tranemonk

Racist lyrics in Mercer set?

133 posts in this topic

okay I'm listening to Disc 2 of this set... and the song "Ugly Chile" comes up and I'm hearing words "smile like an ape," "nappy" and "who's your pappie?" and I had to go back and play the track 3 times...

Do you deem this racist language?

As an African-American (and I know about Southern history and culture) I wasn't comfortable with it.... so I'm shipping it back....

You'd think Mosaic could've have left that one out....

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Racism is also a part of history, unfortunately.

Guy

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Wasn't it (judging by a websearch) actually by Clarence Williams (who was black)?

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You'd think Mosaic could've have left that one out....

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Wasn't it (judging by a websearch) actually by Clarence Williams (who was black)?

The discograpy on the Mosaic website credits the tune to Clarence Williams. Perhaps Al Sharpton will go after the Clarence Williams estate. :cool:

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That doesn't surprise me... but.... when a white performer is doing the song... it takes on a different meaning....

Wasn't it (judging by a websearch) actually by Clarence Williams (who was black)?

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I have to say I am somewhat sympathetic to Tranemonk's gripes. I don't think an omission of the track, coupled with a thorough explanation, would have been a "whitewash".

That said, presumably we trust the maturity/intelligence of listeners enough not to censor their listening.

Guy

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You can't change history, pretending it doesn't exist makes it no less real. Sometimes being exposed to things that upset us is a healthy thing, it makes us think about where we've come from and still need to go. This applies to all things in life, not just race. Censoring art, books, movies, albums...this does nothing but obscure the history of our human culture...and we all know how humans behave once their imagination kicks in.

Edited by Shawn

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I would be good with that...

Or at least somewhere in the description.... note something like.... "In an effort to remain accurate to the music of the era, which represented a different era of racial history, some listeners may find some of the lyrics offensive...." I think that could have been done....

I have to say I am somewhat sympathetic to Tranemonk's gripes. I don't think an omission of the track, coupled with a thorough explanation, would have been a "whitewash".

That said, presumably we trust the maturity/intelligence of listeners enough not to censor their listening.

Guy

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The song bothered me, too, and I didn't think there was enough musical merit to justify its inclusion in a set that was not "complete" to begin with. It's a thin line--take "That's What Uncle Remus Said" from the Herman Columbia box. I don't think the lyrics are as offensive as the song tranemonk cites, and Sonny Berman's solo alone makes it a valuable musical track. Hard to set any kind of uniform standard for application, but I probably would've been inclined to leave "Ugly Chile" out.

Mercer himself is problematic--definitely southern racism of his time & culture going on with him, and yet he seems to have had a fair number of African-American fans (according to one of the recent bios, a # of African-American listeners who had heard but not seen him thought he was black). In some ways the same issue swirls around Hoagy Carmichael. Not to defend Mercer's attitudes, but in some ways he, like other southerners of the time, may have been more overtly racist, but also much more comfortable with African-American culture than many northern white liberals, who proclaimed their fidelity to civil rights while being more uptight in the presence of black people.

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That would've been a good solution too. I mean, if you can insert disclaimers about "audible pops" and such..

I would be good with that...

Or at least somewhere in the description.... note something like.... "In an effort to remain accurate to the music of the era, which represented a different era of racial history, some listeners may find some of the lyrics offensive...." I think that could have been done....

I have to say I am somewhat sympathetic to Tranemonk's gripes. I don't think an omission of the track, coupled with a thorough explanation, would have been a "whitewash".

That said, presumably we trust the maturity/intelligence of listeners enough not to censor their listening.

Guy

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I don't think such a disclaimer should be necessary, because anyone who listens to it should already posess some understanding that racial attitudes were different at the time. If someone really needs to be told that before listening to older music, then there is probably no hope for them. But again, they wouldn't be listening to the music in the first place if they were completely ignorant of American history.

I never agree with censorship for political correctness reasons (and usually not with disclaimers, apologies, ect.) because I think it serves to make Americans even more culturally retarded than they already are. Then again, I completly abhor the censorship of Charlie Chan movies, Speedy Gonzales cartoons, ect. I think more good could come from people seeing those things than from not seeing them, in that they will be in a better position to understand where we have come from as a country. Furthermore, in this case, I'm not sure what possible harm could come from listening to this song.

Once you remove this from the Mosaic, you'll have to remove Louis Armstrong singing "Shine" from whatever CDs it's on, and so on down the line. It is much harder to draw the line on what constitutes "offensiveness" than to simply let people hear the music and trust them to reach a halfway-intelligent conclusion.

This is just the brief watered-down version of my feelings on this issue, as I feel very strongly about it and don't want to burden organissimo with a 20-page memo.

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I like what you say.

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No you make a good point freeform... I too am against generally against censorship.... and I understand you're point... that you only learn from history when you're presented with history ...(my paraphrase)...

On the other hand.. as a consumer I think it's reasonable to ask the producer of a product to make some relevant information available....

It's a tough call....

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It's OK to put in disclaimers about audio problems with certain tracks, but not about racist lyrics?

That's ridiculous. Just IMHO & all that, but all too often complaints about racism, sexism, etc. get dismissed with a cavalier, condescending attitude that indicates to me how far we haven't come. At least grant the issue a little more complexity than the old, dead "PC!!! PC!!!" shout, which has become a crude rhetorical ploy that attempts to automatically invalidate any legitimate concerns that have been raised. To me, a disclaimer would've been the best solution.

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It's OK to put in disclaimers about audio problems with certain tracks, but not about racist lyrics?

That's ridiculous. Just IMHO & all that, but all too often complaints about racism, sexism, etc. get dismissed with a cavalier, condescending attitude that indicates to me how far we haven't come. At least grant the issue a little more complexity than the old, dead "PC!!! PC!!!" shout, which has become a crude rhetorical ploy that attempts to automatically invalidate any legitimate concerns that have been raised. To me, a disclaimer would've been the best solution.

And "Racism!!! Racism!!!" is never used as a crude rhetorical ploy that attempts to automatically invalidate any legitimate concerns that have been raised?

Now, back to this soing... I confess I have never heard "Ugly Chile," but I just looked up the lyrics. I fail to see how the absence of a disclaimer is going to set back the Civil Rights Movement.

Edited by freeform83

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The lyrics did offend me, but knowing that Clarence Williams wrote them sort of mitigates it. This issue is complex: I love the Will Bradley-Ray Mckinley version of "Down the Road Apiece" but am bothered that the singers seem to be doing a black-faced shuck and jive. But the Amos Milburn version is very similar-- right down to the mention of Freddy Slack (IIRC) and I guess I'm less bothered because he's Black. I'm pretty sure that the white guys recorded it first. I don't know the race of the song writer.

As I said, I think the issue is fairly complex (or at least my emotions about it are). However I think there's nothing wrong with liner notes pointing it out and putting it in context. I remember when I taught film and showed Birth of a Nation without discussing its racism just because it seemed so obvious to me. Then some students (black and white) quite reasonably pointed out that I should have said something about it.

Hoagy Carmichael and even Bing Crosby interest me in the same way. Are they imitating Blacks or just Southerners in general with some of their records. Did they refer to members of the Whiteman (just noticed the irony of the name) band as "boys"?

The whole era is hard for me to get my head around. I'm old, but not that old.

Edited by medjuck

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I haven't heard the Johnny Mercer record in question, but from the description it sounds like the "Ugly Chile" George Brunis recorded for Commodore in 1943.

What are the songwriter credits?

Clarence Williams wrote a tune called "You're Some Pretty Doll". I think it dates back to the 20s or possibly earlier. Eddie Condon recorded it for Commodore with Fats Waller, George Brunis, Pee Wee Russell, etc in 1940. In 1943 Brunis did a parody on it, again for Commodore - he turned the lyric around and called it "Ugly Chile". the lyrics include a line "Your hair is nappy - who's your pappy?." Again - the context of the times. Brunis, a white New Orleans first generation jazzer, was known NOT to be a racist. He was a clown however. I have a suspicion that Brunis could deliver the line and come off less offensive than Johnny Mercer. It was a good record with some smokin' Wild Bill Davison and George Wettling, etc. I know it's currently available on an ASV George Brunis compilation.

Sidney Bechet, who frequently worked and recorded with Brunis, was known to play the tune and would announce it as "Ugly Chile."

The credits on the Commodore "Ugly Chile" were Williams, Brunis.

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To add one more thing...I think this lyric probably predates ALL of what we've been talking about and goes back to "the dozens".

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To add one more thing...I think this lyric probably predates ALL of what we've been talking about and goes back to "the dozens".

It's totally coming out of the dozens, and it is the same song that you're referring to in your post, Harold. It just comes across in a bad way when Mercer performs it... I've heard other songs from the 1920s/30s/40s written by African-Americans that used similar imagery (far more by white composers, though), and they don't sound good now coming from any performers of that time. I'd be curious to hear that Commodore version; I went back & listened to the Mercer recording again after posting in this thread, and I just don't hear anything in it (as performed by Paul Weston's orchestra) that would make a compelling case for its inclusion in this set on musical grounds. Again, this is not a "complete" set--Mosaic simply chose what they felt were the "jazzier" sides from Mercer's 1940s Capitol era. Disc 2 contains 29 sides in all, so dropping "Ugly Chile" would not have exactly amounted to shortchanging the customer, cheating the aesthetic framework of the collection, or "censorship" (what about all of the other Mercer sides they chose not to include, for whatever reason?). Still, if somebody can make an argument that this recording did deserve to be included--perhaps on the grounds of Mercer's vocal performance--than fine, by all means, go ahead...but I'd still favor some sort of disclaimer. Context may or may not be everything, but it sure provides a better, more accurate picture then merely chunking ugliness out and licensing it in the name of history. There's a LOT of racist garbage from past popular culture that we don't see or hear today, and with good reason... it didn't have much or any aesthetic value in the first place. Birth of a Nation is a good example of something that did, and therefore deserves discussion & viewing today. I don't really hear the musical worth in Mercer's or the band's performance, but hey, I've got a ton of respect for Mosaic & their judgment, running any kind of label is a helluva business, and they obviously felt that it merited inclusion. In his liner notes to the Herman Columbia, Loren Schoenberg acknowledged the potentially provocative nature of the lyrics for "Uncle Remus," then went on to point out the musical appeal of Sonny Berman's trumpet solo. (It's a track I'll be using in an upcoming radio show, btw.) Not exactly a disclaimer, but it had that kind of effect... a similar gesture in the Mercer Select might've mitigated the reactions of some Mosaic listeners. I'd be curious to hear, Tranemonk, what Mosaic's response is to your return of the set (if you feel like sharing it here).

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It's OK to put in disclaimers about audio problems with certain tracks, but not about racist lyrics?

That's ridiculous. Just IMHO & all that, but all too often complaints about racism, sexism, etc. get dismissed with a cavalier, condescending attitude that indicates to me how far we haven't come. At least grant the issue a little more complexity than the old, dead "PC!!! PC!!!" shout, which has become a crude rhetorical ploy that attempts to automatically invalidate any legitimate concerns that have been raised. To me, a disclaimer would've been the best solution.

Freeform didn't say that is not okay, he just didn't feel it was necessary. I was feeling that myself.

I'm not cavalier about racism by any means, but after so many years of listening to songs from the teens and twenties by both white and black artists like "Snowball," and "Mississippi Mud" I'm AWARE and have a perspective on it. I wouldn't find it necessary to explain that or notate it. . . . I agree it's hard for me to divorce myself from this viewpoint I have and see such a situation with different eyes.

I'm very aware of racism in American life, just this week have encountered bits of racism from both whites and blacks here in Houston. It's shaped and is shaping this country. Just as have many other things we haven't outgrown such as protecting economic interests with warfare and enjoying "equality" where rich get richer and poor get poorer.

I'm not going to buy this Mercer Select, but it won't be because of those lyrics.

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My problem with adding "context" is that Mosaic (or whatever company this applies to) will have to make a determination of which artistic products require it -- effectively being offended for us -- and then decide exactly what needs to be said in order to explain it. This in itself has a chilling effect on free speech, because something is adjudicated as being inherently "bad" right off the bat -- we are told what to think about it. I just don't understand where this ends. Maybe we should go back and add disclaimers to The French Connection because Gene Hackman's character is racist. And it's a short step from adding "context" to outright censorship -- in which case we (as a country even) lose any real context altogether. Before certain Bugs Bunny cartoons were pulled off Cartoon Network and all the Charlie Chan movies pulled from the Fox Movie Channel, the official plan was to precede each with either a disclaimer or panel discussion. I would have welcomed this at the time, but now I am increasingly weary of going down this road.

If Britney Spears came out with a song that implicity compared black people to apes, then we would need to have a discussion. But this song is on a Johnny Mercer box set. The average American doesn't even know who Johnny Mercer is. And I cannot emphasize enough that anyone who buys it will already know that he worked largely before the Civil Rights Movement. Whose sensibilities are we trying to protect?

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Meanwhile the only African-American to post on this topic was offended. Seems like a lot of people want to invalidate his reaction.

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Meanwhile the only African-American to post on this topic was offended. Seems like a lot of people want to invalidate his reaction.

Very good point. And I say that while generally siding with everyone else.

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Not to defend Mercer's attitudes, but in some ways he, like other southerners of the time, may have been more overtly racist, but also much more comfortable with African-American culture than many northern white liberals, who proclaimed their fidelity to civil rights while being more uptight in the presence of black people.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine from Boston once told me. He had a college professor (an African-American who grew up in the South but now lived and taught in Boston) who, in comparing "racism" between the North and the South, said something to the effect that Southerners hate the race but love the people while Northerners hate the people but love the race.

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