Does it matter that Bob Dylan wrote and sang a song in romanticized tribute to Joey Gallo, the Mafia murderer and thug? I’m just asking. I guess that was balanced out by the fact that Dylan also wrote and sang a song in defense of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the African-American boxer ruled to have been wrongfully convicted of murder after spending twenty years in prison. And, I suppose, Dylan, when writing and singing, can do no wrong, at least in this era. I’m sure another era will measure him by its standards and, if found culpable of socially dubious acts or pronouncements and if someone was foolish enough to erect a statue to him, he’ll become an enemy of the people and his statues defaced and pulled down and all his music burned. They’ll wonder how the Nobel Committee could ever have considered for their exalted prize someone who (FILL IN THE BLANK WITH ACTIONS, SUNG OR SPOKEN, DEEMED, IN DEEP RETROSPECT, TO BE OFFENSIVE TO THE PEOPLE OF THE LATE 21ST CENTURY)
So you say Dylan will always be alright. And I say again, for now.
Admittedly, I suppose I may be among the likely minority of people who worry about glorifying mafia thugs enough to feel Dylan needed redemption.
There is no such redemption available for Kate Smith, a very different type of performing artist but long one of the nation’s beloved and best-known singers of heartening and familiar songs. Her name also may be long lost on several generations of younger Americans who, hearing about the controversy that forced her out of the pantheon, may have looked her up on YouTube by now. She’s probably not their cup of tea — a smiling, full-figured decidedly Caucasian woman resembling their grandmothers with a mellow-if-conventional singing voice able to belt out or ease out songs as innocuous as “Down By the Old Mill Stream” — stuff that, when she was growing up in another era, was probably a staple among the reams of sheet music on the family’s upright piano. As was black face on stage. Yes, another time.
Are you familiar with Paul Robeson? He was one of the most famous African-American baritones of any time and, no doubt, suffered his share of discrimination, but prevailed and remains famous and beloved; recordings of his voice are to be treasured.
But as it happens, Paul Robeson has something in common with Kate Smith. Perhaps more than one thing, but one thing I cite for my purposes here: Both he and Kate, at one time, sang – and recorded for all time — a little ditty that has now been deemed racist. Kate’s singing “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” goes way back to 1931 (the dawn of recorded music). It is cringe-worthy. It is awful. It is a auditory sin of another time and I strongly suspect Kate Smith — and Paul Robeson — would have disowned it before the end of their lives if their singing of it were brought to their attention, as would Kate Smith be mortified by any recording of her singing “Pickaninny Heaven”, also going back to the Thirties when, after all, she was young.
As a small child in the early Fifties, I used to be joined by my next-door-neighbor Suzi Swike for an afternoon watching the puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, followed — if memory serves me correctly — by a half hour of Kate Smith singing ballads, followed by the Pinky Lee Show ( “Yoo-hoo, it’s me, my name is Pinky Lee…”) and his corn-pone, child-focused comedy. These were pre-Mickey Mouse Club days when there were only about four hours of afternoon television. Yes, ancient times. And Kate Smith was just a wonderful person, as far as we could tell.
I can still hear and see Kate on the (very) small black-and-white screen singing her show closer theme, “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain.” But she is most famous for having sung Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” when the nation needed a patriotic boost during the dark days of World War II.
Nonetheless, because she sang those old thoughtless ditties eighty plus years ago when she was young and the whole world of entertainment now and then fiddled inexplicably with the minstrel show convention of black face (like Al Jolson in the first movie “talkie” and Bing Crosby — at least the back-up orchestra – in the movie “Holiday Inn” which gave us the song “White Christmas”), Kate Smith has now been declared, if not a racist, guilty of racist acts or racial insensitivity. If she were alive, I suspect she’d agree, being in all respects a decent woman by reputation. The black face fad did linger too long in my memory even into shows at my local, all-white parish church minstrel shows in the early Sixties. No one thought about it being racist though – in retrospect – it was stupidly so. It was just the “tradition” or “convention” for that genre of shows. “Forgive them, Father, for they knew not what they did…”
In any event, for her long-ago lack of wokeness, the late Kate Smith’s statue was officially removed from in front of the Philadelphia Flyer’s home arena where it was meant to memorialize her singing of “God Bless America” and her entire long career h as been besmirched.
So what are the liberals saying in defense of this “chronological” wokeness? Well, Spencer Kornhaber, writing for TheAtlantic.com, says, “change is happening” and tells us to get used to it.
“What defenders of the status quo decry as nihilistic ‘cancel culture’,” says Kornhaber, “ is really a ‘culture of accountability.’”
But I guess Paul Robeson gets a pass, as will Dylan for absolutely anything he sings or says – for now. He always says and sings the right thing, right? Or so it will seem for the next eighty years or so. The people who will find reason to revile and “cancel” him are probably just being born.
There should be a statue of Paul Robeson somewhere. Happily, I’m sure it’s safe.