This special bits & bobs was actually a subject I started to write about a few years ago. I had placed it on the shelf amongst my " I'll get back to it" cogitations. It was brought back to the forefront by a post from a FB friend. She had posted the lyrics to STEELY DAN'S "Pretzel Logic" which she had found very problematic.
"I would love to tour the Southland in a traveling minstrel show"
These lyrics certainly bring to mind unsettling images of Blackface. Especially viewed through the lens of 2018.
I grew up in the 60's and 70's, so I will be speaking about the songs from that era, because I remember them so vividly.
My family has always been involved in Activism and the push for Civil rights. My parents lived in the South, the Jim Crow laws were still being enforced, MLK & Malcolm X were still alive when I was growing up. The Vietnam War was in it's worst years. I had two brothers over there. The streets and the radio waves were filled with protest songs.
Music was, and still is a major part of my life. There was always music playing in our living room, blaring out of our large Stereo console. Music from every genre filled our house, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, The Young Rascals, Junior Walker, Elton John, Sonny & Cher, Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clark Five..the list goes on & on. I know we sang along & danced to some of the songs that definitely would be considered problematic today.
Even my absolute favorite, Elton John would not escape today's scrutiny. A few of his songs might be considered racist or seen as stereotyping or fetishizing Black Women. Songs like
"ISLAND GIRL" (1975) "Shes black as coal/but she burn like fire/and she wrap herself around you/like a well worn tire/feel her nails scratch yo back just like a rake/ she one mo' gon'/ she want mo' john/ who make da mistake."
Or: "INDIAN SUNSET" (1971) which uses the slur "squaw"
"I take only what is mine lord/my pony, my squaw and my child."
Also: Loretta Lynn's "YOUR SQUAW IS ON THE WARPATH"
Absolutely everything is problematic in this song. The pseudo "Indian" music, the stereotypes, the slurs....just...everything.
"Well, that fire-water you been drinking/makes you feel bigger/but chief you're shrinking/Now don't hand me that ole peace pipe/your squaw is on the warpath tonight."
Also "MY FATHER'S GUN" (1970) A song that is one of my favorites. I have sung it in front of audiences at least 10 times. Madeline Bell even sings backing vocals for Elton on this song that seems to glorify the Confederacy.
"I laid his broken body down/below the Southern land/it wouldn't do to bury him/where any Yankee stands/I'll take my horse & ride the Northern plain/to wear the color of the greys & join the fight again/I'll not rest until I know the cause is fought & won."
Bob Dylan, a staunch Activist , might have raised an eyebrow or two had he released "I WANT YOU" (1966) today.
"Well, I return to the queen of spades/and talk with my chambermaid/She knows that I'm not afraid to look at her/she is good to me/she knows where I'd like to be."
Would PAUL REVERE & THE RAIDERS "INDIAN RESERVATION"(1971) get a pass? It seems to pay "homage" to Native Americans, but is rife with stereotypes.
How about Brian Hyland's "GYPSY WOMAN" (1970) or Cher's GYPSY'S. TRAMPS & THIEVES" or "DARK LADY" all of which stereotype & also use the derogatory term "gypsy" to describe the Romani people. Also Cher's "HALF-BREED" which is multi-level problematic.
Thinking about the racial & ethnic connotations of these songs, the question becomes, where do they fit in today's consciousness, or do they fit at all? Does the climate of earlier decades excuse these songs? The answer is difficult & personal. The Civil Rights movement was just gaining momentum in the 60's & 70's. It is an ever evolving process, which we are still navigating today. Back then we were just starting to make our voices heard and speaking up about systemic racism and deciding for ourselves what we would and wouldn't tolerate any longer.
"PRETZEL LOGIC" which started me back on this chain of thought, was released in 1974. I know I sang along with it, when it was first released. The lyrics seem ask the question I'm posing: "Those days are gone forever/they say times are changing/but I just don''t know."
I would like to think that today, Donald Fagan and the late Walter Becker would be "woke" & sensitive to the connotation of the word "minstrel".
Where we place these songs, is the conundrum. Some of these songs, for me are like time stamps of my life. They bring back sense memories of good & bad times.I still sing some of these songs today, so this post by no means seeks to answer that qustion for anyone. But make no mistake, I have NO such ambiguity when it comes to the intentional Racism of a lot of "Southern Rock". It gets a hard Nope with a side of Hell Naw for yesteryear, way back when, way, way back when & now....I'm still side-eyeing you, Brad Paisley and your "ACCIDENTAL RACIST"