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

You may know that the Yankees have #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 a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium. [UPDATE: The statue was later removed. It’s a lot easier to take down a statue of a female singer who recorded a racist song in 1931 than it is to take down a statue of a male general who waged war to maintain the institution of slavery.]

The reason is 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.

Though they’re not what you would call great literature, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” are fascinating, and worth unpacking.

First of all, 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.” According to the lyrics, slavery, and the music that it generated, make up a sort of self-fulfilling binary system.

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. Even the most fire-eating of pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work to justify their position.

And finally, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?

Here the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggests 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 — in gospel music.

Of course, 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 ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s specifically 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? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slavery itself was necessary for whites’ redemption?

Is this an example of “love and theft”?

The great Paul Robeson also recorded the song in 1931.


How does Paul Robeson’s version of the song 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?

These are complicated moral, historical, philosophical, and aesthetic questions, and I’m not sure the PR teams for the Yankees or the Phillies considered them. Do you think they were right to #cancel Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” on the basis of her also having recorded this song?

UPDATE: Your humble professor was interviewed about these issues on WDEL-FM in Delaware. Listen to that interview here.

Ridden by the Spirit(s)

Yemaya (Yoruba deity of the sea and fertility), by Jorge Sanfiel.

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.

What, in Pentecostal church music, allows/inspires the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?

A medley of “praise breaks”:

You know this famous gospel song:

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:

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?

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:

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

duboisbrochurish_400x400

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 Row the Boat Ashore (Marion Williams):

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.

dubois_courtesyschlesingerlibrary_0

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.

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

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

Another version:

Call and response in a work camp song.

Call and response in a prison work song.

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.