Father of Ragtime
Minstrel show and Vaudeville entertainer and songwriter Ernest Hogan was born Ernest Reuben Crowders in the African American “Shake Rag” district of Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1865.
In 1895 Hogan published his first song, “La Pas Ma La,” based on a comedic dance step he had created as the “pasmala” while performing with the Pringle troupe. Featuring a jerky hop forward followed by three quick steps backward, it met with a warm reception in the African American community. The next year, however, Hogan became a national star with the song for which he was to be known for the rest of his life, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” Adapted from a song he had heard in a bar in Chicago and written for the white show Widow Jones, it was the hit of the season, ultimately selling over a million copies.
Following this triumph, Hogan returned to Black Patti, billed as “The Unbleached American,” for a season, and then began a tour of Australia and Hawaii with Curtis’s Afro-American Minstrels. Costarring with minstrel Billy McClain in My Friend from Georgia, a musical comedy that he co-wrote, Hogan was warmly received throughout the show’s run.
In 1900 Hogan worked with 15-year-old singer Mattie Wilkes in The Military Ma in New York City. Hogan and Wilkes were reportedly married for a short time. Hogan was said to have later married a woman named Louise (maiden name unreported), who worked with him in organizing concerts in New York City in 1905. The dates of these marriages are unrecorded, and there were no known children from either.
Hogan’s activities extended beyond the writing and performing for which he was famous. In 1901 he was one of the first African Americans to buy a home in New York City’s Harlem. Upon returning from his Hawaiian tour, he and costar Billy McClain organized the Smart Set Company, a highly successful black road show, which produced Enchantment in 1902. In 1905, he and his wife, Louise, established an orchestra called the Memphis (or Nashville) Students, who presented a “syncopated music concert” at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater on Broadway that ran for a hundred performances, and went on to tour Europe as the Tennessee Students. That year, he starred in a musical comedy considered by many to be his crowning achievement, Rufus Rastus, for which he wrote the script and co-wrote the music.
Immensely popular, it toured the country for two years after its successful New York run. In 1907, he and comedian Bert Williams were instrumental in the formation of the Colored Actors’ Beneficial Association, a professional union for black performers.
During that year Hogan prepared his last musical vehicle, The Oyster Man, but fell ill with tuberculosis and collapsed during a performance. The troupe was dissolved when Hogan withdrew in March 1908, and he died the following year in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Arguably the most popular African American entertainer of his time, and the first to both produce and star in a Broadway production, Ernest Hogan was a transitional performer whose career spanned minstrelsy, vaudeville, and musical theater. He was a major influence in popularizing the emerging musical styles. He is credited with coining the term “ragtime” for the strongly syncopated rhythm that became the pop music rage of the 1890s, and his songs were the first to feature the word “rag” on their sheet music. Hogan did much to bring African American musical styles to a larger audience, and to open the doors of mainstream American theater to later African American performers.
It’s hardly a secret that Bowling Green, KY has birthed an impressive number of highly successful performing and recording artists. From Ernest Hogan, widely regarded as the “Father of Ragtime,” to Cage the Elephant, our borough’s soil is no doubt rich with the germ of […]