“Kids who grew up to the sound of Kate Smith’s voice,” the television critic Tom Shales once wrote about the Songbird of the South, as she was known, “privately felt that this is what Mom would sound like, if only Mom could sing.” Smith’s eternal image otherwise became what radio historian Gerald Nachman called “a sort-of singing Statue of Liberty” thanks to her recording of “God Bless America.”
Today the singing Statue of Liberty faces a purge from Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have decided to put Smith’s “God Bless America” into the proverbial mothballs, thanks to having discovered Smith recorded, in 1931, a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” The hefty Virginian who was once one of broadcasting’s most formidable presences is now to be sent to the Phantom Zone as a racist.
I didn’t grow up to the sound of Kate Smith’s voice, but I did have a mom who, God rest her soul in peace, liked to sing in the shower now and then and sounded like she was being tickled on the soles of her bare feet. As for Smith being an actual racist, I’ve just discovered (by reading a copy at archive.org) that she didn’t talk about race at all in her long-out-of-print 1960 memoir, Upon My Lips a Song. The mere absence of a topic doesn’t necessarily suggest an author’s view one way or the other on it. you wouldn’t presume that Roger Angell has an opinion one way or the other about Olympic bobsledding even though he’s never written about it so far as you know.
But to judge by the hoopla around her until-now-obscure 1931 hit—it wasn’t even close to being one of her signature songs—the answer seems a resounding yes, Smith was indeed a racist. Until you plumb a little further and a) remember that racism wasn’t exactly obscure in the era’s entertainment, unfortunately; but, b) “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” explicitly satirises it. Uh, oh. We know how instantly understood satire often is, don’t we?
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic, Eric D. Snider, isolated the point in a 2011 piece reviewing a film that was made and released two years after Smith’s hit, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which wasn’t exactly a hit in its own right upon release but has long since earned stature as perhaps their absolute best film in many minds. How does Duck Soup connect to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born?” A joke cracked by Groucho Marx, Snider answers:
One of Groucho’s jokes that is obscure (and probably offensive) to modern ears is this: “My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.” Haha– wait, what? The reference is to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” a hit song from the 1931 Broadway revue George White’s Scandals that was famously recorded by both Kate Smith and Paul Robeson (whom you’ve heard singing “Old Man River”). The song presented a satirical view of racism, though actual racism wasn’t exactly rare in plays or movies in the 1930s.
Groucho uses the line simply because it was famous at the time and it sort of fit his train of thought.
Contemporary sensibilities (or lack of sensibility) advises that there were probably those who saw Mr. Snider’s piece and concluded (erroneously) that Groucho Marx was therefore a racist.
Baseball itself observed a strictly enforced colour line in those years, which was broken at last in 1947, though it took long enough for all teams other than the Dodgers and the Indians (with Larry Doby shortly after Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn) to get and act on the message. We live with our pasts to learn from them, but how often and how far in the future should we be punished for them if we’ve long since renounced and transcended them?
Remember last year’s skirmishes about some baseball players having tweeted racist remarks as callow teenagers, views they’d long since rejected and renounced? There were those suggesting they should have been suspended at minimum or banished at maximum for having held those views at all regardless of whether they changed those views.
A decade ago, the Yankees purged the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan from singing “God Bless America” during their post-9/11 seventh inning stretches, as Tynan had been very popular doing, when it came forth that he’d made an anti-Semitic remark involving a prospective renter in his New York apartment building. That was a far more verifiable incident upon which the Yankees acted than the presumed attitude behind recording a satirical song that is now 88 years old.
If the Yankees are ready to expunge Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” from their seventh-inning stretch revelries, they should at least understand that the ancient record that prompts them was indeed intended as satire and taken as such both in its own time and in the eyes and ears of critics writing three quarters of a century later about films that referenced it just as satirically.
And it’s also wise to remind ourselves that you could probably fill Yankee Stadium several thousand times over with those who were likewise so callow in our youths but learned and behaved better when we stopped being callow youths and started becoming men and women.
Smith recorded another song some say satirised racism, “Pickaninny Heaven,” in the same decade as that in which she cut “That’s Why Darkies Are Born.” She also endorsed an Aunt Jemima-style “mammy” doll at decade’s end. That was the 1930s, for better or worse, and Smith, who died in 1986, had miles to go before her limousine slept. Unless I chance to read a full biography of Smith that reveals otherwise, I don’t think it’s fair of me to suggest that she held racist views herself at any time, never mind in the 1930s, or that if she did then she didn’t change and transcend such earlier views.
And if she did hold racist views once upon a time in her life, should I demand her purging as many demanded the purgings of, say, Josh Hader or Trey Turner after their earlier but long since renounced views were exhumed last year?
The aforementioned Paul Robeson had other issues, of course, including and particularly his Stalinism (it didn’t begin with his public approval of the Soviet Union’s suppression of the 1954 Hungarian revolt), but it’s reasonable to think that the legendary African/American bass/baritone who spoke often and loud against racism wouldn’t have recorded “That’s Why Darkies are Born” if he, too, didn’t think it was satirical.
Without knowing whether Kate Smith was a genuine racist when recording a satire of racism, or began as a racist but transcended it as her life went forward, the Yankees may be jumping the proverbial gun on helping to destroy the reputation of an iconic recording made by—yes, she was, to an awful lot of people in another time and place—an iconic singer.
“The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously,” an unidentifed Yankee spokesman was quoted as telling the New York Daily News. “And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.” A lot of errors are committed while erring on the side of sensitivity, too.