Content warning: racist language/imagery.
In 2019, the Yankees #cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only #cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.
The reason for the cancellations was that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:
Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to plant the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary
and Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.
It’s worth noting that, both in her appearance and in her singing style, Kate Smith followed in the tradition of the popular “coon shouters,” like May Irwin, of a decade or two earlier.
On the face of it, the lyrics are incredibly offensive. However, there’s more to them, in the historical context, than meets the eye. Bear with me as I unpack them.
When the song was written, statements like these were not considered overtly racist. Why is that?
First of all, if you read through the lyrics a second time, you begin to realize that they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” Was the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggesting that the system of slavery was the thing that made the great musical traditions of African America possible? .
Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Is Brown being sincere here, or ironic? Even the most fire-eating pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work harder than that to justify their position that slavery wasn’t only a necessity, but even a positive good.
And finally, and most intriguingly, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?
Here Lew Brown is hinting at the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary to, the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — that appear in gospel music.
Of course, in the antebellum South, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.
Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?
The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is a song ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Is it a justification of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slavery itself was necessary for whites’ redemption?
These are disruptive and troubling ideas, but they weren’t new in 1931. In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
Already we [African-Americans] come not altogether empty-handed: there is to-day no true American music but the sweet wild melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales are Indian and African; we are the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal, dyspeptic blundering with the light-hearted but determined Negro humility; or her coarse, cruel wit with loving, jovial good humor; or her Annie Rooney with Steal Away?
(Du Bois is suggesting that “Annie Rooney,” below, is vulgar and inane.)
The great spiritual “Steal Away”:
Complicating things further, the great African-American bass Paul Robeson also recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” in 1931.
Why do you think Robeson, who was a civil rights activist, recorded this song? How does his interpretation differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?
Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .
[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley [Tin Pan Alley was West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in New York City, where the writers and publishers of popular songs had their offices — “Annie Rooney” is a typical example of a Tin Pan Alley song] could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?
The notion of black Americans as essential to the salvation of all Americans will come up for us again when we study jazz. The composer and director Ed Bland, in his short film “The Cry of Jazz” (linked here), has one of his characters speak of “the terrible burden the Negro has of trying to teach white Americans to be human.”
The sentiment is also present in a 1947 children’s book by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward, North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.
I came to the New World empty-handed,
A despised thing, to be used and broken,
Yet I brought immeasurable gifts . . .
I brought to the New World the gift of communion.
I was the Negro who by many a lonely campfire
Learned to “steal away to Jesus” on wings of song. . .
Out of loneliness, need, and anguish
Was born the Spiritual,
A ladder of beauty leading straight to God.
Do you think Hildegarde Hoyt Swift is echoing the sentiments of Lew Brown, the lyricist of “That’s Why”?
A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, the children of the Great Migration. Some of the lyrics:
Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs,
Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes.
Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
Underneath the Harlem moon.
There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo;
They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do:
Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue,
Underneath the Harlem moon.
In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”
Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:
What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?
P.S. Your humble professor was interviewed about some of these issues on radio station WDEL-FM in Delaware in 2019. Listen to that interview here.