By Robert Heide
Before every performance at the legendary Caffe Cino coffee house theatre on Cornelia Street, Joe Cino, the proprietor and guiding light for the plays presented there, would step forward under a spotlight, sometimes wrapped in an American flag, and introduce the play as it was about to start. Over the sound system the audience heard Kate Smith at full volume singing her signature song, “God Bless America.” Loud cheers were followed by many standing at attention and saluting while joining in with Smith, singing along in their loudest voices.
After my play Moon was presented there on Valentine’s Day, 1967, Michael Smith published it in an anthology entitled The Best of Off Off Broadway. In the book, in an introduction to my play, I included the following lines from another Kate Smith hit song Cino liked to play over and over again— “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain” (for which she actually wrote the lyrics). Here are a couple of lines:
Each day is dark and dreary
But the night is bright and cheery.
In her long career, which spanned several decades, Smith recorded hundreds of songs and issued dozens of albums. Cino, a Village night owl like myself, identified with her “moon” sentiments and told me Smith was his favorite, as were Rudy Vallee, “The Vagabond Lover,” and the opera diva Maria Callas. Sometimes he would play Madame Callas’s arias late at night till dawn’s early light.
I was reminded of all of this when reading recent articles vilifying Smith for racism, claiming that she sang racist songs in the early 1930s. Newspapers reported that now the New York Yankees as well as the Philadelphia Flyers, who had opened their games with Smith’s recording of “God Bless America”, decided to stop playing the popular patriotic classic altogether and covered her statue with a black tarp. Smith’s niece was reported to be shocked, and in the following days readers wrote letters to the editor expressing anger at the sports teams for their ignorance and discussing the “changing mores of history.”
One of the songs the teams criticized was “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was also sung by the stage and screen star and singer Paul Robeson. Blackface performers go back to early minstrel shows, and they were always seen as fun entertainment and were not regarded as disrespectful by audiences of those bygone days. Entertainers who performed in blackface makeup include the great Al Jolson, who put the George Gershwin song “Swanee” at the top of the charts. Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, and even Joan Crawford and many others in the movies did musical routines in blackface. It should be noted that it took a long, long time for the Yankees to hire Jackie Robinson to “play ball.”
Going back further into our historic past, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other early politicians kept slaves on their plantations. One journalist asked, “Should we change the name of Washington D. C. to satisfy this need in retrospect to point-the-finger?” In the ongoing furor, Steve Guzzo of the New York Post posed the question “If Kate Smith is prohibited for once singing a racist tune, must we not ban the memory of our own Founding Fathers?”
The mayor of the New Jersey shore town of Wildwood, Ernie Troiana Jr., announced that he would, as he always has in the past, continue to open boardwalk festivities and events every day during the season with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” sung by Smith over the giant, loud outdoor speakers. The tune first originated in George White’s Scandals of 1931.
The public has also expressed outrage that the great Berlin, because of his Jewish faith, should shout out in song about “God” blessing his newfound country. Berlin himself, in World War I Army uniform, sings his own very striking version of this patriotic song in the film This Is the Army (1943). In the movie, and with his blessing, he allowed Smith to introduce the song anew. It became her signature song at World War II Bond Drive rallies where she sold more bonds than any other individual in the country. During the war President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced Smith to the King of England with “Your Majesty, this is America!” Smith, known as the Song Bird of the South, was born on May 1st, 1907, and died on June 17th, 1986.
Robert Heide has written many articles for WestView News, and his books on American popular culture, co-authored with John Gilman, are available at Amazon, as is his latest publication, Robert Heide 25 Plays.