Why the Exile of Kate Smith is the Ultimate in Duplicity

[Note: Typically I link my writings directly to the publication to read. This week over at The Daily Times, I covered the Kate Smith saga, but since there is a paywall, have included the piece in its entirety below for non-subscribers as I think it raises some important points.]

The eradication of Kate Smith and her revered version of “God Bless America” by the New York Yankees and Flyers – the latter who went so far as to cloak a team-dedicated statue of the singer in black before moving the structure – is the very essence of hypocrisy.

No matter which side you are on, it has to be acknowledged there is a serious double standard in place, one that is convenient for multicultural inclusiveness on one hand, yet utterly ignorant on the other. Because, if Kate Smith is going to be banned, then a long, hard look needs to be taken at The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses – just to name a few.

Go to any sporting event and you’re going to hear a bounty of songs by that particular trio of bands. “Start Me Up,” “Rock and Roll” and “Welcome to the Jungle” are only a partial list of their arena and stadium standards. Like Smith, those artists have performed songs with a clearly racist tinge. Unlike Smith, they haven’t been addressed on a grand scale to date.

One of the greatest albums by the Stones, Sticky Fingers, kicks off with “Brown Sugar,” the lead single which topped the singles charts when it was released in 1971. It contains the opening verse, “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/Sold in the market down in New Orleans/Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright /Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”

Subsequently, frontman and song co-writer Mick Jagger howls, “Brown Sugar, how come you dance so good/Brown Sugar, just like a black girl should.” He changes the up lyrics to “Brown Sugar” when he sings it live these days, which is basically an admission to his follies, omitting some of the more tone-deaf portions, like how a black girl should dance.

Several years later, Jagger was back at it on the title track to their 1978 LP Some Girls where he belts out the line, “Black girls just wanna get [expletive] all night.” Rightfully, it landed the group and their record label in hot water, but they defended it as parody. Interestingly, the same defense is being used for the songs Smith sang, yet while her statue is being uprooted, the Rolling Stones are planning makeup dates on their current stadium tour of North America.

Let that sit for a moment.

Led Zeppelin have been proven guilty of mining lyrics and melodies from the Delta blues musicians they admired so much but failed to credit on their albums. Settled lawsuits fixed that, but the questionable lines remain.

The closing number on the 1970’s Led Zeppelin III is “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” an ode to a folk musician friend, with the main groove a rip off of Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” from 1937. It’s the lyrics though, where singer Robert Plant cuts and pastes from various Delta blues songs, that is put together in a way which is absolutely mind-numbing upon closer inspection.

“Well I ain’t no monkey/I can’t climb no tree/No brown skin woman gonna make no monkey out of me,” he intones with a voice drenched in feedback and effects. One inferred translation is that the black woman is a monkey, and unlike here, the orator will not be turned into one. Of course, the word “monkey” can have different meanings, but using it in such close proximity to a “brown skin woman” is a recipe for disastrous complication.

Neither the Stones nor Zeppelin faced much fallout for those lyrics then or now. Guns N’ Roses were another story. A record label desperate to capitalize on their smash 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction resulted in a pair of EPs combined to make 1988’s G N’ R Lies LP, containing the acoustic composition “One in a Million,” presenting the lyrics, “Police and n—ers, that’s right/Get outta my way/Don’t need to buy none of your/Gold chains today.”

The ensuing firestorm led Guns frontman Axl Rose to defend himself in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said, perhaps showing his youthful immaturity, “I used words like police and n—ers because you’re not allowed to use the word n—er. Why can black people go up to each other and say, “N—er,” but when a white guy does it all of a sudden, it’s a big put-down.”

Fickle media from the period moved on fairly quickly to other stories, but “One in a Million” came up again recently when GNR released an expanded box set of Appetite for Destruction and the track was excised, while the rest of Lies was included.

“We collectively decided that it just didn’t have any place in that box set,” guitarist Slash, whose late mother was black, told Rolling Stone. “It didn’t take long. There wasn’t a big roundtable thing over it.”

The Yankees and Flyers respective decisions to cut ties with Kate Smith, who rose to prominence during World War II when her celebrity status helped raise approximately $600 million in war bonds for the United States, stems from what are now deemed racist lyrics she sang in the early 1930s. The compositions, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven,” were written by noted songwriters of the era, with Smith’s versions released in 1931 and 1933 respectively.

Lyrics in the first song that say, “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,” are jarring. “Pickaninny” itself is a derogatory term for a small black child, and that track imagines them in heaven, “Where great big watermelons roll around.”

To say the climate surrounding prejudice then was not the same as today is an insult to the expression “times were different,” which is one of the primary arguments from those uproarious about the controversy, many who are calling the outcry “political correctness gone amok” and a “knee-jerk reaction.” Some supporters of the move by the Yankees and Flyers have expressed disgruntlement as well, openly wondering what took so long. Others, including the editorial board of this very newspaper, have applauded the outcome, praising it as “the right call.”

Smith’s transgressions likely did require a roundtable for the sports organizations to make a ruling. Our hometown hockey team said in a statement regarding her expulsion, “The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for. As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”

Understood. But when is the dialogue going begin about what by that measure should be perceived as lyrically racist crimes of the 1970s and 80s? It probably won’t happen, and the two sets of rules will continue to apply.

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2019 online edition and April 26, 2019 print edition of The Daily Times.

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