Saturday, November 2, 2013

In Search Of Information About Counjaille & Coonjine Songs & Dances

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series about counjaille songs & dances and coonjine songs & dances. This post provides excerpts from material that provides information about those songs and dances. I also share my speculations in this post about why I think that counjaille and coonjine songs and dances seem to have been largely forgotten.

Click for Part II of this series. That post presents information about coonjine songs and eight examples of songs or song fragments that include the word "coonjine" or "coonshine".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Part I
From GLOSSARY (by Joby Bourguignon)
One of the popular tunes in Guadeloupe «Counjaille O Counjaille etc...) and is proof of a Congolese presence in the country. This term describes a dance from the Congolese ritual, traces of which can be found in Guadeloupe and Santo Domingo in 1807/1809 at a time when ethnic groups were travelling from these countries to New Orleans to escape from the Napoleonic wars.

In the same way as the bamboula, Calinda, Chacha etc., these dances were performed from French Guiana to New Orleans as well as Santo Domingo and all of the French West Indies.
Considered to be indecent, the «Place Congo» was banned in New Orleans in 1843. (This ban was respected throughout the Caribbean and reinforced the Edict of March 1685, and was recorded by the Sovereign Council of Santo Domingo on May 6th, 1687 under the name “Code Noir”). Art. 16...

It is important to specify that in the Creole language, this word can mean several different things. The same word describes the music, dance, group gathering, etc..."

From Lynne Fauley Emery's book Black Dance from 1619 to Today {second edition; Princeton Book Company, 1988, pps 146-147}
"The Coonjine, another of the river dances, was still "remembered in scattered areas through the Antilles" as late as 1963. In the Caribbean, however the dance was performed during carnival time and called the "Counjaille", while in the United States the Coonjine was performed on the waterfront by the black roustabouts and "was a rhythmic shuffle affected to expedite loading and unloading..." Harold Courlander reported:

'The term Counjaille, or Coojine is still used in southern United States waterfront areas to mean moving or loading cotton, an activity that once, in all probablility, was accompanied by Counjaille-type songs and rhythms. Negro children on the docks and levies sand such songs as:

Throw me a nickle, throw me a dime
If you want to see me do the Coojine.'

According to Mary Wheeler. The Coonjine was a combination of song and dance connected with freight handling on the steamboats.

'The "plank walk" springs under a heavy weight or even under the lighter step of the rouster when he trots back again empty handed for more freight. To avoid jarring, the feet are dragged along the stage plank accompanied by a song that takes its rhythm from the shuffling feet and swaying shoulders.'

Allen, Ware, and Garrison mentioned the Coonjai and described it as a sort of Minuet, Unfortunately, although the authors spparently saw the dance, they described the musical accompaniment rather than the movements".

From Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings Joshua Clegg Caffery (Google Book, pp. 247-249)
"The word coonjine, as it is employed here, as it was apparently most commonly understood in nineteenth- century America, refers to the particular body movements enacted by black workers while unloading or loading freight (Hardie 2004, 115-16). While the word was associated with these movements, it could also apply to any songs or dances performed by these laborers while going about their work. More broadly, the word came to be associated with any riparian African American song and dance style.

The roots of the word coonjine extend well beyond this meaning, and some have noted that it likely relates to the term counjaille, a dance popular in Creole communities in French Louisiana and the West Indies (Knowles 2002, 63-64). In the seminal Slave Songs Of The South, for instance, mention is made of a counjaille being performed in St. Charles Parish (a “sort of minuet”), suggesting that the counjaille in question may have been part of the complex of quadrille/contredanse sets found disseminated throughout Creole culture (Allen et al, 1867, 137).

Counjaille or Coonjine may also relate to the Haitian dance known as the koudyay or the Nicaraguan kujai. Although these dances are wildly different, their names have a common linguistic root in the West Indian dance performance known as “coup de jaille” (meaning a spontaneous spouting forth), a term that seems to have originated in colonial French military and political celebrations (Manuel, 2009, 31). In 1937 John Lomax recorded a song that referenced dancing the counjallee from a self-described Creole Haitian descendant in a nursing home in New Orleans (AFS 809 A01). In general, then, like European dance forms like the mazurka, quadrille, or jig, counjaile functioned as a basic name for a dance movement that accompanied a wide variety of vernacular, creolized associations.

It should also be mentioned that coonjine performers in the United States were among the most visible exponents of African American oral art in the 19th century. As steamboat roustabouts, they were in close contact with white people of various ethnic and economic backgrounds – a context that allowed their performances to permeate the boundaries of race and class. Not surprisingly, many of the early blackface minstrel performers may have based their performances of the songs and dances of the musical roustabouts (Kenney, 2005, 29-30), and roustabout coonjine songs may have marked an intermediate phase between plantation performances and the explosion of minstrelsy in the mid nineteenth century- a middle stage of African American vernacular music’s absorption into America’s popular music consciousness.”
Here's information about The Black Bottom which indicates that that dance derives from an older dance.
"The Original Black Bottom Dance" was printed in 1919. It came from an earlier dance called "Jacksonville Rounders' Dance" printed in 1907. The word "Rounder" was a synonym for "pimp." Both "dance-songs" were written by black pianist, composer and dancer Perry Bradford and were based on a dance done in Jacksonville, Florida "way back." One professional dancer stated, "That dance is as old as the hills." The dance was well known among semi-rural blacks across the South. A similar dance with many variations had been commonly used in tent show performances, and "Bradford and Jeanette" had used it as a finale. The dance was featured in the Harlem show Dinah in 1924, and then "The Scandals of 1926," whereupon it became a national craze."
I wonder if the "Jacksonville Rounders' Dance" may have been another name for the Coonjine or if the "Jacksonville Rounders' Dance" was derived from the Coonjine dance.

Also, read this video summary from "Black Bottom - Vintage Blues Dance"
"The Black Bottom (aka Swanee Bottom) was originally from New Orleans, later worked its way to Georgia and finally New York. Some say the Black Bottom was introduced by blues singer "Alberta Hunter" (which is probably true as many songs & dances were "stolen" and reproduced by someone else). However, it has been reported that the Black Bottom was derived from an earlier and similar dance called the "Echo." The dance was done all over the South before Bradford wrote his song in 1919.

Simple moves were created by natural movements, like the stomp was to imitate a cow's feet stuck in mud."
That video includes a brief clip of two young Black boys doing some dancing movements that are labeled the Black Bottom by that film's narrator.[.57-1.06]. The sub-title at 1.07-1.08 reads "The colored kids got it from a cow stuck in the mud".*

That film clip also shows two young Black girls doing some movements that are said to be the Black Bottom.[Unfortunately, only the top portions of their bodies are shown. [4:21-4:27]

*"Colored" is a no longer used referent for all African Americans regardless of their skin color. That referent largely ceased being used in the 1960s & 1970s.

"It" in that sentence means "the movements to the Black Bottom dance". "From a cow stuck in the mud" means "imitating the foot movements of a cow stuck in the mud". Of course, this isn't meant to be taken seriously, although many African American dances were created by imitating birds or specific animals.

Was the "Echo" dance "that was done all over the South before Bradford wrote his song in 1919" a more socially acceptable name for the Coonjine?

Note: The following excerpt from the 1886 magazine article points out the improvisational, open ended nature of counjaille songs and improvisational nature of the counjaille dance.

George W. Cable, "Creole Slave Dances: The Dance in Place Congo" (published in The Century Magazine, Vol. 31, Nr. 4 [February 1886], pp. 517-532)
Quoted in "The Dance In Place Congo" New Orleans [p. 9]
“Suddenly the song changes. The rhythm sweeps away long and smooth like a river escaping from its rapids, and in new spirit, with louder drum beats and more jocund rattles, the voices roll up into the sky and the dancers are at it. Aye yai yi!

I could give four verses, but let one suffice; it is from a manuscript copy of the words, probably a hundred years old that fell into my hands through the courtesy of an old Creole lady…The counjaille was never complete, and found its end, for the time being in the caprice of its improviser, whose rich, stentorian voice sounded alone between the refrains. But while we discourse other couples have stepped into the grassy area and the instrumental din has risen to a fresh height of inspiration, the posing, the thigh-beating, the breast-patting and chanting and swinging and writhing has risen, and the song has changed.
But the dance has not changed, and love is still the theme. Sweat streaks from black brows, down the shining black necks and throats, upon men’s bare chest, and unto dark, unstayed bosoms. Time wares, shadows lengthen; but the movement is brisker than ever, and the big feet and the bent shanks, are as light as thistles on the air. Let one flag, another has his place, and a new song gives vehemence, new inventions in steps, turns, and attitudes."

From Google News
The Milwaukee Journal - Jul 15, 1931, p. 9
“When Negroes Did The Coonjine Down Ole Mississippi Gangplanks”
Singing songs as they shuffled along made the totin’ easier and made the Roustabouts forget their troubles, Tunes created to fit the occassion.

“Now coonjine ~the name of that swinging, slouchy loose kneed, dance of the negro roustabouts up and down the Mississippi steamboat's” [planks’?]*

*The word in brackets wasn't visible in the online version of that newspaper article.

Note that approved spelling for the word "Negro" is with an upper class case "n" since at least the early 1960s. However, some Black Americans spell that word with a lower case "n" to refer to a Black person who acts like an "Uncle Tom".

Why aren't counjaille and coonjine songs and dances more widely known or at least known as much as other Caribbean and African American vernacular dances such as the Calinda, and African American dances such as the Cake Walk, the Black Bottom, the Charleston, and The Shimmy? Filmed examples of those other listed African American vernacular dances from the 18th century and 19th century/early 20th century dances can be found on YouTube. There are at least two historical film clips of the cake walk on YouTube. There are also several film clips of White dancers from the early to mid twentieth century performing those other dances - but, regrettably, I've not yet found any film clips of Black people performing those other dances. However, to date, I've not found any song or dance examples of the counjaille or the coonjine on YouTube.

In my opinion, the main reason why so little information is known nowadays about "coonjine" songs & dances is that song & dance name itself.

The word "coonjine" and its alternate name "coonshine" begin with the problematic syllable "coon". That word evokes distrubing and stigmatizing images of Black slavery and black faced minstrelsy. I admit that until faily recently I shied away from reading anything about black-faced minstrelsy and just the names "coonjine" or "coonshine" would have been a big turn off for me. And I don't think that I'm the only Black person who has this gut distaste for and avoidance of anything that is even slightly related to "minstrelsy". For example, I used to avoid any songs or isntrumentals that featured banjos. Thanks in large part to the contemporary African American Old Time music group The Carolina Chocolate Drops, I've begun to explore that music and actually (surprisingly for me) like much of it. But I still cringe when I read about that Old Time music because I know that I may come across what is now called "the n word" and such examples of 19th Black dialectic English as "gwine" and "massa".

While some "coonjine" songs & dances influenced White blackfaced minstrelsy -and also Black blacfaced minstrelsy- "coonjine" songs were much more than material for those performers.

And it should be admitted that some but not all Southern Black Americans used the word "coon" as a self-referent and a group referent in the 19th century. However, I don't think that most Black Americans that time, used "coon" that way. Certainly, Black people who were trying to "raise the race" and/or Black people who wanted to be considered more acceptable by White people wouldn't have been happy that "coonjine"/coonshine" was included that "coon" syllable.

The word "coonshine" may have started out as a form of the word "coonjine" (which itself probably is derived from the word "counjaille". However, I believe the vernacular connotations of the word "shine" as it related to Black people is another reason why the name "coonshine"/"coonjine" was retired for those dances and songs.

"Shine" is the name of an anti-hero in African American [usually bawdy] narratives called "toasts". One relatively well known example of those toasts is "Shine And The Titanic".*

The character's name "Shine" and the use of the word "shine" as an informal referent for Black men probably was coined because of the erroneous belief that dark black skin shone like blue-black shoe polish.

Also, White people may have shied away from the name "coonjine" because the syllable “coon” in that dance was the same as the vernacular referent for Black people and that term was too lower class and too reminiscent of plantation South for White "polite society."

I also wonder if the similarity of the word "coonshine" to the colloquial word for liquor "moonshine" may have contributed to that lack of acceptance of the name "coonshine" among White people and Black people. "Moonshine" evokes images of White hillbillies, and that group of people were looked down on by other White people, contributing to the connotation of "coonshine" as a lower class name for that dance.

However, while Black people-eventually retired the "coonjine" dance name, they continued or adapted that dance's movements under a different name or names. (I'm not sure if White people ever knew enough about that vernacular dance to be said to have eeventually dropped its' name.)

For instance, I wonder if the Black Bottom was a slowed down version of the Coonjine. After all, both of these 19th century dances are said to have originated in Louisiana. Notice how in the following excerpt the Black Bottom is said to have been based on an "old dance".

*Click for commentary about African American toasts and a "clean" examples of "Shine And The Titanic".

Also, it seems to me that another reason why Coonjine didn't become a White dance craze [at least not under that name.], probably for the reasons I gave in point #1. Note that almost always the term “dance craze” in the United States refers to dances that White people pick up & modify from Black people. There don't appear to be any films of White people or Black people doing the Coonjine. - prior to the Lindy Hop/Swing era, Black dancers were rarely filmed doing vernacular dances.

Furthermore, for the most part, African Americans aren’t good at preserving, honoring, and disseminating information about our cultural history. In astrology terms, Black people are far more Uranian than we are Saturnian, meaning we are much more interested in innovating new dances and other cultural forms, including new forms of old dances, than we are in preserving old forms.

Thanks to all those who sung & danced the Counjaille and the Coonjine.

Thanks also to those who are quoted in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojam.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment