Bob Roberts

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In the early years of the new millennium, discussion arose over whether the racial epithet "nigger" had lost a degree or two of offensiveness due to constant use in rap music lyrics, so perhaps a reappraisal…
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In the early years of the new millennium, discussion arose over whether the racial epithet "nigger" had lost a degree or two of offensiveness due to constant use in rap music lyrics, so perhaps a reappraisal is also due regarding the work of Bob Roberts, one of America's first recording artists. When actor and film director Tim Robbins was creating his satirical masterpiece Bob Roberts, a portrait of an ultra-right-wing racist folk singer, was he slyly paying tribute to a man who, following the turn of the previous century, was said to have recorded more "coon songs" than any other? Best known for one of his final recordings, "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," Roberts recorded plenty of material that could inspire bottles to fly through the air if played in the wrong situation, which culturally would eventually be considered to be just in about any situation.

When he began recording for Columbia in 1902, there was a sizeable market for his songs in the so-called "coon genre" which included "By the Sycamore Tree," hopefully not describing a lynching, and "The Woodchuck Song," possibly a musical portrait of the guy who ratted out Klan brethren to the FBI. "Ada, My Sweet Potater," one of his most popular cylinders, has been described by antique recording specialists as using "stock 'coon song' images to tell of a man who woos his dark-skinned lover with his banjo playing." There is an unusual vocal arrangement on the Roberts cylinder, during which a prissy sounding chorus of women make several hilarious appearances.

Roberts also teamed for novelty selections with the amusing Billy Murray, creating the alluring "Won't You Fondle Me?" "Blitz and Blatz in an Aeroplane" -- possibly one of the strangest records of all time -- was another collaboration, this time with singer Fred Duprez. By 1913, Roberts career was considered to have fallen in status, as he was no longer cutting with the so-called "Big Three" companies, meaning Victor, Edison, and Columbia. One of the last sessions for Victor turned into a climactic success, the aforementioned "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," a lovable bit of standard Americana that by itself has done a lot to rehabilitate the singer's image. While the "coon" material vanished into the sofa cushions of society, "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" became a classic, covered by many artists with broad appeal including the Chipmunks. A great deal of the Roberts cylinder recordings have been monkeyed with sonically and reissued on collections such as the Two-Minute Black Wax Cylinder Phonograph Recordings series on the Tinfoil label.