Thursday, October 6, 2011

Deconstructing The Caricature of Zip Coon & Other Minstrel Black Dandies

Edited by Azizi Powell

Zip Coon

Uploaded on Feb 3, 2010

Performed by the 2nd South Carolina String Band

In order to truly become post-racial, I believe that we need to recognize the racist memes that have influenced the past and that still influence the present. This post serves as an introduction for some to the minstrel character "Zip Coon", and other minstrel Black dandies. Nowadays, these stereotypes of Black males aren't as well known by names as the stereotypes of the shufflin, wide eyed, superstitious, child-like Coons/Sambos.

By no means is this post meant to be a comprehensive overview of this subject. I encourage readers to learn more about "Zip Coon" and other Black sterotypes, in part by visiting the sites whose hyperlinks are provided in this post.

Note: I choose not to spell out the word that is now known as the "n word" because I detest that word. Instead of completely spelling that word out, I use asterisks for some letters.


Minstrel shows lampooned black people as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical…

Minstrel songs and sketches featured several stock characters, most popularly the slave and the dandy... The counterpart to the slave was the dandy, a common character in the afterpiece. He was a northern urban black man trying to live above his station by mimicking white, upper-class speech and dress—usually to no good effect. Dandy characters often went by [sic: the name] Zip Coon, after the song popularized by George Washington Dixon, although others had pretentious names like Count Julius Caesar Mars Napoleon Sinclair Brown. Their clothing was a ludicrous parody of upper-class dress: coats with tails and padded shoulders, white gloves, monocles, fake mustaches, and gaudy watch chains. They spent their time primping and preening, going to parties, dancing and strutting, and wooing women. Like other urban black characters, the dandies' pretentiousness showed that they had no place in white society while sending up social changes like nouveau-riche white culture.

From "Old Zip Coon"; comment by rich r; 04 Dec 98
"Zip Coon" which was popular in the 1830's was one of the earliest pieces of music used extensively by black-face singers before the advent of the minstrel shows. The Zip Coon character was an urban dandy, the complete opposite of the Jim Crow character who was depicted as rural. The unofficial garb for Zip Coon included a blue long-tailed jacket, a frilly lacey front shirt, watch fob and jewelry.

The purpose of the Zip Coon character was to provide entertainment for White folks by ridiculing & demeaning Northern, urban, free Black men. The ludicrous Black dandy was created because the existence of free, intelligent, articulate, skilled, ambitious, and well dressed Black men in the North (as well as in the South) was considered by many White people to be an affront & a threat to mainstream White society.

The Zip Coon character is somewhat different from the contemporary characterization of the "uppity n****r" in that Zip Coon had no ambition to do anything but play music, dress in what he considered to be high style, and be a lover of usually more than one Black woman. However, like the "uppity n****r", Zip Coon characterizations were said to be attempting to "live above their station". And both these characters were and are considered to be a threat to White status quo.

The 1834 song "Zip Coon" explicitly has little to do with a Black dandy (a Black man who is only interested in fashion). However, that song presents a self-assured character who is depicted courting a woman (Suky blue skin-meaning a dark skinned Black woman). Also note verses 4,5, & 6 which focus on the (thought to be ludicrous) possibility of a Black man one day becoming the President of the United States:


1. 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.

CHORUS: O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden duden duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden duden duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.

2. O its old Suky blue skin, she is in lub wid me,
I went the udder arter noon to take a dish ob tea;
What do you tink now, Suky hab for supper,
Why chicken foot an possum heel, widout any butter.

3. Did you eber see the wild goose, sailing on de ocean,
O de wild goose motion is a bery pretty notion;
Ebry time de wild goose, beckens to de swaller,
You hear him google google google google goller.

4. I tell you what will happin den, now bery soon,
De Nited States Bank will be blone to de moon;
Dare General Jackson, will him lampoon,
An de bery nex President, will be Zip Coon.

5. An wen Zip Coon our President shall be,
He make all de little Coons sing posum up a tree;
O how de little Coons, will dance an sing,
Wen he tie dare tails togedder, cross de lim dey swing.

6. Now mind wat you arter, you tarnel kritter Crocket,
You shant go head widout old Zip, he is de boy to block it,
Zip shall be President, Crocket shall be vice,
An den dey two togedder, will hab de tings nice.

7. I hab many tings to tork about, but don't know wich come first,
So here de toast to old Zip Coon, before he gin to rust;
May he hab de pretty girls, like de King ob ole,
To sing dis song so many times, fore he turn to mole

Click for this version and other versions of the song "Zip Coon".

The song "Zip Coon" utilizes the same tune as "Turkey in the Straw" which may have slightly predated it. The blackface performers George Washington Dixon, Bob Farrell and George Nichols each claimed to have seperately written both of those songs. An earlier American song "Natchez Under the Hill" was the first published song to use the tune that is most commonly known now as "Turkey In The Straw"...
The word "coon" in the name "Zip Coon" is derived from the word "racoon" but is a racial slur used in the United States to refer to Black people. But where does the word "Zip" come from?

My theory is that the name "Zip" is from the Hebrew male name "Zippor". Given the possible meanings of that name, and its Biblical associations, I contend that the name "Zip" might have been interpreted by some 19th century White folks as a coded put-down of Black men.

To support this theory, I present the following information from
Zippor is the father of Balak, the king of Moab who hires Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22:4).

The name Zippor comes from the fertile word-group (sapar 1958-1962): The assumed and untranslatable root (spr) yields the noun (sippor), meaning bird. In Judges 7:3 the word is used as a hard-to-translate verb, (sapar), perhaps literally: "...Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return and chicken out and off Mount Gilead."

The assumed root (spr 1960) yields the noun (sepira), meaning a plait, diadem (Isaiah 28:5).
The assumed root (spr) yields the noun (sipporen), meaning fingernail (Deuteronomy 21:12) or engraving pen (Jeremiah 17:1).

The assumed root (spr) yields the noun (sapir), meaning he-goat. This word appears only in later Biblical texts.

The name Zippor is identical to the noun (sippor), and means Bird. NOBS Study Bible Name List reads Sparrow. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Little Bird.

A closely related name is Zipporah.
Also, read the information given about the name "Balak" from that same website at

In summation, the name "Zip" in "Zip Coon" may have carried the negative connotations of being bird brained, being a he-goat, and being related to a person who curses the nation of Israel. I consider the following sentence to be particularly striking: "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return and chicken out and off Mount Gilead."
That sentence is particularly fitting since I believe that it was fear of the Black man that motivated the offensive, demeaning pre-minstrel and minstrel caricature of Zip Coon and other Black dandies.

However, note that the chorus of the song "Zip Coon" includes the word "zip":

O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden duden duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden duden duden day.
O zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.

It seems obvious to me that this chorus is the source of the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" which first appeared in the Walt Disney 1946 live action and animated movie "Song of the South". If the 1834 date for that version of the song "Zip Coon" is correct, then I would probably revise my thinking about the Hebrew name "Zippor" being the source of the name & song title "Zip Coon".

I think that "zip" in that Zip Coon chorus and in the Disney song conveys a spirit of zest, carefree energy, and enjoyment, but not necessarily speed. As such that word would be a good fit for the White crafted character of the Black urban dandy- a person who wasn't a threat to the White status quo because he was just carefree and only interested in making music, and courting (if not marrying) Black women.

In conclusion, if I had to choose which one of my theories about the name "Zip Coon" I think is the most plausible, I'd go with door number #2- the word "zip" in the chorus of the Zip Coon song is the source for the name "Zip Coon". It's probable that the similarly spelled and pronounced Hebrew male name "Zippor" is nothing more than a coincidence.

Click for a post on two versions of the Zip Coon song.

"Long Tail Blue" (1827) is an early racist song about a black "dandy" trying to fit into Northern white society. "Dandy" means a male who is concerned about keeping up with the latest clothing fashions, or otherwise making a very good fashion statement). The song "Long Tail Blue" has been attributed to George Washington Dixon. "Long Tail Blue" (a referent to a type of suit jacket) focuses more on the Black dandy than does "Zip Coon".

Here are three verses from "Long Tail Blue". These verses are given with asterisks for the spelling of the "n word". Note the verse that references "Jim Crow courting a White girl.

LONG TAIL BLUE (excerpt)
Some N****rs they have but one coat,
But you see I've got two;
I wears a jacket all the week,
And Sunday my long tail blue...

Jim Crow is courting a white gall,
And yaller folks call her Sue;
I guess she back'd a n****r out,
And swung my long tail blue...

If you want to win the Ladie's hearts,
I'll tell you what to do;
Go to a tip-top tailor's shop,
And buy a long tail blue. "Long Tail Blue"; comment by Q; 01 May 04

A characteristic of the "Zip Coon" character that usually receives little mention is his self-confidence, particularly when it comes to his relationship with women. That characteristic is found in the following 1844 minstrel song of the "Zip Coon" figuree "Dandy Jim From Caroline":

...I drest myself from top to toe,
And down to Dinah I did go,
Wid pantaloons strapp'd down behine,
Like "Dandy Jim from Caroline."
For my ole massa &c...

Oh, beauty it is but skin deep,
But wid Miss Dinah none compete;
She chang'd her name from lubly Dine,
To Mrs. Dandy Jim from Caroline."
For my ole massa &c.

The 1956 hit R&B song "Jim Dandy To The Rescue" as recorded by African American vocalist Lavern Baker adds new characteristics to the character "Dandy Jim from Caroline". That song also turns on its head the caricature of the ludicrous Zip Coon/Black Dandy by presenting exploits of a heroic man who rescues women in distress. Click to find a song file of "Jim Dandy To The Rescue".

Golliwog dolls and other golliwog images & products are based on the minstrel character of "Zip Coon".
The "Golliwogg" (later "Golliwog", "golly doll") was a character in children's books in the late 19th century and depicted as a type of rag doll. It was reproduced, both by commercial and hobby toy-makers as a children's toy called the "golliwog", and had great popularity in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, into the 1960s. The doll has black skin, eyes rimmed in white, clown lips, and frizzy hair, and it has been described as the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States.While home-made golliwogs were sometimes female, the golliwog was generally male. For this reason, in the period following World War II, the golliwog was seen, along with the teddy bear, as a suitable soft toy for a young boy...

The 1895 book [by Florence Upton] included a character named the "Golliwogg," who was first described as "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome", but who quickly turned out to be a friendly character, and is later attributed with a "kind face." A product of the blackface minstrel tradition, the character was classic "darkie" iconography. The Golliwogg had jet black skin; bright, red lips; and wild, woolly hair. He wore red trousers, a shirt with a stiff collar, red bow-tie, and a blue jacket with ails — all traditional minstrel attire…
The Golliwog was created during a racist era. He was drawn as a caricature of a minstrel -- which itself represented a demeaning image of Blacks. There is racial stereotyping of Black people in Florence Upton's books, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls -- such as the Black minstrel playing a banjo on page 45. It appears that the Golliwog was another expression of Upton's racial insensitivity. Certainly later Golliwogs often reflected negative beliefs about Blacks -- thieves, miscreants, incompetents. There is little doubt that the words associated with Golliwog -- Golly, Golli, Wog, and Golliwog, itself -- are often used as racial slurs. Finally, the resurgence of interest in the Golliwog is not found primarily among children, but instead is found among adults, some nostalgic, others with financial interests.
for more information about the etymology and history of golliwogs.

FEATURED VIDEOS [Updated 4/24/2013]
The Stereotype of the "Zip Coon"

This video appears to no longer be available. However, the video uploader's comments are still informative:
[This is] "A clip from the documentary _Ethnic Notions_ by Marlon Riggs. The film details the history of popular cultural representations of African Americans from the 19th century into the late 20th century. It focuses, in particular, on stereotypes and how they have changed over time and in response to circumstance. Here we see the example of the "Zip Coon" character, an ante-bellum construction that was used to ridicule black aspirations for freedom and autonomy. It was a complement to the Mammy and the Sambo in the sense that it rationalized the "need" for slavery to take care of blacks whose attempts to take care of themselves were "ludicrous."...

Ethnic Notions

californianewsreel,Uploaded on Oct 28, 2009

To watch the entire documentary, to read background information and to order DVDs, visit:
Scholars shed light on the origins and consequences of anti-Black stereotypes in popular culture from the Antebellum period to the Civil Rights era.

Robertson's Golden Shred Marmalade Advert (1983)

chaoreturnsforgood76, Uploaded on Oct 1, 2010

Here's an animated advert with the "Gollywog" which was axed in 2001

In discussing Zip Coon, it's important to distinquish "Old Zip Coon" lyrics from the Zip Coon character & characterization. While the character/characterization Zip Coon is racist, the standard lyrics for that song aren't racist.

Click for the lyrics to that song.


Here's an excerpt from that post that describes the Sambo stereotype:
"The Sambo stereotype of African American slaves and, by extension, of modern African Americans is that American blacks are by nature servile, fawning, cringing, docile, irresponsible, lazy, humble, dependent, prone to lying and steal­ing, grinningly happy and basically infantile. In other words, the conception of Sambo is that of a perpetual child incapable of maturity, sitting, grinning and eating in a watermelon patch."
Click Stereotypes of African Americans And Koolaid.

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1 comment:

  1. Comment from a fb friend (reposted with her prior permission):

    "I didn't realise that the tune for Old Zip Coon was Turkey in the straw. When we were kids, back in the 50s, we were taught a song Old Zip Coon but it wasn't a racist version - it was about a fiddler who drove everyone mad with his playing."