TW: Extensive use of slurs in both lyrics and titles of songs.
The last paragraph on the National Jukebox’s About This Collection reads as follows:
These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the language, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users.
In early stages of research, I hoped to link musical traditions in modern musical theater to some of the early recordings within the “Humorous Songs” tag. However, as I scrolled, I began to notice how many of these songs were also tagged “Ethnic Characterizations.” We’ve begun to explore research and presentation of complicated data and information within this class, and I wondered how a database run by the Library of Congress would present difficult topics. I selected two songs tagged as “Ethnic Characterizations,” and examined what is missing and necessary for productive conversation.
The first song to examine is entitled “If the Man in the Moon were a Coon.” Not only does it extensively use slurs within the title but also within the body of the song, it also perpetuates images of black men as predatory and exploitative.
No roaming ’round the park at night
No spooning in the bright moonlight
If the man in the moon
Were a coon, coon, coon
Tagged as “Popular Music” and “Ethnic Characterizations,” there is no information concerning the use of racial slurs or racial stereotypes. Like every other recording on the national database, there is no information other than the “facts” – title, composer, general recording information.
The second song is “The Sheik of Avenue B.” Sung by famed cabaret singer Fanny Brice, it describes the sexual prowess and conquests of an unidentified, ethnically dangerous man living on Avenue B:
He’s no bluff, He treats girls rough;
His hugs and kisses scare ’em,
He don’t spare ’em,
You should see his Hebrew harem
There is no distinction between the tagging of these examples. Despite carrying two completely different racial stereotypes, there is no effort taken by the Library of Congress to differentiate the songs with content warnings (or lack thereof).
From a purely academic standpoint, I find the tagging system lacking. If a researcher is looking specifically the portrayal of Middle Eastern people in these songs, there is no way to separate them from any of the other “Ethnic Characterizations.” This system exposes researchers to potentially triggering racist material that needs to be more clearly labeled. But, the question is, how can we categorize these songs within the National Jukebox database in a way that provides a nuance perspective?
Through the tagging system, I found that there were 876 recordings tagged “Ethnic Characterizations,” a number I feel is grossly underestimated. However, within those recordings, there was no further information, and no distinction between ethnicities. And can we talk about the term “Ethnic Characterizations?” What a neutral copout! The Library of Congress uses the term “Ethnic Characterizations” to describe music titled with slurs. Neutrality is insidious. The National Jukebox attempts to present an unbiased database, but ultimately fails, because the material presented is incredibly biased. It is the responsibility of academics curating databases to provide nuance and educate their audiences.
I had trouble embedding from the Library of Congress, so I embedded from YouTube. However, I believe they are the same recording.
Bourdon, Rosario, Fanny Brice, Bert Kalmar, Sam Downing, Al Friend, and Harry Ruby. The sheik of Avenue B. 1922. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-63518/.
Fisher, Fred, Ada Jones, and Fred Fisher. If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon. 1907. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-250404/.
Billig, Michael. “Humour and Hatred: The Racist Jokes of the Ku Klux Klan.” Discourse & Society 12, no. 3 (2001): 267–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42888362.
Johnson, Stephen, ed. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Accessed October 3, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.