines as "compositions published before the 1912 start-up of the blues industry that show a clear musical and/or textual relationship to the blues." This family includes "Stagger Lee," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Railroad Bill"—songs that helped develop the musical structure of the early country blues. Although "Just Because She Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes" is not well-known today, the songs it is related to were very common stock in the pre-blues and songster repertoire played by performers of Gus Cannon's generation.
I tracked down a copy of the sheet music for "Goo-Goo Eyes" and when I played the melody I was stunned to recognize it immediately. It was the same as "Can You Blame the Colored Man." Cannon's song is an actual parody of the earlier song in melody and structure. I was also struck by the different use of the term "goo-goo eyes" in the original. John Queen's lyrics tell the story of a black minstrel man who sees a pretty black girl making "goo-goo eyes" at him from the audience. Her seductive stare causes him to forget his lines, so he is fined by his manager. He then quits the show and proclaims his love for the girl, but no sooner than the next morning she kicks him out. After being left out in the snow in a strange town without any money, he has to "telespatch" ahead to get back on the road with the show again. All because "she made dem goo-goo eyes." Here the "goo-goo eyes" are defined as the look that makes the minstrel man forget everything he had previously held dear to him so that he can pursue a woman:
Just because she made dem goo-goo eyes
I thought I'd won a home and copp'd a prize
She is the best what is
And I need her in my biz
Just because she makes dem goo-goo eyes
Returning to Gus Cannon's song and the Washington-Roosevelt dinner, "Can You Blame the Colored Man" proclaims that Booker T. is making "them goo-goo eyes" to get into having dinner with the most powerful man in the world. It's not a bug-eyed stereotype or a demonstration of Booker T.'s naïveté; it's a cunning plan to get the jump on the president and white society in general. While the song still depicts Booker T. with buffoonish qualities, the once-popular tune it references makes the case that Booker T. is doing something a little more thought-provoking.
Now that I had gathered the historical context of the story, the source material of the lyrics, and the origin of the melody itself, I began to wonder how Gus Cannon acquired the song and why he (or his record company) chose to record it in 1927. It seemed that each time I wanted to proclaim that he did it just because, I found evidence showing that this was never the case.
We're told in Bengt Olsson's notes for the Herwin Records LP reissue of Gus Cannon's collected recordings that "Can You Blame the Colored Man" was an Alec Lee piece. Cannon told Olsson, "Alec Lee was the first guy I heard playing on a Hawaiian guitar . . . used a knife. Uh . . . that must've been around 1900, maybe a little before." Alec Lee also had several minstrel songs in his repertoire, including either "Goo-Goo Eyes" or "Can You Blame the Colored Man" and taught the song to Cannon. Whether Cannon learned the song as the satire or re-wrote the lyrics himself is something we may never know.
I decided to find out more about Gus Cannon's 1927 Paramount Records recording session. Paramount was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company. In an attempt to sell more record cabinets, the company decided to create its own label, offering poorly made discount records to its furniture customers. Focusing on this older generation, instead of contemporary audiences, their first recording artists were stars from the old minstrel shows, Billy Murray and Henry Burr, who had recording careers that reached back to the Cylinder era. Both were white men who performed in blackface minstrel shows in the North. Paramount did not offer "race" records until the mid-1920s, when they bought a bankrupt record label called Black Swan, the first black-owned race record label, started by Harry Pace in Harlem in 1921. (As an interesting side note: Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records after walking away from a partnership with W. C. Handy. Working together in Memphis, the two had published some of the very first blues compositions.)
Having entered the race record market, Paramount needed to figure out how to advertise their new catalog to a black audience. J. Mayo Williams, a recent graduate of Brown University, had learned of Paramount through his work with the university paper, which was a distributor of Black Swan Records. With no relevant experience beyond his work at the paper and an interest in music, Williams approached Paramount for employment and was promptly hired. The furniture executives had no knowledge of how to sell the race records, nor did they care as long as it was done. Williams would be the only black record executive of the 1920s.
Williams had very simple instructions from Paramount. Though he was never officially an employee of the company, receiving no salary, he had the right to record any artist and publish the material, earning one half of the two cents royalty for each record sold. The only stipulation was that an artist had to sell at least 10,000 records to qualify for a second recording session.
As I delved into Williams's method of recording his artists, it became clear to me that Cannon's session was not just shooting in the dark. The acts that Williams recorded and discovered for Paramount included Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Rev. J. M. Gates, Papa Charlie Jackson, and Blind Blake, just to name a few. He enlisted the help of bandleaders Lovie Austin and Jimmy Blythe to scout talent from the many different acts that came to the Monogram Theatre in Chicago. Williams preferred musicians and performers who had interesting vocal styles that would translate well to record. He even hooked up with the Chicago Defender and set up an elaborate system to advertise his Paramount records. These ads featured exciting, comic book-styled cartoons of the performers or the storylines of the records for sale. Paramount quickly became the top race-record company in the country.
Even though its main recording studios and publishing companies were based in Chicago, Paramount had an extensive history with Memphis musicians whom they discovered at the Monogram Theater, which was the outlet for black musicians traveling through the city. My initial thought was that Williams supervised Gus Cannon's Paramount recording session. He was familiar with the black vaudeville and minstrel shows, and he must have seen Cannon perform at the Monogram and then decided to record him. As I read further, I realized that the session might have been even more complicated.
In 1925, Maurice Supper, sales manager of Paramount Records and a longtime ally of Williams, was forced to step down. Supper had been using his publishing company, Chicago Music Co., to illegally hide Paramount's profits and avoid paying taxes. Worried about an audit, he quietly left the company. The board of the Wisconsin Chair Company wanted nothing to do with a black executive, so without Supper to act as middleman, Williams's influence on Paramount's recordings began to decline. Supper was replaced by a white furniture salesman named Arthur C. Laibly, who produced a fluke hit in late 1925 with a blues singer from Texas named Blind Lemon Jefferson, who became Paramount's biggest selling "country blues" artist. From then on, Paramount turned its efforts away from the black vaudevillian material favored by Williams, shifting toward other blues performers more like Blind Lemon. (This is why there were many blind musicians recorded during this period. After Jefferson hit, every recording scout went down South to find the most "authentic" and "primal" sounds of the "country" blues artists, and with the number of blind buskers bumming around at the time, they had little trouble.) Williams was slowly phased out and was gone by early 1928. But Cannon recorded for Paramount in November 1927. So was Williams or Laibly running the session?
I reached out to my good friend Chris King, a rare-record collector, historian, and producer, who is the man behind many of the great contemporary reissues of 78 rpm recordings. I asked Chris about "Can You Blame the Colored Man" and he told me that both times he had successfully canvassed the record—this involves going door-to-door asking strangers if he can dig through their inherited, decaying old collections—it had appeared in a white household. He suggested that I look at the recording session by matrix number to discern when exactly the song might have been recorded and what other songs Cannon chose (or was instructed) to play.
Going through the matrix numbers from the November 1927 sessions, the first song recorded by Cannon is "Jonestown Blues," a blues number on the banjo in the Blind Lemon Jefferson vein. Cannon even utilizes the distinct "stop time" blues form, letting his banjo "speak" a call and response to his blues between sung verses. This, to me, suggested Laibly. Surprisingly, the next two matrix numbers from the session are not recorded by Gus Cannon, but by a white singer and whistler named Elmo Tanner. In reference books on the session, Elmo Tanner is described as "hillbilly" next to his listing, but his records were released on the "race" series. I found this odd. Why would a white man be issued on the "race" series?
Tanner was the featured singer for Ted Weems's Dance Orchestra. That is not hillbilly music; Ted Weems was one of the most popular dance bandleaders of the era-think Lawrence Welk from the Twenties to the Fifties. Chris King noted the significance of Elmo Tanner's presence at the session: "Tanner sang almost no blues but rather focused on popular songs that were issued in the Paramount Race Series." Chris explained that Paramount would send a train down to Memphis to pick up multiple musicians for their recording sessions. Elmo Tanner, I found, was living in Memphis in 1927 and his first recordings with Ted Weems were done in Chicago in early 1928. This is not a coincidence. It looks to me like Tanner went to Chicago initially to record with Paramount and then auditioned for Weems, starting with the band a few months later and subsequently relocating to Chicago, where he would settle for the next decade as a featured performer in Weems's orchestra. Though I could not locate any recordings of Tanner's earliest Paramount sides, I discovered that the melody to one of the songs he recorded in the Paramount session, "Give Me a Night in June," is strikingly similar to the song "There's a Rainbow Around My Shoulder," my favorite Al Jolson recording (which features Jolson not only singing, but whistling too).
This got me to thinking: What was Jolson doing at this time? I figured that as one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century, he might have a connection to this session. As it turns out, he did. On October 6, 1927, Al Jolson had reached a new career high with the release of The Jazz Singer. Though there is debate about whether the film should be considered the first "talking picture," The Jazz Singer, with Jolson's stunning performances in blackface, was extremely popular among mainstream America and screened in every major city. It also influenced the material recorded at Cannon and Tanner's Paramount recording session a month later. In fact, Gus Cannon's contemporary from the medicine show circuit, Jim Jackson, had recorded for Vocalion Records only days after the movie was released. If Laibly was shooting in the dark trying to find the next big hit for Paramount, would he not try to capitalize on the success of The Jazz Singer? Was there a movement to record a "black" Al Jolson? Could Gus Cannon fit this mold?
Returning to the matrix numbers, the Cannon-Tanner session goes deeper still.
After Elmo Tanner records his two numbers, the next song is Gus Cannon's "Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home," which he also learned from Alec Lee. Here, Cannon plays slide banjo over his knee, "Hawaiian style," a technique comparable to the guitar style described by W. C. Handy when he first "discovered" the blues at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, circa 1903. On "Poor Boy" Cannon is backed by guitarist Blind Blake, a regular at Paramount for session work and a seminal country blues songster in his own right. Compared to the dazzling guitar work on his own records, it is a treat to hear Blake take a backseat, tastefully playing behind Cannon's slide banjo.
I believe the next song Cannon records is a direct challenge to Elmo Tanner. "Madison Street Rag" features Cannon's talents as a whistler, and I can only imagine that he decided to drop the old-time blues material for something a little more "pop" oriented. (This could also have come from the influence of J. Mayo Williams, if he was supervising the session.) At this point, Cannon is drawing on the material he is most comfortable with, and "Madison Street Rag" includes a whole sketch that leads to his fantastic whistling. On the next song, "Jazz Gypsy Blues," Cannon picks up his kazoo for a chaotic but intriguing instrumental number that may be a holdover from Cannon's minstrel show days. This is followed in the session by a version of "He's in the Jailhouse Now" performed by Blind Blake, Gus Cannon backing him up now, a song from the vaudeville stage which is about ten years removed from the number that Cannon chooses to perform next: "Can You Blame the Colored Man." The final song on the session is "My Money Never Runs Out," a composite of two popular "coon" songs from around the same time period, "My Money Never Gives Out" and "I Don't Care If I Never Wake Up."
"Can You Blame the Colored Man" is played in a very different style from Cannon's other recorded work. Returning to the song, I'm reminded of a minstrel performer by the name of Arthur Collins, a contemporary of Al Jolson. When I looked up Collins's discography I found (of course) that he recorded "Just Because She Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes" and "My Money Never Gives Out" in 1901. And his version of "Goo-Goo Eyes" is strikingly similar to Cannon's "Can You Blame the Colored Man," further suggesting to me that The Jazz Singer-Jolson connection is not just a fluke, but a concerted effort by Paramount Records to cash in on a renewed craze in blackface minstrelsy.
The earliest recorded music, now over a century old, will never be truly understood by modern audiences. The rise of mass culture at the turn of the 20th century is similar to our current moment with the Internet and digital revolution. The music of any time is a product of social, political, and economic circumstances, not to mention the influence of the music that came before it, and this is extremely clear in the case of Gus Cannon's "Can You Blame the Colored Man." Each record tells a story—whether it's the story of the artist who recorded it or the world it evokes—with every listening. While we tend to think of the shellac records of old-time music from the Twenties and Thirties as authentic "folk" music, they were made to be sellable products for a commercial market and were never meant to be true documents of a traditional culture.
Gus Cannon died in 1979, at ninety-six, so we can't ask him about his motivations. Alvin Youngblood Hart put it this way: "Well, you know it's all about a man making a living. I have to adjust my repertoire to make a living. Gus was all about trying to make a living and being himself." And the truth is, Cannon had this song in his repertoire and thought it a good enough song to sing on record.
I was struck by a quote from folklorist Samuel Charters regarding the recordings he made of jug bands, including Gus Cannon and Will Shade, in the 1950s: "The Memphis music was different from the Mobile Strugglers in both style and material . . . . They were much more self-conscious about their music, and very concerned about singing their own songs."
"Can You Blame the Colored Man" takes us to a time when basic civil rights were not a universal part of American culture, when black Americans had to ask themselves: What does it mean to be free? And how hard will we fight for that freedom? And even, Is it worth it? Cannon's message—for all of its layered context, satire, and cross-referencing—is simple. Can you blame a colored man for taking a risky step toward change? I don't.
To our modern sensibilities, the sort of satire presented in "Can You Blame the Colored Man"—the goo-goo eyes, the characterization of the great Booker T. Washington—can come off as old-fashioned and even offensive. But Cannon was honoring Washington's act, if anything. And listening to his recording reminds us, most of all, of how far we've come. Not all of this country's civil rights problems have been fixed, but we can safely say that the world is no longer shocked at the notion of a black man having dinner in the White House.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.