Awesome Men Throughout History: Ernest Hogan
Unless you’re a ragtime enthusiast, you’ve probably never heard the name Ernest Hogan. Even then, it’s a longshot. After all, the man’s primary accomplishments as an entertainer happened over a century ago. Hell, he died over a century ago.
Hogan occupies a very interesting, if extremely uncomfortable, place in the history of American music; he helped invent ragtime, which paved the way for jazz, but he also solidified “coon” as a derogatory word for black people with his 1896 composition, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” I can’t even type that without feeling like I should be punched in the face.
Hogan’s real name was Ernest Reuben Crowders, and he performed in blackface minstrel troupes as a teenager, later changing his last name to Hogan to bite off the popularity of Irish performers. Fair enough, I suppose.
Whatever his name was, Hogan helped create and popularize America’s first homegrown musical genre. He never took his due credit for it, but he was one of the first musicians to publish ragtime songs, and was the first to use the term “rag” on sheet music. Basically, he wrote down the music that was being played by non-reading musicians in black cafes and nightclubs, music that might have been lost without him.
Hogan wrote “All Coons Look Alike to Me” at the height of the “coon song” craze, and was the subject of much justifiable criticism for it. The song was an appropriation of a song called “All Pimps Look Alike to Me” that he’d heard in Chicago; Hogan merely swapped one word for another and set it to cakewalk-style syncopation.
His use of “coon” pissed a lot of people off, and some performers left that word out if they performed it live. It was a weird time for music, in that pop music was enjoying its first real surge of popularity at the same time that insanely racist and mean-spirited music was. A black man himself, Hogan regretted the song, feeling that he’d betrayed his race by writing it.
I can’t claim to understand what he was going through, but I can empathize somewhat. In an era where songs that reveled in unfair black stereotypes were king, he wrote the most popular one. It made him a successful man, and even landed him on Broadway as the starring role in the first African American musical to appear there, but still. That’s a lot of heavy baggage to carry around.
Sadly, Ernest Hogan died of tuberculosis in 1909, when he was just forty-four, and he probably died hating the thing that made him famous. Just so I don’t kick it over his grave any further, here’s a modern bluegrass version of another song he wrote.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.