God Bless America

I have been pondering the recent furore over the discovery that a long-dead super star, who recorded some 3, 000 songs during a long and illustrious career, had recorded two with lyrics that now are viewed as racist. Those songs were entitled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Picaninny Heaven”. So who exactly is this deceased wrongdoer?

Kathryn (“Kate”) Smith was a exceptionally gifted woman, with a long and distinguished musical career. She was a contralto with an unusually wide range, a mezzo really, who never had formal training. She was brought up in Washington, and began singing as a child with her local church. Her parents did not want her to go into the entertainment world, but at age 17 she went on the stage.

She was statuesque: 5 foot 10. She was also considerably overweight, and understandably suffered at the experience of being cast in a musical, in which casually cruel jokes were directed at her girth. This reduced her to many outbursts of tears offstage. An unkind reviewer also commented on her size.

Nowadays she would be regarded as a victim of prejudice, to some degree, herself. Fortunately, a representative of Columbia Records, a Mr Collins, saw her perform, and transformed her career almost overnight. He advised her to concentrate on singing and radio broadcasts.

This proved the making of Smith, and Collins helped manage her career for the rest of her life. She hosted a popular radio show and later a TV show. One of her many illustrious guests was the legendary Josephine Baker. Smith became known as “The First Lady of Radio”.

One recording which Smith made of a song by Irving Berlin, “God Bless America”, achieved such iconic status that both she and Berlin donated their royalties to the American Scout Movement: a generous and patriotic gesture.

President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982, the highest civilian honour in the United States, by which time she was aged 75, frail, and in a wheel-chair. Reagan called her “a lady who is very dear to Americans everywhere”, commenting, “Kate always sang from the heart”. With hindsight, she may conceivably have become a target for opponents of the Republican Party, and especially now when opposition to Trump is so intense.

Unlike many stars, Smith lived quietly and never married. She later converted to Catholicism. She enjoyed cooking and, after one unsuccessful attempt at serious dieting (she weighed about 17 stone), she decided that she would rather enjoy her food and live life as she was. Good for her.

During the Second World War, she raised a massive amount in Government Bonds from the public, worth $10.2 billion in today’s money, and gained the title “Songbird of the South” for her singing to American troops. In later life, she became badly depressed following her mother’s death, and stopped performing for some years.

But her life picked up again and, by a happy chance, a hockey team named the Philadelphia Flyers played her rendition of “God Bless America” before a match, which it proceeded to win, in 1969.

Smith was then prevailed on to perform the song ahead of another fixture some years later, and the Flyers won again! A recording of her performance, when the Flyers played Canada in 1976, shows a grey-haired and bespectacled woman in great voice, evidently enjoying the fans’ rapturous reception.

This seemed to be a winning streak for them both. The Flyers even erected a statue to her, following her death in 1986 aged 79.

And so matters may have rested quietly, until some officious busybody started combing through her back catalogue, and chanced upon two recordings which she made whilst still a rising star in her twenties.

The “Darkies” song (1931) originates in Broadway revue. The lyrics were written by Raymond Brost and Louis Brownstein aka Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, two highly successful lyricists for Tin Pan Alley. Presumably, they are next on the list to be “unpersoned”.

And yet, in its day, this was a very popular song. It was covered by the stellar Paul Robeson, who enjoyed a parallel career as a civil rights activist; by a hard working soul named Frank Munn (dubbed “The Golden Tenor of Radio”), and by a jazz singer of Native American descent, named Mildred Butler. Expect them to join Smith in a twenty-first century Hall of Shame.

The other song was called “Picaninny Heaven” and came from a strange-sounding musical eco-film by Paramount Pictures, “Hello, Everybody!” (Smith’s radio catchphrase) about some farmers whose land a power company wants to buy, so it can flood the land and generate power. So far, so woke.

The song was composed by a highly successful Broadway team, composer Arthur Johnston (who composed “Pennies from Heaven”) and popular lyricist Sam Coslow. This combo’ was highly respected, and wrote for a number of Bing Crosby films.

Today, Coslow’s lyrics seem crassly and offensively stereotypical in their portrayal of a heaven for black children.

All I will say is that Smith was not the author and, without having seen the film (which seems to have been a failure, despite costing $20million – an astronomical sum in those days), it is not possible to say if this was the film’s nadir. One would need to comb contemporary reviews to assess how the film was received.

The discovery of these two songs in Smith’s back catalogue has, predictably, resulted in much condemnation, sadly much of it devoid of historical realism or perspective.

The Flyers were understandably unhappy at this unexpected adverse publicity for their long-dead star supporter. First, they covered Smith’s statue (possibly fearing that “woke” activists might vandalise it?), and then removed it from public display, citing “sensitivity”. And they have dispensed with her iconic anthem.

What a wretched business. But is it fair to blame a long-dead performer, because of a couple of recordings made nearly a century ago? And what would Smith have made of the controversy, if she were still alive? She appears to have been a down to earth and relatively unassuming soul. Doubtless, she would be mortified.

This episode serves to illustrate what the historian Herbert Butterfield once called “the Whig view of history”, in which the past is blamed for not being more like the present. This is as facile as it is futile.

What has happened has happened. And as another historian Jonathan Sumption emphasised in an illuminating lecture for BBC Radio 4 entitled “Don’t Apologise”, we now over-simplify the past by forgetting the complexities of past lives (including the moral dilemmas that people faced), instead seeing only a parade of misdeeds to be condemned.

All we can, realistically, do is to understand why and how past events occurred, and to learn from them.

Thus, there is no reason why the present Flyers should be assigned inherited guilt, or have to engage in ritual handwringing for performances which Smith had given decades before her association with them began, and for which they cannot sensibly be held responsible. Dead lyricists and producers, and a host of others stand to be implicated by this inquisition into the past.

As for Smith, she would have been presented with a script, for the musical film. To what extent she had any directorial control or “right of veto” is unclear. It is probably unlikely that she had much, if any, given the way that producers and film studios operated at the time. Do not forget that the unusually combative Bette Davis lost her test case to escape Warner Brothers’ contract in 1937.

We do not know if Smith had private reservations about these lyrics, or whether her perception of her role was simply to perform them as well as she could. Some highly successful professionals (like Davis) appear to thrive on conflict; others prefer to avoid disagreement and confrontation, wherever possible.

It is all very well sticking your head above the parapet, but it is only a successful ploy, if your public can be counted to stand by you over a point of principle. In the 1930s, the world of entertainment was not politicised to the degree to which it is today.

As in all walks of life, many prefer to opt for a path of least resistance for understandable reasons of self-preservation, rather than be branded as trouble-makers.

So, whilst it is tempting to condemn the singer for the song, this seems unfair, especially as dead performers cannot give their side of the story. Really, what the present rush to condemn involves is a form of easy virtue-signalling: “look how much more enlightened society is today”.

Is it, though? Let’s face it, Americans from the 1930s would be appalled by many aspects of modern culture. I don’t suppose Smith would be impressed by, say, Miley Cyrus’ gyrations, or The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”. Or that she would warm to the overt aggression of some rap lyrics (don’t get me started on “drill” music).

So, let those who are without sin cast the first stone.