WashU Expert: Unplugging Kate Smith

Todd Decker on singer’s controversial early recordings

Kate Smith (1907-86) was the “songbird of the south” and “the First Lady of radio,” a 20th-century superstar whose decades-old recording of “God Bless America” was still being played during Philadelphia Flyer and New York Yankees home games.

But recently, both teams have distanced themselves from Smith after controversy erupted over two of her early recordings: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninnies Heaven.”

Todd Decker, chair of music in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told USA Today that the former, written by Broadway baritone Everett Marshall, “isn’t just racist in retrospect. It was openly criticized as racist by African American audiences in the early 1930s, too.”

As the paper notes:

“Singer Mildred Bailey received a wave of letters urging her to stop performing the song in 1931, according to Variety magazine, and African Americans called for radio stations to take it off the air. When a white actor hired by New Jersey’s governor tried to perform the song for an African American company of the New Jersey State Militia in 1935 — entertainment that was intended to boost morale — the soldiers booed and walked out, according to the Philadelphia Tribune.

“’There are other pop songs and other popular songs that a lot of revered performers have sung that express exactly the same set of ideas. They just don’t do it quite so blatantly,” Decker added. “A song like ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’ really reveals the deep racism in pop culture from this period that still is part of the landscape.’”

Read the full article here.

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