Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

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IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

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JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

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Sometimes we meet people in unexpected ways. For example, I met Lew Brown, who died 52 years ago, while I was struggling to write a sermon yesterday. We homilists are supposed to base our message on the readings of the day, and today’s readings have a consistent theme: Don’t neglect your spiritual well-being while you’re absorbed in accumulating possessions and other forms of material wealth. The first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes (“For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun?”); St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Colossae (“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth”); and the Gospel according to Luke (“Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions”).

It’s a message we hear often. In other words: Been there, done that.

And so I thrashed around for several hours, trying to find a way into this homily. I looked back at hooks I had used the last few times these readings came up in the three-year cycle, but they seemed contrived and heavy-handed — as my writing often seems to me after some time has passed. Then, as we like to say in the church, the Holy Spirit put a song in my head: “Life is just a bowl of cherries / Don’t take it serious / Life’s too delirious / You live, you love, you worry so / but you can’t take your dough / when you go, go, go.”

Lyricist Harold Arlen, left, and Lew Brown visit with Eddie Cantor on the set of "Baby Face."

The lyric was a pop iteration of the central theme of today’s readings and, because the tune is still familiar, I decided to use it. When I set out to find out who wrote the lyrics, I found several web sites that attributed it to George Gershwin who, of course, was not a lyricist. I also found it attributed to Ira Gershwin, who was. That didn’t sound right to me, so I persisted, and I found out that the lyric was written by Lew Brown for the Broadway review “George White’s Scandals of 1931.” (Pay attention, boys and girls. You can’t trust internet sources.)

When the song is performed now, it usually seems to recommend a carefree life, but Brown wrote it at the onset of the Great Depression when it had a different connotation. As is frequently the case with popular lyrics, these at least touch on pretty serious ideas: “The sweet things in life / to you are just loaned / so how can you lose / what you’ve never owned?”

RAY HENDERSON

Like Irving Berlin, Lew Brown was born in the latter 19th century in tsarist Russia, and like Berlin, his family brought him to New York City when he was child. Brown began writing songs when he was still attending Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and by 1912, when he was 19 years old, he had his first hit, “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” and he had another in 1916, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World (and I Was the Only Boy)”. The scores for both were written by Albert von Tilzner, with whom Brown collaborated on several other tunes. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” became an American standard, and it would be only one of many for which Brown — either solo or as a collaborator — provided the words. He teamed up for a long time with composer Ray Henderson, and together they wrote the song that prompted this blog and one of my favorites, “The Thrill is Gone,” which was also written for the “George White Scandals.” Other songs he had a hand in were “The Beer Barrel Polka,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” “Sonny Boy,” “It All Depends on You,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.”

Lew Brown — who was born Louis Brownstein — died in 1958, never expecting to help a tin-horn deacon preach the gospel. Thanks, Lew . . . for everything.