By Andrew Berish
Recently I spoke to a reporter about the controversy over singer Kate Smith (1907–1986). Although I have written about American popular music of the 1930s and 40s and its racial politics, I have not written specifically on Kate Smith. A radio, recording, and television star, Smith’s career spanned nearly four decades beginning in the late 1920s and reaching into the 1960s. Smith is perhaps best known for her performances on record and film of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” In 1974 Smith performed the song before the Philadelphia Flyers played the Boston Bruins in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals. After winning the series, the Flyers made a tradition of replaying Smith’s performance. In 1978 the team erected a statue to the entertainer outside their stadium (first the Spectrum and then the XfinityLive! Entertainment Complex in Philadelphia). Another sports team, the New York Yankees, have regularly played her rendition of “God Bless America” at home games since 9/11. Both these practices have come under scrutiny since a fan discovered two early 1930s recordings by Smith: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” (1931) and “Pickaninnies’ Heaven” (1933). In response, both teams have suspended the performance of Smith’s “God Bless America.” The Flyers have also removed the statue of Smith.
The journalist focused on two questions: how common were songs such as “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninnies’ Heaven”? Did Smith choose this material or was it foisted on her by producers or other industry representatives? I understand why he asked these particular questions, they are questions many people would want answered: if she chose the song herself, then she was a racist and we are justified in removing her statue and abandoning the public performance of her recordings.
I struggled through my answers, frequently hedging and backtracking. Some of the stumbling was my own cluttered thinking on the subject (not surprisingly, the reporter did not quote me), but on reflection a lot of the problem was with the questions themselves. They demanded a clarity of fact (were there lots of songs like this?) and of intention (who was responsible for the song and were they racist?), which I couldn’t provide. There were other songs like “Darkies” and “Pickanninnies” around in the early 1930s, but they shared space with thousands of other songs—songs about love, romance, youth, and fun—that had no explicit reference to African American life. Yet much of the Tin Pan Alley musical style was built from incorporating the musical and lyrical practices of African Americans, making race pervasive but often implicit. As for the intentions of Smith and all the others involved in choosing, recording, and promoting the song, they are also complicated, a heterogeneous mixture of commercial and artistic demands informed by a long history of cultural stereotypes born from racialized thinking. But of all the points I tried to make it was the last one that proved the most difficult to explain concisely: representations of African-Americans in 1930s popular song were fluid and contradictory, moving between the bad habits of the past and a new, tentatively progressive future. To understand Smith’s 1930s recordings we must explore in some detail the tensions in the mass media representations of African Americans.
Blackface during the Great Depression
Both of Smith’s early 1930s recordings are examples of 20th century popular songs nodding to 19th-century blackface minstrelsy. Although largely defunct by the 1880s, the practice lived on in regional troupes, “turns” in vaudeville shows, and amateur productions. More importantly, the tropes of minstrelsy survived well into the 20th century, virtually defining entertainment in the American (as opposed to European) style. Radio programs, stage shows, and films celebrated blackface minstrelsy as the original source of America’s unique entertainment tradition.
Blackface and the underlying racial ideology supporting it represent a root system so tangled and far-reaching that we can see it nurturing materials seemingly distant from the early Kate Smith records. Consider Berlin’s “God Bless America” itself. Written in 1938, Smith premiered it on radio in November of that year, recording it for Victor in 1939, and singing it on film for the 1943 film adaptation of Berlin’s stage show, This Is the Army. “God Bless America” has become the brighter-faced companion to the violent imagery of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” a poem that explicitly referenced slavery (Key disparaged the British use of former slaves). The political history of “God Bless America” is complex, traced comprehensively by Sheryl Kaskowitz, but it did accomplish one thing very well: it provided—and continues to provide—Americans a way to reinvigorate patriotism while obscuring the historical violence of white supremacy.<1> If we see Berlin’s song as part of a larger history of musical nation building through popular song—of constructing a pluralistic America—it is easier to see a connection between “God Bless America” and a song like “Pickaninnies’ Heaven.” The first builds an American identity through exscription, a writing out of race. The second allows difference but only via the distortions of blackface.
In the 1930s blackface was an active, if contested practice, visible across the mass media landscape. But it was a time of cultural change. There was a significant leftward shift in American political life; a gradual debunking of certain racist ideas in favor of the anthropological concept of culture; and a higher profile for black civil rights movements. All these changes did not destroy minstrel tropes—they were so deeply embedded in popular culture—but they made certain elements of this tradition less appealing, even troubling. Scholar Raymond Williams famously described culture as a contested terrain of practices, some dominant, some residual, and some emergent. Minstrelsy was a residual cultural practice that co-existed uneasily with dominant ideologies of white supremacy as well as emergent progressive ideas challenging the biological racism of the 1920s and earlier.<2>
“Coon” Songs and Negro Laments
"Pickaninnies’ Heaven” (music and lyrics by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston) was written for Hello, Everybody! (1933), a film vehicle for Smith. Although the film takes place on a rural California farm, Smith, born in Washington, D.C., was promoted as the “Songbird of the South” and some of her repertoire was crafted to suggest Southern gentility or a more general rural ideal (her theme song was “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”). “Pickaninnies’ Heaven” is strongly indebted to minstrel models, particularly the post-minstrelsy phenomenon of comic “coon” songs. The pickaninny character has roots going back to the mid-19th century—scholars often cite Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a precursor.
The character was typically presented as a child with large white lips, very dark face, and unkempt hair, eating watermelon. Notably, Smith doesn’t perform the number in blackface.<3> Instead, she sings it to a group of black orphans. As she sings in a radio studio, the film cuts to a shot of children listening, the camera panning across the individual faces. It is a strange scene, mixing together a common Depression-era concern for the downtrodden with the language of the coon song.
The song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” (Lew Brown and Ray Henderson) represents something very different. Written in 1931 for that year’s George White’s Scandals, a popular series of Broadway revues, Columbia Records released a studio version featuring Smith later that year. Some writers have suggested the song was ironic or satirical, a “putting on” of blackface in order to criticize its distortions.<4> But the song was more likely intended as a sincere lament for the “negro.”<5> That helps explain why activist and musician Paul Robeson was attracted to it, recording it the same year. The song has echoes of other, similar laments of the time such as Andy Razaf and Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” (1929), sometimes described as the first black protest song.<6> Written for the all-black review Hot Chocolates, “Black and Blue” exemplified the era’s new strain of sophisticated, all-black theatrical entertainments. Trading on the white vogue for Harlem and the explosive rise of jazz, these musicals challenged the remnants of the minstrel stage. But Brown and Henderson were not Razaf and Waller, and the original performance of “Darkies” was sung in blackface by the white operatic tenor Everett Marshall.<7>
The fluid place of minstrelsy was evident across the popular cultural landscape. The result was, by our standards today, some profoundly uncomfortable and conflicted entertainments. In the 1930s the Federal Theater Project—under Hallie Flanagan one of the most progressive of the WPA arts programs—was printing how-to minstrel books for local communities.<8> In the 1936 film Swing Time, Fred Astaire honors the black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with a blackface number. Throughout the decade white vaudevillians such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson continued to appear in blackface in films such as Kid Millions (1934) and The Singing Kid (1936). We also see African Americans in blackface, a common practice in the late minstrel era and one that survived well into the 20th century. In the all-black cast musical Stormy Weather (1943), comedians Flournoy Miller and Johnnie Lee put on the black mask for an “indefinite talk” routine, an act Miller made famous with his late partner, Aubry Lyles.<9> The film treats Miller and Lee’s blackface as a part of contemporary black entertainment but also as something increasingly outdated, an older vaudeville style that was giving way to the more youthful and modern sounds of Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers.
But perhaps the best example of the era’s contradictions is the 1936 film version (directed by James Whale) of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s landmark Broadway musical Show Boat. The plot of Show Boat spans the late 19th century through the 1920s, and Kern wrote music in a number of styles to evoke different periods. Although the stage musical begins during the waning years of the minstrel stage, it had no blackface number. But for the 1936 film, Whale, Hammerstein, and Kern decided to introduce one: a blackfaced Magnolia (Irene Dunne) performing “Gallivantin’ Aroun’.” The performance comes midway through the film and demonstrates Magnolia’s growing confidence on stage. Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger) introduces the number as “a little southern song solo with banjo,” and the backdrop shows rows of crops with a plantation house toward the back. Dunne, strumming a banjo, is filmed with many close-ups emphasizing her blackface makeup and exaggerated facial expressions. After a chorus she is joined by more actors in blackface. The number ends with a glowing moon (provided by Cap’n Andy behind the backdrop) and a comically inept prop bird “flying” underneath.
This scene, along with an earlier one featuring the actress doing a “shuffle dance” to “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” have damaged the film’s reputation. They are indeed troubling scenes, but their meaning in the film is complicated. Both scenes are part of what Todd Decker calls Show Boat’s “popular music plot,” the inter-racial transmission of musical knowledge and skill from black to white.<10> Magnolia learns her craft from the bi-racial Julie, who herself learned to sing from other African Americans.
The suggestion of inter-racial music making puts race front-and-center in a way that was rare for a mainstream Hollywood cinema. But the film goes further in treating black characters with greater-than-usual fullness and dignity. Whale’s Show Boat kept the controversial “miscegenation” scene where Steve, to make himself “black”, cuts Julie’s hand and drinks some of her blood. And, of course, the film features Paul Robeson reprising his iconic performance of Joe.
Although not in the original stage production, Hammerstein and Kern had, from the beginning, envisioned Robeson singing their spiritual-influenced “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson was finally roped into the London run in 1928 and then again for a Broadway revival in 1932. By the time of the 1936 film, Robeson had become one of the production’s great attractions and “Ol’ Man River” had become his song. Whale’s direction and Robeson’s performance created a tour de force, one of the most powerful mass media statements of black suffering under Jim Crow that one could see in the movie theater. In the sequence we see a sweating, bare-chested Robeson heaving enormous bales of cotton. At the lines, “you gets a little drunk and you land in jail,” Whale shoots Robeson from above as the actor grips the bars of a jail cell. In addition to the striking visuals, the scene is also significant in the ways it reflected the changing language around race. “From the earliest drafts,” Decker writes, “the musical “began with the words ‘Niggers all work on de Mississippi / Niggers all work while de white folks play.”<11> By the time of the 1936 film, the producers had eliminated the word from the show, replacing it with “darkie” (A 1946 revival used “colored”). The decision was largely attributable to Robeson—he regularly altered lyrics he found offensive—but the language change was also recommended by Hollywood’s own censor, the Production Code Administration run by Joseph Breen, which acknowledged that the word “has proven offensive to the colored race.”<12> In all these ways, Whale’s Show Boat presents a microcosm of the era’s shifting treatment of race.
Amateur minstrel shows, Fred Astaire, Al Jolson, Show Boat—this is the context for Kate Smith’s two recordings. They are indeed representative of the era, but not as simple racist artifacts—rather they exemplify the entertainment industry’s contradictory positions about racial representation, and its tendency to vacillate between mockery and homage. This complex semiotic was not an easy idea to encapsulate into a quote for a reporter, and this essay is my attempt to compensate for that failure. How do we tell this history in a concise way that is also truthful to complexities and contradictions of our musical past? Perhaps the lesson here is about the scholarly space of the middle ground, using venues like Musicology Now as the meeting place between the “hot take” and the journal article, the brief quotation and the monograph.
<1>Sheryl Kaskowitz, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Perhaps not surprisingly, the flip side of Smith’s 1939 Victor recording of “God Bless America” was “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
<2>Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 121–127.
<3>Debbie Olson, Black Children in Hollywood Cinema: Cast in Shadow (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 83–85. Smith had performed in blackface as Mammy Lavinia in a 1929 traveling version of the 1927 Broadway show Hit the Deck. Richard K. Hayes, Kate Smith: A Biography, with a Discography, Filmography and List of Stage Appearances (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995), 276.
<4>“The history of the song is a bit more nuanced. Paul Robeson, the African American bass baritone, actor, and activist who was blacklisted in the 1950s and died in Philadelphia in 1976, also recorded it, providing fuel to those who would argue that perhaps it was meant as a satirical critique of racist attitudes.” Dan Deluca, “What’s the story behind those Kate Smith songs with the racist lyrics?,” The Inquirer, April 22, 2019. https://www.philly.com/entertainment/columnists/kate-smith-racist-songs-lyrics-got-bless-america-flyers-20190422.html
<5>John Bush Jones, Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press, 2015), 183–185.
<6>Robert G. O’Meally, “Checking Our Balances: Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison, and Betty Boop,” in Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies, eds. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Farah Jasmin Griffin (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 286.
<7>Ethan Mordden, Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 21.
<8>Susan Smulyan, Popular Ideologies: Mass Culture at Mid-Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007,) 37.
<9>Arthur Knight, Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 110–114.
<10>Todd Decker, Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 101.
<11>Decker, Show Boat, 101.
<12>Decker, Show Boat, 152. For a comprehensive survey of Robeson and his relationship to “Ol’ Man River” see, Todd Decker, Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”? The Lives of an American Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 28–50.
Andrew Berish is Associate Professor and Chair of the Humanities and Cultural Studies Department at the University of South Florida.