Another icon bites the dust
If you are of my generation, you grew up listening to and loving Kate Smith on radio, then television. Known as the “first lady of radio” and the “songbird of the South,” she was the star of the popular “Kate Smith Hour” and spokeswoman for Jello-O, Studebaker and Pullman trains.
She became forever immortalized when she sang Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” in the 1943 wartime film “This Is the Army,” and a new generation came to know her when this patriotic song became the unofficial anthem for the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Yankees.
But now, both teams have announced that they will no longer play her recording of “God Bless America,” because Smith has joined the seemingly endless list of once revered performers who had done things that are no longer acceptable by today’s standards.
In Smith’s case, it was found that she had recorded two songs that contained racist lyrics.
“These lyrics do not reflect our values as an organization,” a Flyers’ statement said.
Along with that, the Flyers, who honored Smith in 1987, a year after she died at the age of 79, by erecting a statue that had been standing outside of their Wells Fargo Center arena, also announced that they removed the statue during the weekend. In a statement, the Yankees said that they take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously.
“While no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity,” the statement added.
Both songs were recorded 88 years ago at the start of Smith’s career. One was “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which peaked at number 12 on the Top 20 list of popular songs in 1931.
The lyrics were: “Someone had to pick the cotton/Someone had to plant the corn/Someone had to slave and be able to sing/That’s why darkies were born.”
The other was “Pickaninny Heaven,” which instructed “colored children” confined to an orphanage to dream about a magical place filled with “great, big watermelons.”
“Pickaninny” is defined as a small, black child too young to be a productive picker in the cotton fields and unflatteringly characterized in drawings and photos.
Smith also recorded the original lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home,” which in 1928 was adopted by the Kentucky state Legislature as the state’s official song and is sung annually to start the Kentucky Derby.
The lyrics include this opening: “The sun shines bright in my old Kentucky home/’Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”
In 1986, the Kentucky Legislature passed a resolution to substitute the word “people” for “darkies.” When Smith performed the song on March 20, 1969, on the Dean Martin Show with Mickey Rooney and Barbara Eden the original lyrics were used.
The flap over Kate Smith’s racial indiscretions made me reflect on my years at Summit Hill Junior High School (1951-1953) when we would gather once a week in the gymnasium and sing classic Americana songs for about 30 minutes.
“My Old Kentucky Home” and other famous Stephen Collins Foster songs with the original lyrics were sung without a second thought.
I also remember attending fundraising minstrels put on by local residents and attended by hundreds from the Panther Valley and surrounding area. White performers would blacken their faces with burned cork or greasepaint, dress in outlandish costumes and perform songs and skits that mocked black people.
Some of the most famous songs in America, including “My Old Kentucky Home,” began as minstrel songs.
I want to make it clear that I am not defending my actions nor those of my classmates, teachers and townspeople, but I wanted to point out that we, along with millions of others, were unwitting and unthinking parties to these events which were considered “normal” in that era. We are left to examine what we did, why we did it and, hopefully, understand why what we did then is no longer acceptable now.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org