Love and Theft, redux: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”

Content warning: racist language/imagery.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Kate Smith Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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?

As Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen observe about Paul Robeson’s recording:

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.

An illustration by Lynd Ward for North Star Shining.

Swift writes:

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.

Ridden by the Spirit(s)

The holy Darcagüey, a watercolor portrait of a Moroccan dervish by José Tapiró y Baró, 1890. Dervishes are practitioners of a mystical version of Islam called Sufism, and are known for their ecstatic, trance-like dancing.
Yemaya (Yoruba deity of the sea and fertility), by Jorge Sanfiel.
The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1894)

JumpJim, the old record collector in White Tears, describes his mentor Chester Bly’s passion for collecting old blues 78s on page 136 of the novel:

By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.

The cheval, or, in Haitian Kreyol, chwal, is a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:

Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts.

Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.

While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical. What do you think?

Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:

There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.

Read Dr. Reed’s article, “Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music,” here.

Watch this, and notice the similarities, among other things, in dress between the church ladies and the Yoruban/Vodou/Santeria priestesses.

In Pentecostal church music, what are the elements that allow/inspire the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?

As Toni Morrison describes the funeral of Chicken Little in the novel Sula:

Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked. And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it.

A medley of “praise breaks”:

In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Valorie D. Thomas posits Beyoncé’s visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility. Read Thomas’s article here.

You may already know this famous gospel song, first performed in 1967. It is credited with creating the contemporary gospel genre:

In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?

The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:

To this:

The great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was herself a preacher’s daughter, and started her career as a young girl singing gospel. One of the unique features of her artistry was the way, as critic Albert Goldman suggested in 1968, she could make sex sound like salvation. Listen, for instance, to the gospel piano intro and the shouts of “Hallelujah” in the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”

What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?

Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?

What about Kanye’s Sunday Service? Are the worshippers feeling it?

More on Kanye and gospel here:

What about the “Beyoncé Mass”?

You can browse the first published gospel songbook, the 1921 Gospel Pearls, here. The publisher, the National Baptist Convention, was a major African-American denomination.

https://hymnary.org/hymnal/GP1921

A timeline of gospel:

http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/p15799coll9

The Musical Geography Project of St. Olaf’s College has a narrative timeline of gospel, with audio, here:

Questions for discussion:

  • How are gospel and spirituals similar — both musically and lyrically?
  • How are they different? Give an example of a spiritual AND a gospel song to illustrate your argument.
  • What do you think accounts for these differences, musically, historically, and socially?

A First-Stream Rhythm and Blues Primer

citizens council

Handbill distributed by the Citizens’ Council of New Orleans.

Early rhythm and blues was essentially what its name says: an uptempo version of the blues, with a strong emphasis on the kind of driving, propulsive beat popularized by jazz. It was marketed to black urban record-buyers as “race music,” until journalist Jerry Wexler (who later became a well-known producer) christened it “rhythm and blues” in Billboard magazine in 1949.

Some early examples.

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” (1947):

John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun” (1949):

Lonnie Johnson, “Tomorrow Night,” an R&B ballad (1947):

Wynonie Harris, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) — a song that was one of the first to use the term “rock” to describe a musical style:

Harris’s recording became a #1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts in 1948; a few years later, it would become a #1 hit on the pop charts for another artist:

Another feature of rhythm and blues was group vocals, a style borrowed from gospel quartets like the Jubilaires:

The group sound was adopted by male vocal harmony groups like the Ink Spots and the Orioles. Note the romantic, extremely emotionally-vulnerable vocal style of the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny and the Orioles’ Sonny Til:

As Orioles member Diz Russell explained it, after World War II

People wanted to become close. Their loved ones were coming back from the war . . . The theme was trying to get close to each other. You can’t get close to nobody on the dance floor, jitterbugging, so ballads were the best medium . . . it put you in [the] frame of mind . . . to fall in love.

Jitterbugging/Lindy hop:

A historical recreation of black social dance in the famed Roseland Ballroom, for Spike Lee’s 1992 film X. The loose suits with high-waisted trousers and long jackets were known as zoot suits. They were popularized by jazz musicians in the 1940s; Malcolm X, who arrived in Harlem from Detroit in 1942 wearing one, called the zoot suit “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

The 1942 short film “Zoot Suit,” with Paul White and Dorothy Dandridge:

Slow dancing to Sam Cooke in the 1950s:

Another male singing group, The Dominoes, with the uptempo “Have Mercy Baby” (1951):

Another Orioles song, “Crying in the Chapel,” consciously married gospel and R&B, both in musical style and in the text:

Faye Adams joined female gospel vocal style with secular love lyrics (“Shake a Hand,” 1951):

Rhythm and blues emerged at the same time that jazz, with bebop and hard bop, was becoming music for connoisseurs and intellectuals. R&B stepped into jazz’s former position as the defining genre of popular black urban music. In a few short years, the crossover between R&B and the concurrent emerging style of rock and roll would be complete.

As Sam Cooke said in a 1964 interview:

When a kid is young he expects a lot out of life. Rhythm ‘n’ blues is the most fervent sound in pop music. When a person gets older he understands there’s only so much to be gotten out of life. He doesn’t have to have excitement all the time. He can take things with less intensity, hence his appreciation of jazz.

Sorrow Songs

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W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It remains a classic in the fields of sociology and African-American literature.

Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” of the African diaspora to America, and he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of musical notation from a spiritual. In the last chapter, “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of the musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of black Americans contains a power that transcends the social and economic condition of the practitioners of that music.

Du Bois also suggests in this essay that black music can’t really be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents its being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the signs and symbols of sounds. He also attempts to transcribe his impression of a west African language, though the language and the meaning of the words have not yet been identified.

For more on DuBois’s association of music and sound with black history, read this post on the sound studies blog Sounding Out!: “‘Music More Ancient than Words’: W.E.B. DuBois’s Theories on Africana Aurality.”

Here are most of the songs Du Bois references in “The Sorrow Songs,” in order of mention.

Lay This Body Down (The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island):

You May Bury Me in the East (The Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (Mahalia Jackson):

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Roll, Jordan, Roll (Topsy Chapman, from the film Twelve Years A Slave):

Been A-Listening (Five Blind Boys of Alabama):

My Lord, What a Morning (Marian Anderson):

My Way’s Cloudy (Marian Anderson):

Wrestling Jacob (Sunset Jubilee Singers):

Steal Away (Barbara Conrad):

Bright Sparkles (an Indian choir):

Dust, Dust and Ashes (Eschatos Bride Choir):

I Hope My Mother Will Be There (A bunch of people sight-reading and killing it):

Two of the “songs of white America [that] have been distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody”:

Swanee River (also known as “Old Folks at Home”) by white composer Stephen Foster. TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY. It’s worth reading Michael Friedman’s article “Can’t Escape Stephen Foster” for some context.

Old Black Joe (also by Foster, sung by Paul Robeson):

No recording, but sheet music for the quotation:

Dere’s no rain to wet you,
Here’s no sun to burn you,
Oh, push along, believer,
I want to go home.

no more rain

Keep Me From Sinking Down (Robert Sims):

Poor Rosy (William Appling Singers)

The German folksong Du Bois quotes, “Jetzt geh’ i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net” (Now I go to the title well, but I don’t drink):

There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):

Michael Haul the Boat Ashore (Liberty Lines singers; starts at 3:15)

This song became a hit during the folk music revival of the early 1960s:

Incidentally, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a composer and musicologist. She wrote an opera called Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, about the African diaspora, which premiered in Cleveland in 1932. Unfortunately, none of her music has been recorded.

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More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.

You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).

A Hausa call-and-response:

Maasai schoolgirls in Kenya.

In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.

In Avengers Infinity War, T’challa leads the Dora Milaje in a call and response. Do you think the filmmakers did their research?

What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?

Call and response in the folk spiritual “Job, Job.”

Another version:

Call and response in a work camp song.

Call and response in a prison work song.

David Guetta and Nicki Minaj sampled “Rosie” in their song “Hey Mama.”

The song was also recently adapted by three white folksingers, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, who perform together as I’m With Her, as “Be My Husband.” What do you think about this usage?

In August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson, a character speaks of his stint in Parchman and sings a work song.

August Wilson was inspired to write his play, set in 1936, by this painting, “The Piano Lesson,” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

You can read the complete play here.