August 1999 Edition
Racism & Prejudice In Music
Music is reflective of the society and beliefs of a given time. Music from the 30s contained themes relating to the depression, the 40s music was consumed with patriotism and the war. Throughout the history of popular music, much of the music gives us insights into social issues and beliefs.
Racial beliefs seem to have always held a dubiously prominent place in music. Even today, in a time supposedly more enlightened we hear music that deliberatly and with direct intent spreads hate and violence along racial lines.
In the past however, much of the music was not written with hatred as a direct intent, but was rather oftentimes an unconscious reflection of a society that had little tolerance or sensitivity towards others. Even though today, we find the lyrics distasteful and the images unfair, at the time, the composers and artists were depicting what they believed was reality and in many misguided cases, thought what they were doing was cute and funny.
You may find much of what we publish this month offensive. That hopefully is the point. The subject matter is offensive. It is not our intent to hurt anyone or perpetuate prejudice in any way, but we do hope that everyone visiting the site this month feels more than a bit uncomfortable. All art, including music, reflects society. Just because we find it shameful or embarrassing we cannot revise or change history, neither can we conveniently forget about it. In this time of longing for the "Good 'ol days" it is important that we recognize that they weren't quite so good for everyone. The music of those times has become an important historical document and serves to remind us of the continuing need for tolerance and the elimination of prejudice, stereotypes and hatred.
In future issues we will explore musically how authentic ethnic and cultural contributions have helped to shape not only our music but our very culture.
As an aside, and having nothing to do with this months theme, we are temporarily discontinuing the availability of full score images in PDF format for some scores. Though many of you have enjoyed this feature, the disk network bandwidth requirements were too extreme. We plan on producing a CD Extra that contains the music as well as PDF files of scores. Watch for availability of this CD in a few weeks.
If Time Was Money, I'd Be A Millionaire|
Music by: Ted S. Barron
Lyrics by: Felix F. Feist
Cover artist: unknown
This song is typical of a style that emerged in the late 19th century and continued into the 19 teens that was called a "coon" song. The cover states "A Rattling Coon Song Introduced and sung by Little Sunshine of Gardner, West and Sunshine". This style of song was typically upbeat and rapid fire. The style was an outgrowth of stereotypes of 'happy darkies' and the prevailing view of African-American music of the time.
In the case of this song, the lyrics are patently offensive in today's world. The cover image is also a stereotype, displaying an image that portrays the commonly held belief at the time that blacks were lazy. The lyrics are full of extremely offensive references to blacks and even uses the "N" word liberally. Though I believe this story needs to be told, I cannot publish these lyrics.
Although the music is enjoyable when listened to without the lyrics, as a historical chronicle of racism in the USA, this song is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the ugliness of racism.
Listen to this old song.
Chinatown, My Chinatown|
Music by: Jean Schwartz
Lyrics by: William Jerome
Cover Artist: Clarence Cooney
African-Americans were not the only peoples to be singled out for racism in music. The Chinese and Asians in general were another group that was often stereotyped with offensive images and lyrics. Some of the most popular songs of the modern era were based on racist themes. This song is a good example.
Hear this interesting old song.
Chinatown, My Chinatown has been a staple of popular song for many years. I don't ever recall hearing the lyrics but do recall the melody. Though the cover is relatively tasteful as a work of art, it strikes me that the images are more Japanese than Chinese. The instrument depicted appears to be a Japanese Shamisen, a long necked lute. The Chinese equivalent is, I believe the Yuequin, which is a short necked lute. I think this demonstrates that at the time, any Asian image or person was synonymous with 'Chinese'.
The lyrics are peppered with sterotypical references, such as "Pigtails flying here and there", and racial slurs such as "That's the time the Festive Chink starts to wink his other eye". Another very popular song, The Limehouse Blues, also make reference to "Chinkies" and portrays Asians as opium addicts. See and hear The Limehouse Blues in our Gallery this month.
Music by: Theodore F. Morse
Lyrics by: none
Cover artist: DeTacakcs
Native Americans have suffered many years of prejudice, racism and opression that began from the time of the white man's arrival to this present day. Just as with other racial and ethnic groups, the American Indian was not left out of the popular music scene.
In this case, we have a less harsh depiction, but nonee-less, one that is based on popular stereotypes. Unfortunately, the stereotypes continue today. Artistically, this cover art is quite nice. Likewise, the music is very enjoyable. But we have to clearly understand that the images are based on incorrect perceptions and a full lack of understanding of the Native American culture.
Native American women have especially been stereotyped. The idea of the meek Indian maiden or worse yet, the 'squaw' are far from the prominent and respected leadership role that women played in Native American culture.
Listen to this beautiful old work.
Stay In Your Own Backyard
Music by: Lyn Udall
Lyrics by: Karl Kennett
Cover artist: Unknown
This song expresses an unfortunate sentiment that prevailed during the times. The idea of staying in one's own backyard was nothing more than a thinly veiled desire to not mix races and cultures. In this case, the composer and lyricist have come up with a rather clever twist to make the sentiment seem legitimate.
Rather than a person from the white majority stating the case, the song is written from the perspective of an African-American mother who lectures her children on the need to "stay in your own back yard". I suspect that by writing the song from this angle, the duo was attempting to make the concept more acceptable and demonstrate their own prejudice that surely, if the African-Americans feel that way, it must be ok. However, it does appear from the lyrics that at least they had some empathy for the pain of racism.
Musically, this song is a delight, if we can set aside the theme and the humiliating ideas behind it, it can actually be a pleasant experience. How very sad that so much great music is tainted by the awful pain and mean spiritedness of the lyrics.
Here are the lyrics to the Chorus. Many of the lyrics of these songs also very unfairly stereotyped the speech patterns of whichever group was targeted.
Now honey, yo' stay in yo' own back yard,
Doan min' what dem white chiles do;
What show yo' sup-pose dey's a gwine to gib
A black lit-tle coon like yo'?
So stay on dis side of de high boahd fence
And hon-ey doan cry so hard.
Go out an' a-play, jes' as much as yo' please,
But stay in yo' own back yard.
Listen to this song.
Music by: Jean Schwartz
Lyrics by: William Jerome
Cover artist: Starmer
Of course the Irish were also vilified in the early 20th century as invaders of the land and stealers of employment. The authors of this song seemed to go for a double play by sub-titling this song as "The Irish Coon Song Serenade". My God, what on earth were they thinking of!
The lyrics of the song are all Irish referenced but the sub title perhaps shows just what the authors thought of the Irish.
In fact though, it does appear that it was the musical style, the "coon song" style that they may have been referring to for the lyrics make no mention of African-Americans, nor does it try to make comparisons. The lyrics do however, use stereotypes and common misconceptions about the Irish.
The cover art by one of the music cover art greats, Starmer is from early in his career. It is quite striking but my copy is in terrible shape. I had to reconstruct nearly 20% of the cover in order to present it to you.
Listen to "Bedelia".
Music by: Theodore Morse
Lyrics by: unknown
Cover artist: unknown
There were a few examples of non-racist music that involved African-Americans (and other groups as well. "Smart Set" was an operetta that was produced around 1904 that featured a number of prominent African-American performers. Among them was the famous S.H. Dudley, whose photo is featured on the cover. Mr. Dudley was an acclaimed singer who played the lead role of this work.
The sheet music is unique in that there are a number of pieces represented from the show but each is only a snippet. In the case of two of the works, the melody is the only staff appearing on the score. Therefore, as you listen to this work, you will experience four different tunes. Two, the first and last, in full score and the central two in melody only. Normally I would not present such an incomplete work, however feel this is an important historical document.
The bits of music we do have demonstrate an upbeat work that undoubtedly was an entertaining and popular show. It is interesting to note that this work is by the same composer as "Blue Feather" and a number of other works in our collection that display stereotypes.
Listen to "Smart Set".
Be sure to visit this month's gallery for more great songs, including "Limehouse Blues" and a redeux of many of our favorite featured works you may have missed.
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