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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Was Decision to Make Black Student Sing 'Old Man River' Bad -- or Horrific?

Posted By on Wed, Apr 28, 2010 at 12:01 AM

In March, Moraga's St. Mary's College earned the national spotlight due to its plucky, personable basketball team. Well, that was last month and this is this month: St. Mary's received a wag of the nation's finger due to a music professor being disciplined after inexplicably making a black student sing a racially charged song.

Here's the rub, though: Due to journalistic political correctness, we can't tell if Professor Louis Lebherz' decision to make senior E.J. Youngblood sing "Old Man River" was bad -- or historically bad.

Newspaper accounts refer to Lebherz ordering up the "original version" of the song. And yet, there have been many versions of "Old Man River," so it's tough to tell if they really mean the original, 1927 version. Because if Lebherz -- who had not returned messages from SF Weekly -- selected that ditty, he was selecting this:

Niggers all work on de Mississippi
Niggers all work while de white folks play
Pullin' dose boats from de dawn to sunset
Gittin' no rest till de judgement day
That's not a song I'd like to be playing on my radio while idling at a crowded intersection.

In fact, Youngblood isn't the first black singer to object to these lyrics. The version sang by the magnificent Paul Robeson atop this article comes from the 1936 film version of Showboat; Robeson substituted "darkies" for "niggers" -- which may or may not constitute an improvement. In a long career of singing this song, Robeson later rewrote many of the more demeaning lyrics. Later Broadway versions used the term "colored people." Even later versions still omitted "white boss" in favor of "rich boss." And so on. 

Perhaps the larger point is, this song's original lyrics were considered offensive even during the Jim Crow era. Lebherz hasn't gotten back to us, so we have no idea what he was thinking.

It's all too apparent, however, what media outlets were thinking by using vague terms such as "racial epithet" and "derogatory terms." We get it -- these are bad words. Yet it's impossible to have mature discussions about race if we're kept in the dark about what the hell was actually said -- for our own good, apparently.

If this subject is serious and adult, please treat us like serious adults.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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