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On Kate Smith, History and Context

April 22, 2019, 12:01 PM ET [147 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
My college degrees, both my B.A. and M.A. from Temple University, were in history. I also did some Ph.D. course work in American history at Temple. Apart from learning how to do primary-source and secondary-source research, I learned that applying historical context -- which can dovetail into other disciplines such as sociology and political science -- and examining changes over time are crucial to gleaning value from studying the past.

I learned that history is not static. On the contrary, it's interpretative and evolutionary.

Most of all, I learned that history is messy. Studying history reveals many things that make people uncomfortable to discuss. Anything that involves human beings, human institutions and human behavior rarely is all bad or all good, either in the collective or individual sense.

That brings me to the controversy surrounding the late Kate Smith and the decisions taken by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing her rendition of "God Bless America," and the Flyers' additional decision to cover and then remove a statue commemorating her unique relationship to the team both during and after her lifetime tied to her rendition of Irving Berlin's patriotic song. The controversy has nothing to do with "God Bless America" but, rather, to two songs that Smith sang in the early 1930s: "That's Why Darkies Were Born," and "Pickaninny Heaven."

Let's start by applying historical context.

Smith, nicknamed "the Songbird of the South," was born in Virginia in 1907. The Civil War had been over for a half-century at that point, but segregation and various "Jim Crow" laws that legally relegated blacks to second-class status were ugly facts of life. Civil rights movements were still in relatively nascent stages, at least on a larger scale.

Both before and for a time after World War II, standard and widely socially accepted terminology for blacks -- in the North as well as in the South -- included many words that, in current-day society are considered demeaning, pejorative, offensive and/or infantilizing. These included both the terms "Darkies" and "Pickaninny"; the later primarily used in referring to African-American children.

Even someone regarded as historically progressive as Eleanor Roosevelt grew up (in New York high society, not in the south) casually using these terms in her everyday speech. In her earlier years, she also unquestioningly accepted her era's widespread anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and racial prejudice. It was only later in life that she reflected on herself as well as society and expunged not only certain words from her vocabulary but also prejudicial values that she came to abhor.

For more than the first half-century of American popular culture and mass entertainment of the 1900s-- music, theater (especially vaudeville and minstrel shows), films of both the silent movie and "talkies" era, cartoons -- directly reflected similar attitudes. Racial and ethnic portrayals that today would be rightly considered highly offensive were extremely prevalent, often in obvious ways (such as Al Jolson or even a young Judy Garland performing in blackface).

Keep this in mind, as well: at least one inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame whose career was in the early 20th century (Tris Speaker) was at least briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Another (Rogers Hornsby) is alleged to have also had Klan membership for a time. The stories of violent and open racism associated with Ty Cobb are so extreme that they may have been exaggerated, depending on whose versions one chooses to believe or synthesized into a more nuanced portrayal of a figure who became an almost cartoonish monster in history; yet who is nevertheless honored with a statue at Comerica Park in Detroit because of his status as one the game's all-time greats from any era.

Go watch or listen to a cross-section of vintage entertainment from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Whether it's "Swanee River" or scores of songs with "Pickaninny" in the title, many are abhorrent by today's standards. These include a song called "The Pickaninny's Paradise" that was recorded by many different singers but most famously by Emmett Miller (an artist who influenced a wide array of performers from later generations and of such widely differing styles as Hank Williams and Bob Dylan). Another was the oft-recorded "Pickaninny Blues", most notably performed by Ethel Waters (later the first African-American to star on her own television show and also the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award). The music of Bessie Smith, "the Empress of the Blues", was controversial in its time for its frankness about female sexuality (which no one would bat an eye at today) but NOT for its racial language because her themes were focused within black communities and households.

In terms of racial and ethic depictions in other forms of pop culture, a significant amount of material in vintage Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons (including portions of Fantasia or the Three Little Pigs series with the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a Jewish or Italian peddler) would be considered highly offensive in current society. In fact, in preserving and re-releasing vintage material, Warner Brothers placed a disclaimer before their presentation: "The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the racial and ethnic prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent Warner Bros. view of today's society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."

It was not just cartoons and songs. Movies of both serious and comedic bents frequently had elements that would not be considered acceptable in today's society. The latter includes, among many others, both the Marx Brothers (Chico's "Italian immigrant con man" persona, the gaggle of singing, dancing and jazz-playing "darkies" that Harpo stumbles upon in "Duck Soup", a joking reference by Groucho to "That's Why Darkies Were Born" in the same movie) and the Three Stooges (blackface in "Uncivil War Birds," the many scene-stealing appearances of actor Dudley Dickerson as various superstitious, dim-witted and servile but sassy and facially expressive bit characters).

Viewed in the context of its pre-WWII times, it becomes much easier to understand why neither "That's Why Darkies Were Born" nor "Pickaninny Heaven" were viewed as controversial in their times. The former, however, has an especially interesting story behind it.

"That's Why Darkies Were Born" was composed and written by the songwriting duo of Lew Brown and Ray Henderson. In this era -- and stretching for many decade beyond -- relatively few singers and vocal groups wrote their own songs. Songwriters composed music (sometimes, but more often not with a particular performer in mind) and then sold it. It was very common for numerous artists to record versions of the same song within a short period of time for the same record label or even for different ones; a practice that extended well after World War II.

It has been said that Brown and Henderson's song was written as a satire of the deeply engrained racism of the time. The song is open-ended enough that this interpretation is certainly plausible but so, too, is an interpretation of it being straightforward.

It's impossible to say how Kate Smith herself interpreted the song. There's a strong possibility that she viewed it solely in musical terms and gave little contemplation to lyrical meaning. The same song was also performed by the legendary Philadelphia native Paul Robeson; one of the most extraordinary figures of 20th century American history as a civil rights activist, singer, actor, lawyer (and, in earlier life, collegiate football star at Rutgers who later played in the NFL).

Robeson likely viewed satire and social commentary within the lyrics. However, his recorded version of the song primarily shows off his remarkable bass-baritone singing voice rather than emphasizing underlying themes of the lyrics. In that way, it is rather like Smith's version, because it was a vehicle for her to display her vocal talents.

What were Kate Smith's racial attitudes? From all available evidence -- and, once again, placed in light of the time and place of her upbringing -- she would not have been viewed as a racist by most of American society. She was anti-Klan (more specifically, accounts say that she was personally appalled by the uprise in lynchings during the Great Depression, which is hardly evidence by today's standards of a person not holding racist views but notable to a degree within its era) and most certainly anti-Nazi and anti-fascist based on her tireless support and fundraising efforts to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II. "God Bless America," of course, became her signature song among the hundreds she recorded. Actually, she recorded multiple versions of it, spaced over various decades.

Kate Smith and her version of "God Bless America" became associated with the Flyers almost by accident. Lou Scheinfeld, a former Flyers and Spectrum executive, has told the story many times over the years including in a recent editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer following the Flyers' decision to discontinue any further use of her rendition (including the "live duet" with anthemist Lauren Hart) and to eliminate the commemorative statue of Smith for her role as a "good luck charm" that compiled a 101-31-5 overall record in games that featured her recording, her live performances (3-1-0) or the "duet" with Hart. The statue was created solely for purposes of recognizing her in-life and posthumous relationship to the team, not for anything else she did in her 50-plus year career.

As soon as the New York Yankees made the decision to banish the Kate Smith version of "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch, it was inevitable that Comcast-Spectacor would follow suit with the Flyers. To think there would have been any other outcome would be either hopelessly naive or totally lacking awareness of corporate cultures in the 2010s.

Maintaining a relationship with anything, whether contemporary or historical, that is viewed as racially or socially controversial by today's standards is far more often than not viewed as toxic nowadays. With Kate Smith having been deceased for 33 years and the Flyers having already not played "God Bless America" before any games at the Wells Fargo Center during the 2018-19 season, anyway, it was very clear cut how Comcast-Spectacor would proceed to cut all ties.

Speaking personally -- and I can only speak for myself -- I do not agree with the decision (the contemporary Warner Brothers approach is my preference) and I am saddened over how things ended. I understand it, though, even if I don't like it.

Frankly, it's a no-win situation. Preserve the history, even with a disclaimer that the pervasiveness of societal racism of the 1930s was wrong both then and now, and there will be accusations of perpetuating or even endorsing prejudice. Cut the ties and remove the statue and there are accusations of trying to erase histories that make people uncomfortable nowadays. Either which way, there were going to be people who were angered. I get it.

I wrote on Twitter than much of these many of these controversies are rather random in how they pop up and spread. What I meant by that is the Kate Smith versions of "That's Why Darkies Were Born" and "Pickaninny Heaven" were not just "recently unearthed" despite being 85+ years old. As a matter of fact, both songs have been readily available on Youtube for many years and a simple "Kate Smith" name search would have brought those songs up in a search result along with "God Bless America" renditions and other songs she performed.

So why is there controversy in 2019 and not in 2012 or 2014 or whatever? Because it happened to be blown up this year. No more and no less.

Could it happen with music that is more contemporary? Sure it could.

Maybe in 2020 or 2030 (or maybe never), Queen's "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" will be banned from arenas and stadiums because there will be a viral controversy over the lyrics Freddie Mercury wrote and sang on "March of the Black Queen" and/or the fact that Queen played Sun City in 1984. Perhaps the song "One in a Million" by Guns 'n' Roses, controversial at the time if its release but no longer much discussed, will become controversial anew and "Welcome to the Jungle" will disappear from arenas and no more video highlight packages will be set to "Paradise City." Or maybe there will a viral scrutiny of Eric Clapton's bizarre 1976 drunken on-stage rant supporting British white nationalist politician Enoch Powell and his songs will become the ones banned.

These things all depends on whether the flash fire of controversy starts. It's not predictable WHAT it will be but reactive responses -- on both sides of the debate -- are quite predictable if and when the controversy erupts. It becomes agenda-driven, on both sides.

Final thoughts: There is a very slippery slope when history, music, art, etc. are viewed solely in contemporary terms.

Francis Scott Key, who penned the Star Spangled Banner, was a slave owner much of his life. As a lawyer, he represented the interests of slave owners seeking financial restitution or legal prosecution from runaway slaves and vehemently opposed abolitionism until his death in the 1840s. Should "the Star Spangled Banner" stop being played because of the biography of the man who wrote it?

Before you answer that, keep in mind once again, that history is messy.

There were many steep contradictions in Key's story. The same man who detested abolitionists throughout his life and protected slave owners' financial interests also freed his slaves in later life, hired at least one as a salaried employee, provided pro bono legal services to escaped slaves seeking legal recognition as freemen (to the point that he was slurred by enemies as "the [N-word] Lawyer of Baltimore", and wrote editorials decrying the physical abuse of slaves (which he considered grounds for emancipation).

Hard to reconcile? Absolutely, but all of the above were documented facets of Key's public life. Was Key a sympathetic figure viewed in later era's framework? Absolutely not. "Enlightened by the standards of slave owners," is certainly not saying much. Even so, viewed in the context of his times, Key was a complicated figure.

The lack of cut-and-dry answers and the shifting interpretations over time are why, to this day, I find the study of history fascinating. It would be quite interesting to see how all the tumult and divisiveness of the United States of first two decades of the 2000s gets interpreted in 20 or 50 years into the future.
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