Let ‘Our Kate’ Smith rest in peace
The latest hubbub over racism in the United States comes from radio, recording, television and film star Kate Smith, who recorded a version of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America” in 1939 and is buried in her adopted Adirondack Mountain home of Lake Placid.
In short, the accusations of racism against “Our Kate” — as Placidians called her — and the reactions from national sports organizations based on those accusations are full of hypocrisy, double standards and lack of respect for a woman who died in 1986 and whose well-known generosity and kindness should be enough to atone for singing a couple of tasteless songs in her 20s. Moreover, the accusations are simply not true. We believe, based on conversations with the people who knew her in Lake Placid, that Smith was not a racist.
It is ironic that the backlash against Smith revolved around sensitivity — about race in this instance. Yet the accusers have shown no sensitivity toward Smith, who cannot defend herself from her mausoleum at the St. Agnes Cemetery.
The controversy began when the New York Yankees from Major League Baseball and the Philadelphia Flyers from the National Hockey League decided to suspend playing Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at games. Why? A fan complained about some questionable lyrics that Smith had sung during the 1930s.
In 1931, Smith recorded the popular “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown and featured the same year in George White’s Scandals, a long-running series of Broadway reviews. Taken literally, the song is filled with racist lyrics: “Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to pick the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That’s why darkies were born.”
Yet according to the New York Daily News, which first reported on the controversy last week, the song’s writers — both white — meant it as a satire of racism in America during the early 20th century. This is backed up by a 2011 SeattlePI column about the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup,” in which Groucho Marx referenced the song.
It was also recorded the same year by Paul Robeson, a black singer, actor and liberal political activist best known for his versions of “Ol’ Man River” from the 1927 musical “Showboat.” Was Robeson a racist because of his “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” record? Absolutely not.
Let’s be clear. We’re also uncomfortable listening to and publishing some of the lyrics Kate Smith recorded in “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven.” We would be riding the wave of protest against those songs if they were recorded today. But they weren’t. They were recorded more than 80 years ago — a time when black athletes couldn’t play in Major League Baseball and when discrimination and segregation were the norms in the U.S. Armed Forces and in many U.S. communities, particularly in the South.
Was Robeson a racist because his first recording of “Ol’ Man River” included the original lyrics that began with the “N” word? Hell no. In fact, he disliked it so much, he changed the lyrics to “Darkies all work on the Mississippi.”
Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson Jr., explained the singer’s relationship to “Ol’ Man River” in a 1999 interview with Newsweek. After recording the first version, Robeson said, “I’m sorry I did this.” Then came the movie in 1936.
“Dad really didn’t want to do it,” Paul Robeson Jr. said. “So Mother, who was very savvy and who was his manager and agent at the beginning of his career, asked for a price that was through the roof. And they said yes. So he had to do it. What he did, though, was change the lyrics again.”
That version became, “There’s an old man called the Mississippi.”
Should we now question the person who wrote the original lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” — New York City-born Oscar Hammerstein II? Was he a racist? Should we ban or boycott all of the musicals he co-wrote with composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers? The list includes “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!”
Should we boycott the Yankees or all the MLB teams that discriminated against black players before Jackie Robinson became the first person of his race to be signed to an MLB team — the Brooklyn Dodgers — in 1947? The Yankees didn’t add a black player to its roster until April 14, 1955, when Elston Howard entered the game at left field in the sixth inning.
How can America forgive MLB and its teams for their decades-long history of racial discrimination, yet they won’t forgive Kate Smith because of a couple of questionable songs she sang in the 1930s, a time when black baseball professionals could only play in the Negro leagues? Additionally, Negro league players weren’t added to the National Baseball Hall of Fame until 1971.
We’re not trying to attack MLB. We’re simply trying to put this Kate Smith controversy into perspective. There seems to be a double standard when it comes to the decision by the Yankees.
The Flyers went further, first covering up the statue of Smith in front of their arena and then removing it. Really? At a time when Confederate monuments, memorials and statues are being continually being removed from public places around the country, to remove a statue of Kate Smith in Philadelphia seems preposterous. Born in Virginia and growing up in Washington, D.C., Smith was called the “Songbird of the South,” but she was no Confederate general.
We see this as an overreaction, but we’re not asking the Flyers or Yankees to change their minds. That’s their business. It’s good to know about these songs, to discuss them and to remind ourselves of American’s ugly history of racism; it’s necessary for the long journey toward reconciliation.
But here in Lake Placid — where Kate Smith gave back so much to the community from 1935 until her death — we should remain faithful to her.
That means no covering up the Kate Smith memorial plaque at the municipal parking lot on Main Street, no removing her from the Lake Placid Hall of Fame, and no changing the name of the Rotary Club’s Kate Smith Scholarship for a Lake Placid High School junior or senior interested in studying music.
Please, let Kate Smith rest in peace. Punishing her won’t help our country reconcile.