music as social action ::
We just talked about Kate Smith, whose 1939 recording of "God Bless America" drove Woody Guthrie to respond in kind with his own song that became equally iconic, "This Land Is Your Land." Smith, who died in 1986, recently landed at the center of a lyrical firestorm. What could possibly be controversial about her old nationalist chestnut?
For many years, it's been a tradition at several American baseball parks and hockey stadiums to play Smith's version of the patriotic song during games. Several teams, however, announced last week that they will play someone else's recording of "God Bless America" from now on. This is because some other songs that Smith recorded — in particular, two songs called "That's Why Darkies Were Born" and "Pickaninny Heaven" — have come to light and caused new offense.
The first song stems from a Broadway revue and had been performed and recorded by a number of artists, including a version by black Civil Rights leader Paul Robeson. Read literally, the lyrics are easily construed as quite racist; others, however, have suggested that the song is satire or biblical allegory.
The incident is interesting for us as we transition from the Smith era of popular song, in which singers like her usually chose (or were instructed to sing) songs written separately by songwriters, to the era of the more subjective — and, as Rosenstone's reading suggests, inevitably more political — singer-songwriter. When you're not singing your own words, are you always fully conscious of their messages and meanings? We've also discussed how the meanings of songs (and covers of them) evolve as they are performed in different historical contexts. Kate Smith may have had no problem singing these songs when very different social mores dominated the country. Today's norms may have encouraged different results, or at least a different conversation.