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.

Something Good

On December 12 of this year, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry added a 30-second film from 1898 to its collection. The film, known as “Something Good — Negro Kiss” is the first screen kiss between African-Americans in film history, and it is remarkably free from the racist stereotypes with which African-Americans had been portrayed in the theater to this point. Read more here.

The performers have been identified as Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, two vaudeville dancers who were well-known to Chicago audiences. 

The first screen kiss in film had been documented two years earlier, between white vaudeville performers May Irwin and John Rice. Irwin, as you may recall, was a Broadway “coon shouter,” a white woman who sang songs (in a stentorian voice) from the perspective a black male. Her biggest hit was “The Bully Song” (shown here with footage of that famous kiss — Content/trigger warning: racist language and imagery).

May Irwin was a famous voice of “blackvoice” minstrelsy. How can we see “Something Good” in relation to the genre that she represented?

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery in original sources.]

AmericanFolkSongsForChildren

In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000244/?embed=resources

However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

Indeed, the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black violence.

sich a gitting upstairs

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

rivers of america

This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the violence of black men, were usually performed by heavy-set white women known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

Indeed, in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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Before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.