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In the years following the Civil War, African American music, performed by blacks themselves, gradually became a defining feature of American popular culture. Among the most striking examples was the popularity of the Negro spirituals. In 1871, nine students from a Fisk, a new college located in Nashville, Tennessee, went on tour to raise funds for their struggling institution. Known as Fisk Jubilee Singers, these students eventually toured England and Europe, spreading appreciation of the spirituals across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, among the most popular songs of the 1880s and especially the 1890s were those that Americans today find profoundly offensive. The first "coon song," as they were known, appeared in 1880, shortly after the formal end of Reconstruction, and more than 600 were published during the 1890s. An enormous number of copies of sheet music were sold; Fred Fisher's "If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon" reportedly sold three million copies.

Featuring a catchy, foot-tapping rhythm and a syncopated style, these songs were supposed to be humorous (though the humor strikes listeners today as odious). But it seems clear in retrospect that these distasteful songs need to be understood as part of the broader reconstruction of race relations that followed the Civil War. Popular music played a crucial role in reinforcing that broader pattern of racial subordination that was taking shape, evident in disfranchisement, legal segregation, and violent intimidation, including lynchings.

Yet there was a curious irony to this story. A surprising number of these songs were written by black composers and lyricists, notably Ernest Hogan, author of "All Coons Look Alike to Me." Many were performed by blacks wearing blackface, the most famous of whom was Bert Williams. Not only did this craze give a number of blacks a foothold in the entertainment business, it also introduced a white audience to authentic black performing styles, helping to set the stage for the introduction of ragtime, blues, and jazz.

Carry Me Back to Old Virginia
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Carry Me Back to Old Virginny
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Carry Me Back to Old Virginny
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Onward Christian Soldiers
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