Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ernest Hogan, the Unbleached American

In 1934 an article titled ‘World Has Forgotten Ernest Hogan, Stage Pioneer’ appeared in a New York weekly saying “Hogan died of a broken heart because his own race turned against him after he had written ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me.’” Lester A. Walton, a Negro newspaper columnist for The Age, who owed his job to the famous Negro comedian (Hogan also contributed columns to The Age), objected that

There was certainly not an iota of truth in the assertion… At no time after Hogan had achieved stardom did he fail to have prominently displayed in front of theatres, whether playing at Hammerstein’s Victoria or on the road, that he was composer of ‘All Coons Look Alike To Me,’ which he proudly looked upon as his trademark… The large and enthusiastic Negro patronage the ‘Unbleached American’ drew wherever he was an attraction is proof positive that the race turned out for him rather than “turned against him.”

There was criticism in the Salt Lake City, Utah, Negro newspaper, The Broad Ax* of May 7, 1898, however

…in our opinion it would have been a great blessing to the negro if Mr. Hogan’s tongue would have cleaved to the roof of his mouth and his right hand had become palsied when he first attempted to write or sing ‘All coons look alike to me.’ For Ernest Hogan has brought reproach upon the entire negro race.

Ernest Hogan, the Negro author of ‘Keep Dem Golden Gates Wide Open,’ ‘Two Little Eyes of Blue,’ ‘The Pas Ma La,’ ‘I Don’t Like That Face You Wear,’ ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me,’ ‘The Phrenologist Coon,’ ‘De Congregation Will Please Keep Their Seats,’ ‘Lamb, Lamb, Lamb,’ and ‘C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken’, was born Reuben Crowdus, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on June 24, 1865.

Hogan left home while still a boy and began working life as a bootblack and newsboy in Kansas City. He had no education but taught himself piano and played in a section of Kansas City called Bellvidere Hollow.

Hogan wrote a play called ‘In Old Tennessee’ and toured the production through southern Kansas. The play was a failure and the whole troupe ended up walking back to Kansas City. He worked as a comedian on the minstrel shows playing the South and West and later organized a traveling minstrel show with the comedians Bert Williams and George Walker. 

Hogan has been credited with inventing the ‘coon song’ although several academics have disputed this. Hogan claimed that he “wrote the first syncopated ‘coon’ song ever written, ‘Pas Ma La’ followed by ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me.’” Hogan’s first song, ‘Pas Ma La,’ was sold for $25 and earned the publisher more than $100,000. 

Learning from experience Hogan copyrighted ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me’ in New York. The song was an instantaneous hit in North America and Europe, and made Hogan a rich man. Numerous parodies were penned and the song was performed by black and white minstrels, old time Southern string bands, and male and female vaudevillians.

‘Pas Ma La’ was said to be the first ragtime song ever written. Hogan had composed the song while working as a piano player in Kansas City.

The latest craze in town,
And it’s known for miles around,
It’s a daisy, sets you crazy,
Where’er it can be found,
It am the latest dance,
With others it stands par,
And with your kind attention,
We’ll do the Pas-ma-la.

During the Civil War coon songs were usually written and performed by white men in blackface, but following Reconstruction newly freed Negros began entering the field of popular and classical music (Black Patti sang both opera and coon songs), playing for blacks and whites in traveling minstrel and medicine shows and performing on the vaudeville stage. In 1906 Hogan wrote in a Variety article that “there is no so-called color-line in the vaudeville business.”

Songwriting was a lucrative profession for the emancipated Negro; it was reported that Hogan earned $40,000 dollars in royalties from ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me.’ Williams and Walker, comedians, dancers, and coon singers, earned as much as $1750 per week in vaudeville. Will Marion Cook studied the violin under Dvorak before turning to writing ragtime scores for ‘The Casino Girl,’ and ‘Chlorinda, or, the Origin of the Cakewalk.’ Al Johns had no musical education but wrote popular ballads and ragtime hits like ‘Go Way Back and Sit Down.’

In 1934 Walton recalled that “These great energetic leaders of the footlights were men of vision, ambition, high ideals and courage. Since their passing no colored musical shows have measured up to Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson and Ernest Hogan for lavishness of costumes and scenery, class, uproarious comedy situations and soul-stirring ensemble singing. It was no easy matter to get their ambitious ideas translated into realistic stage presentations.

Contrary to modern views ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me’ was not meant as an insult, although brass bands did play the song at Jack Johnson’s fights to mock the boxer. Hogan wrote the song about a girlfriend who threw him over for a man with more money. The song crossed all color lines. The coon songs of the nineties, like jazz and blues, were mostly black music, written and performed by blacks and enjoyed by black and white audiences. The first stanza and chorus is as follows:

Talk about a coon having troubles,
Think I have enough of my own,
All about Lucy Jane Stubbles,
She has caused my heart to moan,
About a coon barber from Virginia,
In society he’s the leader of the day,
Now, Miss Lucy she has gone and left me,
And with this coon she has run away.
She had no excuse
To turn me loose,
I’ve been abused,
For these words she did say:


All coons look alike to me,
I’ve got another beau you see,
He’s just as good to me,
As you, Mr. Coon, ever dared to be,
He spends his money free,
You and I we can’t agree,
For I don’t like you nohow,
All coons look alike to me!

In 1897 Hogan introduced the cakewalk to New York audiences in Edward E. Rice’s play ‘Summer Nights.’ For several years he traveled with Black Patti and her Troubadours, and spent two years in Australia producing his own show, ‘Lucky Coon.’ By 1903 he was earning $300,000 per year, making him “one of the richest Negroes in the United States.” He was described as ‘the Colored Chevalier,’ for his singing of ragtime ballads and coon songs.

‘Black Patti’ was Madame Sissieretta Jones, a powerful contralto singer from Portsmouth, Virginia, born January 5, 1870. She toured South America and the West Indies, played at Wallack’s Theatre and Madison Square Garden and at the Pittsburg Exhibition. She appeared at a private soirée at the Blue Room in the White House, singing for President Harrison and his wife, then did a concert tour of America and Europe. 

She was showered with praise in Paris, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Milan and St. Petersburg. In London she played a command performance before the Prince of Wales. Returning home she formed the Black Patti Troubadours, hiring Hogan as the principal comedian and coon-singer for a tour of Canada and the United States. ‘Black Patti’ was adapted as the name of a race record label in the nineteen-twenties.

Hogan wrote the book and music for ‘Rufus Rastus,’ which he starred in for two years, and was producing ‘The Oyster Man’ when he took ill and died. He had been married to singer Anna Wilkes (a white woman), who was playing in Europe at the time of his death. The two were separated and Hogan was living with his mother when he died of consumption on May 20, 1909, at the family residence at 1002 Brock Avenue, the Bronx. 

“High  tribute was paid to Ernest Hogan as man and actor last Sunday, when the citizens of New York City, irrespective of color, turned out in large numbers and paid their last respects to all that was mortal of the late comedian,” wrote Lester A. Walton in The Age.

After the viewing in New York Hogan’s body was shipped by train to his hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky. As the funeral train approached Bowling Green “the engineer, according to instructions, announced the arrival of all that remained of the town’s great gift to the world by the blowing of a whistle. A large crowd was at the station, and the cortege proceeded slowly to the Crowdus home.” 

“White and colored citizens” paid tribute, and a brass band playing a funeral dirge preceded the hearse to the burial ground, followed by citizens in a long line of carriages and on foot. All that remained of the ‘Unbleached American’ was laid to rest in Mount Moriah cemetery.

Various versions of All Coons Look Alike to Me can be heard HERE.

A 78 rpm version of C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken, by Southern fiddler Kirk McGee and guitarist Blythe Poteet, can be heard on Old Hat Records Good For What Ails You, Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937, available HERE.

*The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City and Chicago) was issued weekly by its founder, publisher, and editor, Julius F. Taylor (1853-1934).

UPDATE: Sheet music cover and Frank Merriwell footnote below courtesy E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra.


  1. Thank you for this. I've got an old blackface minstrel recording of "All Coons . . ." (feat. Len Spencer and Vess L. Ossman) in my collection, and I've always been simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the song. The vocabulary is certainly offensive to modern ears, but the story of youthful heartbreak is universal. And the musicianship is startlingly modern, compared to other pop music of the age.

    I love the comics posts, but this post hits close to home for me, and I appreciate it very much.

  2. Thank you for visiting my blog and referring me to your interesting & informative blog post.

    I took the liberty of adding the lyric excerpts to "La Pas Ma La" to my blog post on that song "La Pas Ma La" Songs & Dance

    Those "Pas Ma La" lyrics are the longest portion of that song that I've found to date. If anyone knows the complete lyrics or any more words to that song, I'd appreciate a referral to that source or those source/s.

    Thanks again!

  3. this is a link to a scan of the original sheet music and you can download and see the whole song here.


    well there it is

  5. John, I am very interested in your blog and your discussion of Hogan. I have some additional info on him which I would like to share with you and get some feedback

  6. You can email me at