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”:

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 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?