UKULELE MUSING 31, 3 AUGUST 2019—“ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH,” A SIMPLE SONG WITH A COMPLEX STORY TO TELL
This bright song found on the last page of our Yellow Book was featured in the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South.” The film combined animation and live action to bring to the screen many folk tales of the South as collected by the 19th century Georgia newspaper writer and editor Joel Chandley Harris (1848-1908).
These were classic tales collected over the years by Harris who began publishing these in 1879. His books and stories were widely read and beloved by generations of American children.
I remember reading the stories from books in my school library, seeing the movie two or three times (only 25 cents plus a dime for a box of popcorn!) and happily singing this snappy tune over and over in school and camp during the “sweet old days” of my youth.
“Zipp-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in a movie in 1947 and the film was a huge financial success at the time.
The film was set on a plantation in Georgia in the years after the Civil War and featured stories narrated by an older, former slave living on the property, “Uncle Remus.” Harris’s stories were written in the vernacular dialect of the times and introduced readers to characters like “B’rer Rabbit,” “B’rer Fox,” “B’rer Bear,” “Tar Baby,” and a host of other zoomorphic creatures and their antics, adventures, and simple lessons in morality.
Harris’s stories, mostly originating from the African-American oral storytelling tradition,
were revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personages, and true-to-life landscapes and were lauded by contemporaries like Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.
But, that was then; this is now.
Even when first screened, “Song of the South” became the subject of controversy with some critics describing the film’s portrayal of African-Americans as racist stereotypes and the plantation setting as idyllic and glorified—cinematic artifacts of its time and place. That’s why the Disney Studio has never released a video format of the film for showing in the United States.
The cartoon characters from the film are still found in books and other media and show up in the Disney theme parks, but don’t look for the movie on Netflix or HBO.
So, as “homework,” any of you who would like to learn more about the early accolades heaped upon Joel Chandler Harris and his pioneering work as a folklorist of the South—and the scorn in which his work is seen by many of the woken today—can Google for information just like I have.
It would make for an interesting evening’s read and discussion.
Meanwhile, let’s just focus on the little tune in our Yellow Book.
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was composed by Allie Wrubel (1905-1973) with lyrics by Ray Gilbert (1912-1976). These two white songwriters collaborated on many of the Disney and other Hollywood songs of the era and our song is considered by many as one of the top tunes of American cinema. The song can trace its origins to a pre-Civil War blackface minstrel song—one of multiple variations of “Turkey in the Straw”—with a chorus: “Zip a duden duden duden, zip a duden day.” Again, Google if you would like to delve into this a bit deeper and listen to versions of the original song.
In the movie, the song is sung to the children—both black and white—living on or visiting the plantation by the character Uncle Remus, played by the actor James Baskett (1904-1948).
Set during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the story follows a seven-year-old white boy who is visiting his grandmother’s plantation. He befriends other children—black and white—on the plantation, and all are mesmerized by the tales told by the avuncular Uncle Remus.
Baskett Original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kpWM292c1Q
In 1948, Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, the first black male performer to receive an Oscar.
In a sad footnote to film history, however, Baskett was not allowed to attend the 1946 theater premier of the film in Atlanta, a city racially segregated by law.
The stories preserved by Joel Chandler Harris, and the Disney movie “Song of the South,” are part of our American heritage even though they deal with a period in our history we might rather forget. To me, however, forgetting history is seldom a good idea. But, beyond the context and controversy surrounding the movie, the song “Zip A-Dee-Doo-Dah” lives on in many musical interpretations. So, pick and choose a favorite and have a “wonderful feeling” and a “wonderful day!”
Jackson Five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uza33915sP0
Louis Armstrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX35fJH46xY
Boston Pops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNo44y933Co
And, let’s not throw the (tar) baby out with the bath water.