I’m pretty sure I first heard this done by Paul Geremia, who recorded it on his first LP, and got some version of the lyric from Sing Out! magazine. I’m guessing Paul got it from Pink Anderson, but that’s just a guess, since it was recorded by numerous blues and hillbilly performers in the 1920s, including Jim Jackson, Luke Jordan, Coley Jones, Henry Whitter, and Prince Albert Hunt.
The original lyric/title seems to have been “Travelin’ Coon,” which was how Jordan sang it — Anderson changed that to “a man named Coon” — and that’s an apt reminder of how much early blues overlapped minstrel and ragtime traditions. I was aware of that, but was still startled recently by the details, outlined in an upcoming book by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville.
Based on decades of research in African American newspapers, they trace a history of blues performers who were nationally famous in black theaters before the dawn of recording. Among their more startling revelations is that the earliest stars who were advertised or described as singing blues were men, and specifically male comedians in blackface make-up — the pioneer was Butler “String Beans” May, and his followers included artists like Charles Anderson, a yodeling female impersonator, who was the first to feature “St. Louis Blues.” (Ethel Waters mentions this in her autobiography, writing that after Anderson made it famous, she was the first woman to do the song.)
Another startling fact is that virtually all the great southern singers we remember as “blues queens” were advertised as “coon shouters” in their early years. Perry Bradford, who went on to compose and produce the first blues record by a black singer, celebrated Bessie Smith as “the best coon shouter I ever heard,” and Ma Rainey’s husband, advertising their touring troupe, wrote: “Mrs. Gertrude Rainie [sic], our coon shouter, never fails to leave the house in an uproar.”
Abbott and Seroff trace an evolution over the course of the 19-teens, from blues being regarded as comedy or a new kind of ragtime to a majestic style performed by “queens” in gorgeous gowns.
Meanwhile, in rural minstrel and medicine shows, on street corners, in barbershops, and wherever else black guitarists and banjo players worked throughout the rural South, influences from touring shows and vaudeville mingled with influences from local, vernacular traditions… including vernacular traditions that drew on earlier minstrel and theater performances that were based on rural vernacular traditions…
None of which I knew when I heard Paul Geremia sing “Travelin’ Man” and picked it up as a fun, upbeat number about a clever trickster who could outrun falling water, outswim sharks, and magically vanish from the docket.