"Zip Coon" = "Chain Hang Low"?

Categories: Arts
It's been virtually impossible lately for local residents to escape the children's song "Do Your Ears Hang Low." If it isn't boring its way into your skull as a synthetic loop emanating from ice cream trucks, it's rattling windows as the chorus to St. Louis hip-hop phenom Jibbs' hit single, "Chain Hang Low."
Now, after a few thousand spins on local stations, the song's gone nationwide. This week it's No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh praised it in this past Sunday's paper and Rolling Stone has named the fifteen-year-old rapper one of its "10 Artists to Watch 2006."
Jibbs rewrote the lyrics to the song to fit his demographic: "Do your chain hang low? Do it wobble to the flo'?/Do it shine in the light? Is it platinum? Is it gold?" Genius move, and for a few reasons: First, its ready-made melody trancends social strata and racial divide; regardless of whether you went to Country Day or Vashon, you've heard it. Also -- and most brilliantly -- the song's nearly 175 years old, and is therefore in the public domain. Jibbs gets a tried-and-true melody but won't have to share royalties with the song's composer (variously cited as George Washington Dixon, Bob Farrell or George Nickels).
Sheet music cover for "Zip Coon," 1830s. From Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America, by Robert Toll.

The rub, though, is the song's lineage. First published in 1834, the tune was originally a hit on the minstrel circuit as a song called "Zip Coon." Minstrelsy, better known as blackface, was an early American art form in which white men smeared charcoal on their faces and hands and mimicked the mannerisms and patois of black men. The lyrics to one version of "Zip Coon" are as follows:
O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler, O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler, O ole Zip Coon he is a larned skoler, Sings possum up a gum tree an coony in a holler, Possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump, Possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump, Possum up a gum tree, coony on a stump, Den over dubble trubble, Zip Coon will jump.


From there it morphed into a song called "Turkey in de Straw" before becoming "Do Your Ears Hang Low." The music was used in Steamboat Willie, the 1928 animated cartoon that made Mickey Mouse famous, as well.


The use of "Zip Coon"'s melody in a 2006 song written and performed by a black teenager is as fascinating as it is confusing, but won't draw nearly the attention than had the melody been appropriated by, say, Justin Timberlake or Eminem. In fact, the art of minstrelsy is filled with defenders on both sides of the racial divide. The form was practiced by both white and black men (the latter of whom blackened their skin darker and accentuated their mannerisms to appear more "Negro" onstage) and is considered by many scholars to be the first integrated American art form.


"As for the grotesquerie of minstrelsy," Nick Tosches writes in Where Dead Voices Gather, his remarkable 2001 book on blackface performer Emmett Miller and the minstrelsy tradition, "there were many, both black and white, who found it no more offensive than the comedy built upon any exaggerated ethnic stereotyping.


"Nothing in this country is real," Tosches goes on, "everyone an actor. From long-tail blue to dashiki, from the organ-grinder to the godfather, it is all a masquerade. If the halcyon lark of antebellum plantation life invented by minstrelsy was a sham, it was at least a sham that few took for reality." -Randall Roberts

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