“Don’t tell your story to change something about the past; the past is inherently unchangeable. There is no cure. The goal is to find a way forward. To truly remember is to heal.” -The Editor: Stephen Rowley
After happily singing Oh Susannah with kids for some four decades, I found out that it was now inappropriate and should be taken off my list. The reasons?
1) There is a third (or fourth) verse with a racist pejorative (though some sources have a different non-offensive word).
2) It was associated with the minstrel shows, a horribly racist institution.
3) It was written by Stephen Foster, who wrote many such songs that became part of the minstrel tradition.
Let’s imagine that I should carefully consider the lyrics of the songs I sing with children. (I do.)
Let’s imagine I think that Minstrelsy was a harmful institution. (I do.)
Let’s imagine I think I should find out more about Stephen Foster. (I do.)
Now let’s imagine that having received a list of inappropriate songs, I make the bold and brave decision to stop singing them with the children. Perhaps even explain to the children why I’ve made that choice. If you’re a person who cares about social justice—as I have my entire life and hope to continue to do so until my last breath—you may be applauding my decision. But I don’t.
Stay with me here as I wade out into treacherous waters and do something genuinely brave and courageous. I don’t agree with the above criteria alone as a reason to put things on the bad list. Especially if they’re done without sufficient thought and discussion by the people reading the list. The people writing it have certainly put much thought and hopefully, much discussion into it and I applaud them for initiating the needed and overdue dialogue. But I don’t agree with the list as the way to move forward.
Who am I to dare to question this? I’m a privileged white man and that already is two strikes against me in a sensitive discussion regarding race. I get that. But I am also someone who has done quite a bit of work in the area, as a teacher, as a performer, as a citizen. And while I don’t believe I should lead the discussion or pretend any sense of ultimate authority, I do believe that I should contribute—we all should— in the spirit of considering the most effective response to a charged issue like this. It is an issue that has been trivialized and misunderstood by some factions who dismiss it as “cancel culture” or the “liberal agenda of political correctness.” Given that context, we owe it to ourselves to do the heavy lifting of considering deeply what the most effective response to our difficult history actually might be.
And that word “effective” is purposefully chosen. What we do needs to at least show some promise of effecting the needed real change, must demonstrate that it can move the moral arc towards justice. As you read, take some time with each of the points that follow with that word “effective” in mind. If they ring true for you, consider them. If they don’t, articulate precisely why and write your rebuttal, to me personally or as part of a needed public discourse. Let’s avoid the shouting circus of today’s political climate and consider ideas, look at what might be truly effective, what might be somewhat effective and what might look like we’ve done something important and make us feel good, but in actuality accomplishes very little. If you are reading this because you care about these issues, remember that we’re on the same side and we both have the intention to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. And if you don’t care about these issues, mindlessly dismiss the whole thing as “cancel culture,” start raising your voice about the liberal agenda, well, you’re welcome to read on, but I won’t expect much. Okay? Here we go.
The words: Let’s imagine that I stopped singing Oh Susannah and even told my kids why. What changes? In my opinion, absolutely nothing. Or at least, not enough. What kid will ever stand up and testify as an adult that, “My defining moment came when I stopped singing that song.”
In fact, there are clearly some songs that I’ve chosen not to sing with kids. There are other songs in which I’ve consciously changed some words and told them why. (For example, after years of perpetuating our obsession with magazine-cover bodies and money, money, money by singing Que Sera, I finally changed the first verse from “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?” to “caring” and “kind.”).
And all songs are fair game for discussion. When the kids dance to Dizzy Gillespie’s version of School Daysand hear the words “taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” I talk to them about the former practice of corporal punishment. When we sing The Hound Dog Song and Lem Briggs and old Bill Brown “wipe them fellers on the ground, for kickin’ my old dog Jim around,” I explain that there are other ways to deal with bullies. You get the idea. If we stop singing such songs altogether, we lose an opportunity to discuss and educate.
But with Oh Susannah, there is no need because nobody sings that 3rd or 4th verse. And I mean nobody. Just about all of us never knew it existed. Meanwhile, the first verse is benign enough and I play the song on the banjo and here’s a great opportunity to talk about the origins of the banjo, one of the few original American instruments and one we can thank the African-American culture for (as I have these past 45 years of singing this song.) The second verse is delightful, immersing the kids in intriguing contradictions—“it rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.” Neither of these verses are so extraordinary that my music curriculum would be threatened if I eliminated it, but it feels like a pretty slippery slope to start researching obscure verses or facts about a song as a reason to strike it off the list. Where do we draw the line?
The Minstrel Show: Each year, I show the scene of Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927) singing in blackface. I reserve this for 8thgrade and it’s part of their year-long study of jazz (playing) and jazz history (listening and learning the stories). For many of them (thankfully!) it’s the first time they’ve seen something like this and I watch their faces and note their looks of revulsion, disgust and just plain confusion. I ask, “What do you see?” and they answer things like “Something bad, stupid and weird.” I ask, What do you wonder about?” and they say things like “Whoever thought this was a good idea?!”
Kids are so smart.
Then I tell them how Al Jolson was actually somewhat involved with the black community and helped some folks out. How Fred Astaire admired the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and dedicated a dance to him in the movie Swingtime (1936)—in blackface. How Bing Crosby was a good friend of Louis Armstrong’s, invited him into his movie High Society and then warmed our hearts with his Christmas movie Holiday Inn (1942) and in one scene sings and dances—in blackface. How Judy Garland was appreciated as a friend and ally by Billie Holiday and yet sang and danced in Babes on Broadway (1943)— you guessed it—in blackface. None of this is to excuse these folks, but to show how powerful the accepted norms of a different time can be that such a demeaning practice could be shrugged off as “harmless entertainment” just because that was what the white folks thought.
We then delve back into the history of the Minstrel Show and show how it was even weirder as black folks joined minstrel shows after the Civil War and put on blackface and danced the cakewalk. So here were black folks putting on blackface pretending to be white folks pretending to be blacks singing songs made by whites to make fun of blacks doing a dance that black folks made to make fun of whites. I read those sentences out loud with the kids and then we collectively scratch our heads and exclaim together, “Huh?!!!” It’s a deep lesson in how convoluted things get when relationships begin in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons and the beginning of considering how to change the story that made—and still makes—that possible.
The philosopher George Santayana once said: “We must welcome the future remembering that soon it will be the past and we must respect the past remembering that once it was all that was humanly possible.”
And so the task is to keep expanding what is both humanly possible and possibly humane.
Yes, it is difficult to respect the past in light of its countless atrocities. But viewing what happened then through the lens of now is a thorny path, because we know things now that people back then didn’t. We’ve passed various tipping points in which the majority agree that something acceptable back then—five hundred, fifty or even five years ago— is unacceptable now.
To take but one example: with the mainstream in agreement, it doesn’t require super-human courage to publicly proclaim “Black Lives Matter.” But a mere five years ago, eyebrows would have been raised reading that sign in your window. And let’s face it—there are few among us who have the courage to truly speak up when the majority think differently. The rapid growth of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement is a good sign because it allows people to feel safer proclaiming this truth. And that’s when things begin to change.
And change they have. Human sacrifice, the Inquisition, witch-burning, genocide of native folks, chattel slavery, is mostly yesterday’s news. No sensible person dons the MWGA (Make the World Great Again) hat and longs for those good old days. Yet we do have to accept that these things happened, understand the forces that allowed them to happen and give up on trying to change, to cure the past. Instead, we use that perspective to move towards healing the present and creating a future worthy of welcome, to draw the line beyond which the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the past will not cross.
By the 1950’s, blackface in movies effectively ended and good riddance. Though some today—like Megyn Kelly in 2018—might publicly state that they “think it’s okay to dress up in blackface,” (yes, she really said that) the mainstream point of view is “Don’t.” In reaction to her statement, NBC cancelled her Todayshow and that is a good sign that the narrative is indeed changing. And not just the racial narrative, but so many of the “isms” based on fear, ignorance, exclusion and purposely manufactured hatred. I now have friends who publicly introduce their same-sex husbands or wives to strangers without either batting an eye, something that they couldn’t do some a mere twenty or so years ago. And let’s remember a black male President and our current black/South Asian female Vice-President. Unimaginable earlier in my own lifetime.
Accepting the past does not mean not noticing the weird transgressions in the old movies, books, school textbooks. But neither does it mean wholly dismissing them and /or removing from circulation anything tainted by formerly accepted values. If we were to seriously exclude anything in our contemporary culture related to the Minstrel Show, for example, a good 95% of the entertainment industry would be put away. For the minstrel show led to Vaudeville and the number of early Hollywood stars, dancers, jazz musicians, who got their start in Vaudeville is simply mind-boggling. Here’s a partial list:
Bert Williams, Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Will Rogers, John Philip Sousa, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Mae West, Bing Crosby, Bill Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, The Nicholas Brothers, Babe Ruth, Helen Keller, Harry Houdini, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Buck and Bubbles, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, John-Lionel-Ethel Barrymore, Guy Lombardo, Moms Mabley, Red Skelton, Burt Lancaster, Lucille Ball, Fred Macmurray, Rose Marie, Ozzie Nelson, Sammy Davis Jr., Milton Berle, Julie Andrews.
And we should consider that Vaudeville grew to the Broadway Revue that grew to the Broadway musical that grew to the Hollywood Musical. Stormy Weather, that extraordinary 1943 film whose all-black cast includes Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and the remarkable Nicholas Brothers, would not have existed without the minstrel show. John Coltrane’s improvisation on My Favorite Things would not have existed without the minstrel show because there would have been no Sound of Music musical. Out of the mud-filled swampy waters of a despicable minstrel tradition that jeered and insulted, used power and privilege to define others without those others having a say in the matter, served as propaganda proclaiming the honor of the South, some beautiful lotuses came to flower. (See the list above).
If I could go back in time with the power to halt the forces of slavery knowing that we never would have enjoyed The Wizard of Oz or West Side Story, never would have danced to James Brown or heard Ella or Billie sing, would have gone through life without the blues to hold us together, I believe I would do it. Wouldn’t you? Nothing could justify the unfathomable human suffering that stretched from Kunta Kinte to George Floyd.
But we don’t live in a Hollywood fantasyland and the past remains forever the unchangeable past. That’s the non-negotiable truth that is the foundation of a kinder and more just future, the lesson book from which we all need to learn how to do better. The only shame is in repeating the same mistakes, in refusing to open the book and learn the lesson.
Minstrel Composers: Now back to Oh Susannah. The first big name in Minstrelsy was Thomas “Daddy” Rice, whose blackface depiction in his original song and dance Jump Jim Crow was wildly applauded by white audiences wanting to believe that enslaved human beings were happy, that they sang and danced and were grateful to be in the South instead of Africa. The Minstrel Show became a vehicle of propaganda supporting the narrative of white supremacy and defying those pesky abolitionists who just didn’t understand how everything was “just fine in the good ole South.” Dan Emmet, who formed the Virginia Minstrels troupe, wrote Dixie that further reinforced what a happy place the plantation South was and it became an anthem of sorts for white southerners. And then Stephen Foster wrote songs like Old Black Joe lamenting the death of his beloved master. The punch lines were just: “Slavery is just fine. Let it be.”
But here’s the surprise. Rice, Emmet and Foster were all born in the North and rarely, if ever, set foot in the South. They were just ambitious songwriters following the money and giving the public what it thought it wanted. And Emmet actually had some remorse, saying:
"If I had known to what use they [Southerners] were going to put my song, I will be damned if
I'd have written it."
“ History is entitled to be read in the light of the circumstances that brought it forth. To understand the choices open to the people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see that past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.” -Barbara Tuchman
The circumstances that led to the minstrel show are baffling to educated people in 2020, but entirely logical and inevitable in light of the story that European/American culture created, perpetuated and mostly unquestionably accepted. It sprang from a Christianity that insisted that God favored them, led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 and sent Columbus abroad to begin the decimation of Native American cultures, to claim the land they inhabited as belonging to the conquistadores, backed by the trio of God, guns and germs. It was the story that sent the slave traders to West Africa and began one of the longest lasting and barbaric form of human suffering. It was approved by priests and kings, scientists and merchants, and the white people, like fish in water, never considered it anything other than the way the world is and was meant to be. (With some exceptions, from Bartolomeo de Las Casas to John Brown to Robin Di’Angelo.) It is the gradual changing of this narrative, backed by law, science, courageous teachers and artists speaking on behalf of justice, that had—and has—the possibility of effecting real change. And it should begin with how and what we teach our children.
Teaching the children the actual history of minstrelsy is one way the music teacher can contribute to effecting real change. Because the bottom line of why we’re still dealing with these issues is that white folks have had the luxury and privilege to not only not learn these stories, but to not have to care whether they learn these stories. Our job as educators is to educate and as music educators, to educate through music and dance. And that means changing the narrative that drove chattel slavery, the continued on to the Black Codes, that continued on to Jim Crow, that continued on to the New Jim Crow with its school to prison pipeline, that continues on to yesterday as Georgia tries to suppress black votes yet again.
To change the narrative means we need to knowthe narrative and we have to look at it from a place of social justice, not just to cluck our tongues, but to see the threads that are still invisibly running things today, to recognize the patterns, to speak up and speak out when the next police killing happens knowing that the police are descendants of the slave patrols meant to contain slavery and curtail genuine freedom. In this regard, removing Oh Susannah from the song list accomplishes exactly nothing.
And so I ask my fellow music teachers. How many of you are doing this? Giving the full context of these songs? Showing the film clips? Asking your kids if they ever heard of Fred Astaire or Elvis and then asking them why they don’t know the Nicholas Brothers and Big Mama Thornton? (And then showing them the related Youtube clips). How many of your kids know anything significant about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday? How many Orff students know the vibraphonists Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Marjie Hyams, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Stefon Harris? How much jazz are you teaching the children in your classrooms? How much are you sharing the music and the stories of these American geniuses admired the world over, but neglected in our own American education? Do you see how much greater your commitment has to be then merely taking songs off a list?
I believe that true education is hard work. You see how much you need to know to pass on what the children will need to become humanitarian citizens. You see how courageous you’d have to be when your school tells you to wait for the proper month before you teach about the black folks, women, Asians, Latinx, Native American folks who did so much to build this country. You see how telling the truth of what went down in the past means exposing the truth about what is still going down in the present . Once you begin that real work, you’ll soon learn how that threatens those in power who depend upon ignorance. Crossing Oh Susannah off the list is not going to bother them. Telling the truth is. It’s not an easy road.
But it’s a glorious one. Let’s go. And if you so choose, with your banjo on your knee.