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Early Jazz, Looney Tunes, and Cultural Rebellion


I’ve been making it through the many Looney Tunes collections over the past couple of years. Last night, I watched “I Love to Singa” for the first time in a very long time:

This play on The Jazz Singer is fantastic from the modern perspective not only for the art of the cartoon, but to remember how revolutionary and threatening jazz was for a lot of people. A decade ago, I was sitting in on a job talk for a Gilded Age/Progressive Era historian. This was one of those searches that had 400 candidates, of which 50 would have been awesome. Anyway, this guy worked on southern music and talked about the reactions to ragtime, which unleashed a furious response in the white community of fears that these beats would turn our good young white women into the sexual conquests of black men. In other words, a response that would repeat itself in one form or another with jazz, rock and roll, the music of the counterculture, and of course, hip-hop.

Never mind that the jazz used in Looney Tunes was an extremely white form of it, whether here or in so many other cartoons. This is your Benny Goodman/Andrews Sisters 1940s version of jazz. When black musicians are portrayed, they are caricatures, which of course was common for any racial minorities in these cartoons (not to mention that most of the major characters use speech impediments as defining characteristics). The music is still great and satirized real cultural fear of older Americans. That the very people who enjoyed this whitened jazz would flip out over rock and roll is hardly lost on the modern viewer.

“I Love to Singa” is perhaps best known today thanks to a direct reference to another form of cultural innovation that freaked out conservative parents:

God, that’s funny.

While I love the well-known characters of Looney Tunes, there’s something great about the cartoons that don’t push those narratives because they can be completely anarchic and creative. This isn’t only when they bring jazz into the equation, but especially when they do. Take “Katnip Kollege” for instance:

I also adore the many cartoons that reference stars of the day. As someone who sees W.C. Fields as a guide to growing older, I can’t get enough of those references. But I’ll leave these cartoons for another post.

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