tranemonk

Racist lyrics in Mercer set?

133 posts in this topic

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?

Someone put this in a lecture recently that I attended, and I agree with it, but I'm blanking on the person who said it. The idea is that if we agree to live in a land with free speech, then we essentially have to agree to accept that we will be offended by someone or something. Just because something offends us does not provide a reason to ban it.

In this particular case, I don't see it so much as a disclaimer. Instead, thorough notes for the song should discuss the nature of the lyrics, because that's what good notes should do. No need to apologize for including it, but the notes should acknowledge the dated & racist nature of teh lyrics, identify the source, and identify why the song is being included. But I am also white, so can't fully feel what any African-American might from a reading of those lyrics.

Edited by Adam

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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.

I've heard these comments and always found them pretty unconvincing. The southerners were lynching and oppressing a lot of the people that they supposedly "loved".

Personally, I'd rather be hated with at least some of my civil rights acknowledged (yes, I know that the non-south regions of the country were no fairy tale) than be "loved" with no civil rights whatsoever.

But perhaps this is a discussion for a completely different thread.

Guy

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May I throw in a word or two as a NON-American?

I haven't heard that particular song but wonder if there are any references in the lyrics that make it 100% clear that the singer is referring to "colored" people (to remain in the language of the day) and not to ugly people at large? Even if Clarence Williams wrote the original (or was this really a turnaround by Brunis?) it might not be obvious, and white people have and had ugly women too, you know ... ;)

That said, tranemonk and everbody else who feels offended, would you advocate banning ANY vocal version of "Darktown Strutters' Ball" from any reissue program on the same grounds? (And there are others like it - what was the name of the song again that contained some reference to "Darkies" and was even recorded by Louis Armstrong?)

Or to remain with the not so nice to look at women, what would be your feelings about that "Ugly Woman" recorded by the Ike Turner band (with Billy Emerson or Johnny O'Neal on vocals - haven't got the record right here now to check it out) for Sam Philips' Recording Service at the very beginning of what became Sun Records? The lyrics are VERY outspoken and not really flattering. And this is only one such song of times gone by. (Anybody feel offended by "Onion Breath Baby"?)

Or how about "topical songs" that are clearly VERY dated? Would it be mandatory to ban that "We're gonna have to slap that dirty Jap" from any reissue of the collected works of Lucky Millinder?

In short, times have changed, and music is a sign of its times too and has a right to be documented as such. Mature listeners should be able to place it in its context.

That said, and like I said on that Mercer Mosaic thread (my comment was among those that disappeared when the forum went bust some time ago), I dont really see what Mosaic (a jazz reissue label AFAIK) would find in dedicating an entire reissue set to Johnny Mercer. 2 years ago I purchased a lot of 78s from an estate and it included some 2 dozen Johnny Mercer Capitols (some with and some without the Pied Pipers and most of them using Paul Weston as the backing band). Some of the songs may be fairly light-hearted and therefore more bearable than an lot of the crooning of the day but by jazz/swing standards they are just nowhere. In short, IMO there is more rewarding material out there that BEGS to be reissued for the FIRST time.

Just my 2c

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The Berigan set contains a couple of songs which, though intended to be positive about race, are certainly 'racist' in vocabulary and idea. Mosaic DO mention this in the booklet and briefly justify their inclusion, though you have to read the small print to find the mention.

Mind you if you pcik up a Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot or e.e. cummings there will be more than a few moments when you look for the disclaimer. Where do these things end?

My preferred warning comes on Iggy's 'American Caesar' CD: 'Parental Warning: This is an Iggy Pop Record'

That said, Iggy put in a cool appearance at Glastonbury but then gave an interview afterwards in which he was asked what he had been doing in London. In his list he mentioned visiting 'Paki shops' which in England is (now) a taboo expression. The complaints from viewers flooded in. I'm sure Iggy just thought he was being down with the local lingo and actually expressing his commitment to mixing cultures. I still think that Iggy must have said and done a LOT more in his life for people to phone in and complain about. There should be a 24 hour hotline!

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Now to me... IMHO that doesn't make sense... So if Britney did it, it could warrant a disclaimer (presumably because of her popularity)... but because Mercer is so obscure it doesn't???

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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As someone who lives in the North... I kinda get the point...

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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One other point..... note that I did NOT suggest the kind of IMHO (silly) Tipper Gore parental ratings/warnings... etc. Mosaic provides a ton of info about the music in the liner notes, promotional material, website description. I really don't see the issue with a two sentence disclaimer contained in that info.

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So if Britney did it, it could warrant a disclaimer (presumably because of her popularity)... but because Mercer is so obscure it doesn't???

You are right that a 2-sentence explanation or commentary (note that I did not say "disclaimer") could not have done any harm, but the point about comparing Britney with Johnny Mercer is not about popularity but about the fact that what is in those lyrics unfortunately reflects/mirrors the state of play of those times.

And if it actually was Clarence Williams wrote the lyrics in the first place, where's the problem? Would it be insulting only if a white vocalist sings these lyrics but would it be OK for a black recording artist to have sung them? Or would it be a strict No-No from today's point of view too because any black who would have sung that would be accused of minstrelsy, caricaturing members of his own race?

If you were to whitewash this for reasons of P.C. in a context like this you'd get very close to censorship and brainwashing on a very large scale.

Remember, there'd always be another step that you could take in order to take things yet further for the very same reasons. Have a look at the recorded R&B output concurrent with Johnny Mercer's recordings. What do you find there? A huge amount of lyrics that have been considered lewd, obscene, lascivous, obnoxious, filthy, derogatory, etc. by the white establishment of the time, not to mention texts that might well be considered discrimatory towards women, for example (see my example given above). Or how about that blues song line "I'm gonna kill that woman": Would that be considered an attempt at promoting violence? Where would this end? Would it stop at all? Wouldn't this amount to falsifying history on a large scale?

Sorry for rambling on for so long, but all those song lyrics ought to be seen in the context of their times, and if this were done, that would settle the entire debate, I think.

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If you walk into a record store in this country while they are playing music, you are likely to get an earful of 'bitch' 'whore' 'nigger' and so on. You probably hardly even notice. Interesting.

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not true.... any record store that actually let those specific words play over the speakers would get a ton of complaints...

An overexaggerated point...

If you walk into a record store in this country while they are playing music, you are likely to get an earful of 'bitch' 'whore' 'nigger' and so on. You probably hardly even notice. Interesting.

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not true.... any record store that actually let those specific words play over the speakers would get a ton of complaints...

An overexaggerated point...

If you walk into a record store in this country while they are playing music, you are likely to get an earful of 'bitch' 'whore' 'nigger' and so on. You probably hardly even notice. Interesting.

Not in my experience.

FWIW, I am generally sympathetic to your position.

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I'm in England guys. We're pretty lax here and you do sometimes hear that stuff!

PS I'm not really sure what 'my position' is. I suppose I am really just noting that some things we see in an optic of condemnation and other things which are as bad or worse just get passed over. Since I'm a scholar, I don't want my access to past materials to be limited, and since I am a democrat (small d) that has to mean that I don't think anyone else's access should be limited either. But... but.

We could join this thread to the discussion of Tintin on the Congo...

Edited by David Ayers

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I did not state the Britney-Mercer observation very well. The main point was the difference in eras. The question of popularity is related to this, however, in that only a very limited group of people will know about Mercer and purchase the Mosaic. I would assume these people have a better understanding of American history than the average Britney fan, and thus in a better position to process potentially offensive lyrics. I felt the same way about the Charlie Chan movies because the average young person isn't going to be seeing them anyway, but rather a select group of classic movie fans who already know what to expect and are less likely to think that, "We are offended now, therefore we should ban this regardless of whether or not people were offended then." But the differing levels of popularity should not really be much of a consideration. It would be good if younger people were more knowledgeable about these things and were exposed to them, but I know this is not the case.

Another concern here is that, to say nothing of whether these songs ("Ugly Chile," "Darktown Strutters' Ball," "Sleepytime Down South," et al) were written by black or white songwriters, they are very different expressions of racial attitudes than Birth of a Nation of your average Lothrop Stoddard text. Rather than actively attempting to perpetuate notions of white superiority over savage lower races, these songs are actually well-intentioned portrayals of black culture. Yes, they sound demeaning today, but in some cases a song like this represents the early-to-mid 20th c. equivalent of a more "liberal" attitude. At the very least, "Ugly Chile" lies at a different point on this racist continuum, but I think it's probably a more accurate assessment to say that it's on a different continuum altogether. And yet we lose these distinctions by simply lumping everything that may be offensive into the same "racist" bag. So far from gaining a keener insight into bygone cultural expressions, we are actually losing context. My only hope is that the liner notes would not fall into this trap, but as retarded as we are becoming, I can't say that I have a lot of faith.

That's my perogative.

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Let me get this straight - there are racist lyrics in one song on this set ... and you are sending it back?

And this is because what?

You didn't get some sort of warning/discussion/something-something about its presence?

You were unaware that the popular music/entertainment culture of the day included racist images and lyrics?

Was the rest of the set deeply satisfying yet you could not in good conscience enjoy it having discovered an unsavory side of Mercer's art?

Take this advice for what it is, coming from a middle aged white guy:

GROW UP.

There is no reason that this "offending" song should be deleted from the set or dealt with in some condescending, morally superior "sorry for the offense but ..." way. It is what it is and unless you have literally zero experience with pre-WW II jazz/pop music there ought to be no surprise that such songs were written and recorded in that era.

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

How does this differ from the intent behind the Parental Warning stickers? And why exactly is it relevant? Because your sensitive ears must be "protected"? As you say, it takes on a different meaning when a white man sings it ... so apparently that's the kind of information you require? Not just a "racist lyrics" alert but a "white man singing racist lyrics" alert? How about "white man singing racist lyrics written by a black man" alert? I take it then that you have no problem with the filth coming out of black hip hop mouths but woe to the white rapper who says the same things.

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Let me get this straight - there are racist lyrics in one song on this set ... and you are sending it back?

And this is because what?

You didn't get some sort of warning/discussion/something-something about its presence?

You were unaware that the popular music/entertainment culture of the day included racist images and lyrics?

Was the rest of the set deeply satisfying yet you could not in good conscience enjoy it having discovered an unsavory side of Mercer's art?

Take this advice for what it is, coming from a middle aged white guy:

GROW UP.

WTF? Apparently now Tranemonk's emotional reaction is off-limits?

Guy

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Whenever I see something on tv that I find offensive I just turn the channel. I've found that turning the channel is a lot easier than returning a tv.

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"You're so pretty, Oh! so pretty

You're some pretty doll

You've got the kind of eyes that seem to talk

They make me get so nervous that I have to walk

Oh! I love you, how I love you,

More and more each day

Yes you've got some smile & you're handsome too

Ive got a million dollars that I'll spend on you

'Cause you're so pretty, oh! o pretty,

You're some pretty doll.

That was a little song my family used to sing to me

When I was quite small

Naturally they thought I would improve & mellow with age

First date, what did the chick lay on me?

Hey! You're ugly, Man! You're ugly

You're some ugly chile

The clothes you wear are not in style

You look like an ape every time you smile

How I hate you, you alligator bait, you

Why don't you lay down and die

Oh, You're knock kneed, pigeon toed, box ankled too

There's a curse in your family & it fell on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile

You're big foot, barefoot slue footed too

How'd they ever get a pair of shoes on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile"

I just Googled up the complete lyrics for reference. It's somewhat disarming to me that the person singing is making a joke about himself. It's self-deprecating humor.

Would a white person singing this way back when have gotten a negative reaction from a black audience?

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not true.... any record store that actually let those specific words play over the speakers would get a ton of complaints...

An overexaggerated point...

If you walk into a record store in this country while they are playing music, you are likely to get an earful of 'bitch' 'whore' 'nigger' and so on. You probably hardly even notice. Interesting.

Not in my experience.

FWIW, I am generally sympathetic to your position.

If you are playing that kind of stuff in a mall music store, yes you'll get complaints. If it is an "indie" store, then they may well tell you to leave the store if you complain. I remember a store in Chicago that played extremely offensive rap very loudly, which did shorten my browsing there, though I still bought a few things there from time to time.

Interestingly, my wife is still so upset over Michael Richards that she now refuses to watch Seinfeld refunds. I find this kind of extreme, but that's how she feels.

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"You're so pretty, Oh! so pretty

You're some pretty doll

You've got the kind of eyes that seem to talk

They make me get so nervous that I have to walk

Oh! I love you, how I love you,

More and more each day

Yes you've got some smile & you're handsome too

Ive got a million dollars that I'll spend on you

'Cause you're so pretty, oh! o pretty,

You're some pretty doll.

That was a little song my family used to sing to me

When I was quite small

Naturally they thought I would improve & mellow with age

First date, what did the chick lay on me?

Hey! You're ugly, Man! You're ugly

You're some ugly chile

The clothes you wear are not in style

You look like an ape every time you smile

How I hate you, you alligator bait, you

Why don't you lay down and die

Oh, You're knock kneed, pigeon toed, box ankled too

There's a curse in your family & it fell on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile

You're big foot, barefoot slue footed too

How'd they ever get a pair of shoes on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile"

I just Googled up the complete lyrics for reference. It's somewhat disarming to me that the person singing is making a joke about himself. It's self-deprecating humor.

Would a white person singing this way back when have gotten a negative reaction from a black audience?

It's a pretty interesting lyric in some ways, with a song within a song and so forth. To me, it reads to be akin to Fats Waller's "Your Feet's Too Big" or any number of songs that I know of performed by Louis Jordan that I can best describe as "insult" songs.

For our non-American friends, the references to "ape" "barefoot" and "nappy hair" are coded references to stereotypical put-downs of African Americans. One could argue that the singer might be White (poor white trash?), and his date is insulting him with these references to those stereotypes, or the narrator could be Black, and is being insulted with whatever standard terms might apply. For me the point is that those dreamy love songs are false idyllic, and reality is much harsher, while also being, as said above, self-deprecating humor. The song was probably understood by the audience as being humorous, when sung by, as was probably the case, the good-looking lead singer of whatever band. It's a humorous take on growing up and being confronted with realities that aren't reflected in the songs & stories given us as children.

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"You're so pretty, Oh! so pretty

You're some pretty doll

You've got the kind of eyes that seem to talk

They make me get so nervous that I have to walk

Oh! I love you, how I love you,

More and more each day

Yes you've got some smile & you're handsome too

Ive got a million dollars that I'll spend on you

'Cause you're so pretty, oh! o pretty,

You're some pretty doll.

That was a little song my family used to sing to me

When I was quite small

Naturally they thought I would improve & mellow with age

First date, what did the chick lay on me?

Hey! You're ugly, Man! You're ugly

You're some ugly chile

The clothes you wear are not in style

You look like an ape every time you smile

How I hate you, you alligator bait, you

Why don't you lay down and die

Oh, You're knock kneed, pigeon toed, box ankled too

There's a curse in your family & it fell on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile

You're big foot, barefoot slue footed too

How'd they ever get a pair of shoes on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile"

I just Googled up the complete lyrics for reference. It's somewhat disarming to me that the person singing is making a joke about himself. It's self-deprecating humor.

Would a white person singing this way back when have gotten a negative reaction from a black audience?

Looking at all the words (I haven't heard the tune), I'm not even sure that I'd consider it "racist" - at least it doesn't appear to be racist in intent. Stereotypical, yes, but a product of its less sensitive era. As Jon correctly states, it does seem self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek, and if an African-American singer wrote and sang it originally I don't think him using words like "nappy" and "pappy" would have given it any kind of racial connotation. That Mercer, a white dude, later sang it is a bit more problematic, but I'm not sure where to draw the line between minstrel and novelty song.

edit: Adam said it much more eloquently than me!

Edited by RDK

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It's hard for me to imagine that anyone who has it together enough to buy a Mosaic jazz box set - let alone even know or care enough to want one in the first place - wouldn't already be knowledgeable and sensitive about racial issues already. How can someone knowledgeable about jazz not know about the history of African Americans in the US?

That said, I can certainly understand that examples such as these still have the power to offend - as evidenced by the whole "Huck Finn" controversy a few years back.

I respect someone's right to want a refund for such material, but I also respect the right of a record company to reissue it - especially if it has historical or artistic significance.

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"You're so pretty, Oh! so pretty

You're some pretty doll

You've got the kind of eyes that seem to talk

They make me get so nervous that I have to walk

Oh! I love you, how I love you,

More and more each day

Yes you've got some smile & you're handsome too

Ive got a million dollars that I'll spend on you

'Cause you're so pretty, oh! o pretty,

You're some pretty doll.

That was a little song my family used to sing to me

When I was quite small

Naturally they thought I would improve & mellow with age

First date, what did the chick lay on me?

Hey! You're ugly, Man! You're ugly

You're some ugly chile

The clothes you wear are not in style

You look like an ape every time you smile

How I hate you, you alligator bait, you

Why don't you lay down and die

Oh, You're knock kneed, pigeon toed, box ankled too

There's a curse in your family & it fell on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile

You're big foot, barefoot slue footed too

How'd they ever get a pair of shoes on you

Your hair is nappy, who's your pappy?

You're some ugly chile"

This is it?

O....k....

I'd file this under "unfortunate", and then because it's Johnny Mercer singing it. There are lots of "unfortunate things" about Johnny Mercer...

But is the song itself intrinsically racist? Not that I can see, especially being written by Clarence Williams and all.. Mileages vary, and I resepect individual feeling, etc. but...

Context, as "they" say, matters.

Now - if you really want to be offended, keep reading. If not, stop here. I'm serious.

Whever I think of racist, offensive lyrics, my mind goes back to a road gig I once - and only once - took as a sub in a "wedding band" that was populated by Southern Good Ol' Boys. One of them pulled out a cassette of songs by one "Johnny Reb", who was somebody with whom I was totally unfamiliar. Well...

Here are some of the lyrics of some of the songs on that tape. Again - THESE LYRICS ARE EXTREMEMLY RACIST:

http://forum.thiazi.net/archive/index.php/t-83121.html

http://forum.thiazi.net/archive/index.php/t-83303.html

I do not exaggerate when I say that hearing these songs, especially in this particualr company, nearly made me vomit right in these people's car. Literally.

I filed the whole experience away under Yet Another Example Of Why White People Can't Be Trusted until I saw this thread, which I read with interest, and was frankly underwhelmed (sorry), hearing as I have some unambiguosly racist lyrics that can under no circumstances be ascribed/interpreted as being anything but. Then I got to wondering if this "Johnny Reb" crap has been documented on the Web. Well of course it has...

Well, ok. Turns out that there was a whole series of these type recordings, done for a single label, ran by one of the leading songwriters for Excello Records:

http://www.dodoempire.net/discography.asp?...=1&label=46

Ok, you say, a relic form an unfortunate past. Not so fast there!

http://www.johnnyrebelrecords.com/

And guess what? The same CD Baby that carries so much fine music of all types, including Organissimo, also carries this shit:

http://cdbaby.com/cd/johnnyrebel

With sound samples, no less. Again - this shit is full bore racist asswipe bullshit. Don't listen if that's going to unduly upset you.

Please excuse me if Johnny Mercer's quasi-genteel forays into faux-"negritude" offend/bother me far less than does this shit.

Edited by JSngry

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Holy Shit! :o

This is the absolute BEST racist sing-a-long collection of ALL TIME. This is guaranteed to be the most hilarious album of racist country music that you will ever hear. This has been often imitated, but nothing comes close to these authentic tracks.

But at least it comes with a disclaimer... ^_^

Edited by RDK

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Holy Shit! :o

This is the absolute BEST racist sing-a-long collection of ALL TIME. This is guaranteed to be the most hilarious album of racist country music that you will ever hear. This has been often imitated, but nothing comes close to these authentic tracks.

But at least it comes with a disclaimer... ^_^

It gets worse in the text of the CDBaby page - the LP "For Segregationists Only" is promoted with this:

If you had a taste for "subtle, rib-tickling satire," these songs were for you.

Yeah, highly subtle.

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Not to get off the topic of the disturbing "Johnny Reb" crap (that's not music...that's outright HATE speech), I should note that the Johnny Mercer lyric in question is not derived from the blackface minstrel tradition (at least not directly), but rather from the more relatively recent tradition of the so-called "coon song." While blackface minstrelsy dates back to the late 18th and early 19th century (hitting its peak of popularity during the 1820s and 30s), the "coon song" became a national craze during the 1880s and lasting until the 1920s. During the late 19th century, coon songs incredibly popular. During the 1890s, over 600 such songs were published. The sheet music for these songs sold in the millions. Several prominent Tin Pan Alley composers, including Irving Berlin, wrote them.

This is not to defend these songs (although I personally think that we whitewash history at our peril. A lot of great cartoons, for example, have been surpressed because they engaged in humor that was considered perfectly appropriate at the time. The Warner Brothers Disney parody, "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" is a perfect example), but to put them in their proper context. If the "coon song" died out in the 20s, it would have been considered fairly recent history to Mercer (these songs would still have been popular during his childhood).

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