One of my more fun and revealing lessons I teach involves singing the African-American clapping play Head and Shoulder as a prime example of offbeat, syncopation and swing rhythm in the black musical culture that led to jazz. I often think that the best way to teach what is is to demonstrate what happens when it is not, the way to show what’s right is to do it wrong. (The latter a good summary of the lives we lead!). And so after playing the original game, we go through it again, first with the claps on the beat instead of off, then without syncopation, then without swing and finally without all three. (I’ve done this with black musicians and it is so hard for them to do! And when they do, it’s accompanied by painful groans of protest!) After doing it without rhythmic qualities, we then switch to the original version and the contrast is felt in every inch of the body, that sense of just being released from some prison and flying free. It’s really impressive.
So yesterday, in talking with a friend and colleague Susan Kennedy, I mentioned the Sing Along With Mitch TV show from my childhood and wondered what it would be like to see it now. It aired from 1961-1964 and consisted of a series of songs conducted by Mitch with men singing behind him, the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen and the invitation for the families sitting at home to sing along. Susan sent me a Youtube clip * and lo and behold, there was the perfect example of what it’s like when white folks approach black music with all their assumptions intact. At once hilarious and terribly depressing.
The opening song was an old ragtime tune I sing with my kids, Five Foot Two.Written in 1925 by Tin Pan Alley composer Ray Henderson (who also wrote Bye Bye Blackbird, Button Up Your Overcoat, The Best Things In Life Are Free and other great songs I’ve done with my kids), the A section follows the chord changes of the popular song and dance The Charleston and the bridge is the same chord progression as I Got Rhythm, written years before Gershwin’s classic. Though Henderson was a white songwriter, the tune is clearly in the jazz tradition with its offbeat ragtime feel, strong syncopation and uplifting swing.
But in the Mitch Miller show, there are some 25 men singing this song exactly the wrong way. Except for the end of each line, all syncopation is gone, the rhythm is stiff and their bodies are stiff, straight and wholly unexpressive, arms at their side the whole time until the grand finale when they raise them. Then there’s Mitch up front, conducting in the weirdest two-beat gestures I’ve ever seen in a conductor. It is really hilarious. And depressing.
There’s some primitive commercials in the clip about Libby’s canned and frozen foods.
“You get the oomph! of two extra oranges in every can of Libby’s orange juice!”
“Sloppy Joe’s are neat, barbecue sauce and meat, Libby’s makes you swing, Sloppy Joes the thing!” (This sung as a rock ‘n’ roll song.)
There’s also a short ad for the new movie Mary Poppins. And then back to Mitch.
“You know, the minstrel show has a longer run of popularity than any form of entertainment in the history of this country, longer then the movies, radio or even vaudeville…So join us while we shine up a few spangles, shake some memories out of some old tambourines and offer a minstrel show with some star material of our own.”
And off they go, with banjos, hats, tambourines and sorry choreography singing:
“Are you from Dixie, I said from Dixie, where the fields of cotton beckon to me.
I’m glad to see ya, tell me, ‘How be ya?’ and the friends I’m longing to see
If you’re from Alabama, Tennessee or Caroline, any place below the Mason-Dixon line
Are you from Dixie, hooray for Dixie, ‘cause I’m from Dixie too!”
The only saving grace? They’re not in blackface. But still, in 1961, while the Freedom Riders were being attacked by the KKK with police support and one of their buses was bombed, Mitch was glorifying the “good ole South” on a national TV show. This is the same Mitch Miller who played alongside Charlie Parker in this Charlie Parker with Strings album.
Ah, America. Maybe we’ll finally learn the lesson of how to make our culture swing, how to feel genuine freedom in every part of the national body, how to finally get it right after so many years of getting it wrong. One can only hope.
* Here's the clip to watch for yourself: https://youtu.be/9dY9gtYeHhk