We see three couples dancing a foxtrot. From the academic gown and black cap we can assume that they are students. Possibly the building in the back is their Alma Mater. But the French illustrator Würth failed to draw the essence of the American song. Fortunately the original cover reveals what ‘Doin’ the Raccoon‘ is about, namely dancing gaily in a thick raccoon coat.
The flashy full-length fur coat was the trend in the 1920s and 30s. Especially American college boys —and even some young women— adopted this fashion in the Roaring Twenties.
College men, knowledge men, Do a dance called raccoon; It’s the craze, nowadays, And it will get you soon. Buy a coat and try it, I’ll bet you’ll be a riot, It’s a wow, learn to do it right now!
The raccoon fur coat craze became identified with affluent students at the Ivy League colleges and universities:
Oh, they wear ’em down at Princeton, And they share ’em up at Yale, They eat in them at Harvard, But they sleep in them in jail!
The coats were particularly popular among the playful students on campus: fun seekers or male jazz enthusiasts who got nicknamed collegiates or Joe College. These cheery types would drive dilapidated old cars, wear a straw hat or fedora and carry a hip flask of illicit booze. They made it very clear that you didn’t need to go to class to become collegiate: slip into your huge fur coat and dance the raccoon!
The raccoon coat became a fashion symbol of the Jazz Age. It was popularised by celebrities: football players, actors, singers, …
… and even by avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp.
While the raccoon coat originally appealed to a white clientele, the modern and rich black American man and woman followed suit. James VanDerZee, recording Harlem’s growing middle class, took this beautiful photo of a couple dressed in similar raccoon coats in their luxurious sleek Cadillac. They embody sophistication and wealth during the Harlem Renaissance.
I had never heard of raccoon coats before. I only remember Walt Disney’s romanticised version of Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap in the series from the 1950’s.
But well, that wasn’t the real Davy Crockett. Neither was this stereotype of Davy Crockett on the cover of a 19th-century sheet music. In fact it is the actor Frank Mayo with moustaches and a dead animal sitting on his head. From 1872 until his death in 1896, he frequently played the role of Davy Crockett, the 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman and politician.
I am not a lover of national hymns, military music or marches. They might hearten the troops but they seldom encourage the creation of attractive covers. At least one exception is this winsome image for John Philip Sousa’s The Washington Post. It inspires gallant courteousness and good manners, not blaring heroism. And indeed Sousa’s fierce marching music suitably accompanied the stylish ballroom two-step. At one point the two-step was so much identified with Sousa’s melody that it was often called The Washington Post. Nevertheless we find distinct entries for the two dances in a tiny ‘dance class’ notebook of that time.
The two-step dance had been introduced in about 1890: a quick-quick-slow slide instead of the half-jump Polka step or an ein-zwei martial stride. The civilised dance definitely called for a more sophisticated music. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the delicate rendition of The Washington Post by the United States Army Field Band.
The creator of the dancing couple on the cover above is Johann Bahr (1859–1910), a German painter and caricaturist for the satirical magazine Lustige Blätter. We found one of his drawings for that magazine (a mocking self-portrait?) and also a merry carnivalesque aquarelle.
Bahr was not a prolific sheet music illustrator, still we count seven of his creations in our collection. One of them is again for a Sousa composition, the Kadetten-Marsch.
Now John Philip Sousa, he was famous! Born in Washington, D.C. in 1854 he would forever be esteemed as the American ‘March King’. His father was a Spanish trombonist with Portuguese roots, his mother was German. Sousa started as an apprentice musician at the Marine Corps. He would become a member and later the youngest conductor of the United States Marine Band. At the end of that career, in 1892 he founded his own Sousa Band. With it he conquered the US and the world, touring multiple times.
Sousa made his mark on music history. Being a perfectionist —and also having a perfect pitch— he attracted the finest musicians in his band. He educated audiences by playing classics to perfection, and proved that America had quality music.
Apart from his noble musical career Sousa helped the development of the sousaphone, strongly defended the rights of musical authors, and was in his spare time an expert trap shooter.
Sousa was not only a wildly popular director, a meticulous conductor, or an ingenious composer. He was also a shrewd entertainer, cleverly adapting his program to the sensitivity of the local audiences. European critics were surprised to hear him launch encores before the end of the concert, often in the middle of the enthusiastic applause that followed a piece. Sousa also introduced jazz sections, ragtime, cakewalks and coon songs in his gigs as early as 1900 at the Paris Exposition, giving some ideas to Claude Debussy.
Sousa’s demeanour was always disciplined and his uniforms were meticulous (a valet accompanied him everywhere on tour). There were rumours that to direct he never wore his white gloves twice…
In 1876, as a young lad of 22, Sousa toured as the orchestra leader for the Living Pictures. For that show he also composed short descriptive pieces as accompaniment to scenes with barely-covered girls. The Living Pictures was a series of tableaux vivants that enlivened scenes of classical art and literature. Beautiful women in gauze scarves and flesh-coloured tights took artful poses in painted decors. In the shows announcement, the public was reassured: “The management begs to state that the entertainment will be strictly first-class in every respect, and nothing will be said or done that will offend the most fastidious.”
‘Cleopatra before Caesar’, ‘The First Sin’, ‘Diana and her Nymphs Surprised’… Say no more!
The show was an entertaining enterprise of Matt Morgan. He was a British caricaturist, scene painter and theatre personality who defied the authorities and moral standards. It is said that his cartoons ‘… attacked the impropriety —actual or rumoured— of the Prince of Wales; and most shockingly, of Queen Victoria herself.‘
The risqué Living Pictures spectacle might have been classy in Washington, it definitely was less welcome in Pittsburgh: Sousa and other staff members were called to court on charges of obscenity.
We close this small tribute to Sousa with an impromptu duel between the sousaphone and the Dodge.
Readings on Matt Morgan:
‘Sex, Art, and the Victorian Cartoonist: Matthew Somerville Morgan in Victorian Britain and America’, Richard Scully, IJOCA, 2011 (www.academia.eu)
It took awhile before I pinpointed this cover in the haystack of our collection. It is a drawing for the Gigolette-Fox in Franz Léhars opérette La danza delle libellule from 1922. The image, a thick spiralling red line on a black background, had been lingering in the back of my mind since I saw Das Triadisch Ballet. Or better said, the video of that ballet produced by the Bavaria Atelier in 1977. I saw this baffling dance piece in the exhibition Paul Klee – Pictures in Motion in Bern. Happily it is also on YouTube and we’ve extracted the one-minute ‘spiral scene’.
The ballet is a major work of Oskar Schlemmer, who was a German painter, sculptor and choreographer, and also a member of Bauhaus (a school and modernistic movement in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin between 1909 and 1933). In it he presents “his ideas of choreographed geometry, man as dancer, transformed by costume, moving in space”. It is no wonder that the ‘figurines’ (the name he used for the extravagant costumes that abstracted the form of the human body into artificial and geometrical forms) were exhibited at the Société des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, in 1930.
Now, rewind to 1922 and the success of Franz Léhars Gigolette-Fox. We found French, Italian, and Portuguese covers of it in our sheet music collection, which proves the success of the operetta and its Gigolette theme.
The Gigolette in Léhars operetta refers to a liberated girl, a flapper who isn’t afraid of a little amorous adventure… No wonder that the ‘Danse des Libellules’ was also produced by Madame Rasimi of the Ba-Ta-Clan: the perfect story to show lavish costumes and nudity at the same time. My Larousse explains gigolette as a ‘jeune femme délurée’ (a young smart/brazen/cheeky woman). One might think it is the feminine form for gigolo, but that term seems to be more recent.
Thirty years earlier, at the fin de siècle and start of the Belle Epoque, the gigolette was the female equivalent of that romanticised and proud male rascal, a member of the urban criminal canaille: the Apache. As in: I will be your Apache, will you be my Gigolette? But we’ll discuss the phenomenon of the Parisian Apaches in another story soon…