Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

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In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to: dcmusicbox@earthlink.net.

 

February 10, 2019

Ralph Northam should not resign.

I do not think that the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, should resign. The people who want him to do so are frightened politicians who are ignorant of the history of their own culture.

To begin with, blackface means minstrelsy. It is almost within living memory that minstrelsy was the most popular form of public entertainment in the USA, so popular that white performers blacked up to get a piece of the action. Al Jolson (1886-1950) was one of the biggest stars of the 20th century, famous for blacking up ('My Mammy', 'Swanee' etc). Two successful biopics were made: young Larry Parks played Jolson, who sang in the soundtracks of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), and Parks blacked up in both of them. (Teenagers bought Jolson's records, because they thought he looked like Parks.)

The career of Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) lasted until TV appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. She blacked up as a youngster, and remained a coon-shouter, though the term went out of fashion. The new pop songs of the late 19th-early 20th century evolved from minstrelsy and ragtime; they were called coon songs, and were an advance, because they were written in the vernacular that people actually spoke ('Some Of These Days', 'After You've Gone') as opposed to the polite parlor songs of the likes of Carrie Jacobs Bond. The black songwriter Ernest Hogan (1865-1909) came from minstrelsy to write 'All Coons Look Alike To Me', about a black girl who dumps her boyfriend for another guy with more money. Hogan may not have lived long enough to be embarrassed by his own biggest hit, but the word 'coon' wasn't offensive when he used it.

If you grew up in the modern world, especially in the South I should think, you deny or ignore your own past at your peril. By the 1980s blackface must have been a joke. The Ku Klux Klan was certainly not funny in the 1870s or in the 1920s, but did the the ridiculous costume have to be taken seriously by college kids in the 1980s? If Northam blacked up to imitate Michael Jackson, and others did it to imitate rappers, that was because they admired the music, just as their ancestors admired minstrelsy. And what about that page in Northam's college yearbook? (I have a yearbook, but it's not 'mine'; I share with a couple of hundred other kids.) Who produced and designed the yearbook? Who chose the pictures? How is any of this Northam's fault?

No, Northam should not resign. He has shown himself to be a man of the right sort, which is how he got elected in the first place. He should tough it out, telling the guardians of ignorance that they are the ones who are intoterant.