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duaneiac

Good tunes with racist titles/lyrics

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As we re-examine the legacy of racism in many of our cultural institutions, in everything from movies to museums, perhaps it is worthwhile to look at the legacy of racism within our own record collections.

Last week I was listening to a Jack Teagarden CD and was wowed by a really good performance.  The song was "China Boy".  While it's a good song and I probably have lots of versions of it by different musicians in my collection, let's face it, one cannot even utter the title without sounding racist.  While I would not want to have those recordings from years long gone "erased" from jazz history, it would be very hard to justify some trad jazz band today keeping that tune in their repertoire these days.

Then there is "When It's Sleepy Time Down South".  Thanks to the broad popularity of Louis Armstrong who used it as a theme song for decades, this was probably one of the most recognizable jazz tunes to the general public.  While he changed the lyrics somewhat over the years to remove some of the most racist language in the song, the original images of "darkies crooning" and "old mammy" on her knees is always going to be there.  Even the very notion that "folks down there live a life of ease" must have been especially galling during the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's.  Still, Louis Armstrong IS jazz and it would be almost impossible to do a tribute concert/album to him without including that tune.

While not really a jazz standard, "Tubas In The Moonlight" by the Bonzo Dog Band is a song I've long enjoyed and frequently find myself humming on full moon nights.  I first heard it because a DJ (who was also a tuba player) on a local college radio station used to use it as the closing theme song on his Sunday morning radio show around 30 years ago.  Because it was Sunday morning, I was usually half-asleep while I listened to the last hour of his show.  I don't know how many times I heard that song before I realized the word being sung was not "loon" but "coon".  Just one word can mar an otherwise simple & lovely tune.  While I can understand that the intent was to mirror the musical style & lyrical imagery of yesteryear, that one word is still disturbing.

What other jazz/pop songs from yesteryear can you think of?  Do such songs need to be retired from public performance? 

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Posted (edited)

1 hour ago, duaneiac said:

What other jazz/pop songs from yesteryear can you think of?

Darktown Strutters' Ball, of course.

But I'd not hesitate one second about "China Boy", particularly since it usually is performed as an instrumental. One might always make a case for this being a "boy from Chinatown".
As a general rule, I'd not advocate "retiring" such songs (this kind or "purging" history can fast get out of hand), but please limit them to instrumental performances. The lyrics have run their course and are not needed anymore.

BTW, I wonder if there still are old-timey string/bluegrass bands out there who got "Nigger In The Woodpile" in their setlists.

P.S: Would you go so far to advocate outlawing the usual fare of Dr Demento too? ("Kosher Delight", anyone?)

 

 

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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Ol' Man River

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Posted (edited)

Not a jazz song but Camptown Races.

Several of Stephen Foster’s songs probably have questionable lyrics. This is an interesting article, The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster

Edited by Brad

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R-15357312-1590247711-1981.jpeg.jpg

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22 minutes ago, Big Beat Steve said:

Darktown Strutters' Ball, of course.

But I'd not hesitate one second about "China Boy", particularly since it usually is performed as an instrumental. One might always make a case for this being a "boy from Chinatown".

BTW, I wonder if there still are old-timey string/bluegrass bands out there who got "Nigger In The Woodpile" in their setlists.

P.S: Would you go so far to advocate outlawing the usual fare of Dr Demento too? ("Kosher Delight", anyone?)

 

I'm not advocating "outlawing" anything.  I'm not about to throw out every copy of "China Boy" in my collection or try to demean the legacy of any jazz musician who ever recorded it.  Now seemed like an appropriate time to look at the legacy of racism in our music which may have been more comfortable/convenient to overlook in the past.

Regarding performing "China Boy" today, I would just wonder why bother.  Granted, it's a good tune, but if performed in concert, at some point some one would have to announce the song's title.  I suppose one could apologize for the title and explain it comes from a far different era.  But with a million tunes to choose from, why include this one tune with a title which is almost guaranteed to offend some one?  It would be rather disingenuous to claim it's a song about a "boy from Chinatown".  Just as adult black men were commonly called "boy" by whites, so too were adult Asian men.  In fact, here in the US in the 1950's, there was a very popular TV & radio show called Have Gun, Will Travel in which the hero's aide was a Chinese man simply called "Hey-Boy".  Yikes!

 

 

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Brown Sugar should be banned from the airwaves.

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Posted (edited)

1 hour ago, jlhoots said:

Ol' Man River

That's an interesting case.  First, I could not imagine Paul Robeson, of all people, being willing to sing a song he viewed as patently racist.  Second, while the colloquial nature of the lyrics might seem to portray a racist depiction, the message of the lyrics is something quite different.  Who could argue that within the world of Showboat, "Colored folks work on de Mississippi / Colored folks work while de white folks play"

and

"Don't look up
An' don't look down
You don' dast make
De white boss frown"

That seems a pretty accurate picture of life for black Americans long ago.

While Frank Sinatra is one of my favorite singers, I find his version of this song absolutely cringe-worthy.

Edited by duaneiac

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I really love hearing Louis do Sleepy Time Down South, but when I hear Benny Goodman do it, I am uncomfortable.  

 

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Posted (edited)

Off topic post, sorry

Edited by porcy62

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Posted (edited)

I'm sure the easily offended will want "Chattanooga Choo Choo" banned for the line, "Boy, you can give me a shine."

Then there is "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," recorded by both Ray Charles and the Mills Brothers with Louis Armstrong. The reference to darkies is more than a bit dated. It's not like anyone requests this tune these days, so I don't know that it qualifies as a good song.

The composer of this song was an African-American. https://www.discogs.com/artist/710668-James-A-Bland

Edited by Ken Dryden

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Mississippi Mud:

>>>

"Just happy as a cow chewin' on a cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud"
>>>

If you check most sites with lyrics online, "darkies" has been changed to "people."
 
On the other hand, the lyrics to "It's the Same Old South" (see the Count Basie recording with Jimmy Rushing singing) paint a very different version of the south.  Does anyone know of any other vocal versions?  Ruby Braff recorded it several times as an instrumental.

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14 minutes ago, jazztrain said:

Mississippi Mud:

>>>

"Just happy as a cow chewin' on a cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud"
>>>

If you check most sites with lyrics online, "darkies" has been changed to "people."
 
 

This is interesting to see ... before he got the role as Col. Potter, Harry Morgan had a guest spot on M*A*S*H* as a loony general. In the final scene a court martial is convened with Hawkeye in the hot seat and Morgan's character is asking questions of a chopper pilot played by a black actor (one of "those guys" you always recognize but can't always name). 

"But first, a song."

"Sir?"

"you know, a musical number. Why you've got it in your blood, boy. Just let it out!"

Then Morgan's character sings Mississippi Mud, with the cleaned up lyrics (different from above, I believe). So it was OK to say "Boy" to a black man but not "darkies" in the song. Checking Google this was the 1974-75 season premiere, "The General Flipped at Dawn".

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I don't know that I would call it a "good" tune and it certainly has not been a popular one for decades (sadly, it once was popular), but one of the most egregious examples of racist songs must be "That's Why Darkies Were Born" which, I am saddened to learn, Paul Robeson recorded.

Someone had to pick the cotton
Someone had to pick the corn
Someone had to slave and be able to sing
That's why darkies were born

 

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