UKULELE MUSINGS 2020–No. 3–Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

UKULELE MUSINGS 2020–Number 3, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and “We Shall Overcome.”

Before we moved to “the 413” back in ’05, Alison and I had lived for many years in northern Virginia.  Settled in the early 1600s, the so-called “Old Dominion” was, needless to say, strong on historical reminiscences and commemorations.  So, in 1983, when the date for the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday was set, it was conjoined with two other statewide celebrations that had been on the state’s docket for years.  Virginians called this calendric convenience “Lee-Jackson-King” day—a curious amalgam of Civil War and Civil Rights history—observed until the year 2000.

What would Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., think about all that?  Go figure.  

Anyway, what does this have to do with ukuleles?  Well, for every photo in my file of an African American man, woman, or child playing a ukulele, I have found dozens depicting banjo players.  Sadly, too many of those are caricatures and way too many show whites in blackface makeup.  

Still, in the early half of the Twentieth Century, a ukulele appealed to young blacks as much as it did to young whites.  The attractiveness of an inexpensive, portable way to make music knew no boundaries.

Those banjo and blackface photos are testament to a history that should not be glossed over, but are not part of this special day.   So, for this posting, here are some photos of good folks having a good time making music in the past and—more importantly—today. 

And yes, they include ukuleles.  

Anyway, mid-January brings us one of the newest and most meaningful of all American remembrances—Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.  Newspapers and television will be full of the history of this man and the movement he led to bring civil rights issues to public attention, to congress, and to the law of the land.  

As meaningful as this is to us all—and since it will be thoroughly covered in other media—I’ll just stick with our theme and focus on a tiny facet of all this: music and, of course, the ukulele.

To begin with music, the phrase “Jim Crow,” with all its racial and civil rights connotations, had its origins in a song and dance routine from 1828 that was done in blackface makeup by a white minstrel performer, one  Thomas Dartmouth Rice.  

His song, “Jump Jim Crow,” is said to have been inspired by the singing and eccentric dancing of an African slave by that name.  In the cultural context of the early Nineteenth Century, Rice’s song—and its multiplicity of verses—became overwhelmingly popular as he performed all over the country as “Daddy Jim Crow”.

As a result of Rice’s fame and the popularity of his song, by the mid-Nineteenth Century the term “Jim Crow” had morphed from the merely comic into a pejorative meaning a black, negro, or African American.  

From this, laws enforcing racial segregation became known as “Jim Crow Laws.”  These were endemic in towns, counties, and states throughout much of the country.  

Rice’s song “Jump Jim Crow” was also a key initial step in a tradition of American popular music that was based on the imitation, if not outright mockery, of blacks. 

The first song sheet edition of this tune appeared in the early 1830s, and a couple of decades later this genre exploded in popularity with the rise of the blackface minstrel show.  

—and even in amateur theatricals.

A ukulele player who frequently appeared in blackface was Cliff Edwards, otherwise known as “Ukulele Ike.”  

The Duncan Sisters were a popular duo and there were, of course, many other performers with or without ukuleles.   

In retrospect, some of what was popular in the context of yesteryear’s popular music is not just unpopular today.  Rather, it is unconscionable–way beyond merely politically incorrect. 

Admittedly, this is a touchy topic for a posting.  I much prefer levity, but we cannot move forward without looking back and Martin Luther King, Jr., Day gives us that opportunity.   It is from history that we learn, even if filtered through the theme of music and our favorite little instrument.  We cannot sweep history under the rug.  We cannot unplay those songs.

But, here is one song we should play.

This is a song to play over and over again on this important day of remembrance of a great American, his life’s work, and the historical context of our still imperfect society.

Pete Seeger recorded this song back in the late 1940s. His version–the one we hear most often today–was based on an interpretation of an old gospel hymn he had heard in the 1930s sung by black tobacco workers in the fields of the South and a variation he had learned dating back to 1901 as sung in both black and white labor union meetings in the North. Here is his version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVQ6Y8szaBQ

Here, in keeping with the theme of these postings, is a simple ukulele instrumental of the Pete Seeger arrangement:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQWz7GxZZS4

And as a finale, the Moorhouse College Glee Club, in concert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aor6-DkzBJ0&list=PLcFKD5NPHkSxHjD0r-R7_qwwgE3vcCP63

We have a lot to overcome in our society. But, with the humble tools we have, we shall. When will our song be “We Overcame?”

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton, Mass.

Hi Fellow Strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. These are my personal thoughts, not those of any group or sponsor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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