A couple of weeks ago, I heard a replay of Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with John McGlinn, a conductor and musical historian who died Feb. 14. McGlinn found lost songs and original orchestrations for several musicals and re-recorded them. Among his restorations was a recording of the musical Show Boat.
Show Boat, if you’re not up on your musicals, premiered in 1927 and depicts the lives of those who worked on a fictional Mississippi River showboat from 1880 to contemporaneous times. It’s widely credited with being the first true American musical play, and you probably are most familiar with the song “Ol’ Man River.”
The play also originally began like this: “Niggers all work on the Missippi/Niggers all work white the white folks play.” It was later changed to “Coloreds,” and then even later to this: “Here we all work on the Mississippi.”
McGlinn, in 1988, restored it to the original and recorded it. He said Hammerstein, you know, of Rogers and Hammerstein, who wrote the lyrics, used the word deliberately. Not because that was just a word people used then, but because he felt there was no way for theater-going society to know what it was like for black people only a few years removed from slavery to work on the Mississippi. Hammerstein wanted to jolt them out of their comfort zone, and McGlinn wanted to do that, too. He felt that restoring the word was not only the most accurate way to approach the recording, but also the most socially responsible.
And it’s been bothering me since. Is this ok? The black chorus he hired to sing for the recording did not think so. All walked out, and he had to hire a white chorus to sing it.* I steer clear of all topics relating to the n-word. I feel I have no authority to speak about it at all, or even to tip-toe around it in the slightest. There’s no way I can ever truly appreciate the topic, and so I’m bound to put my foot in my mouth. Or, I’m afraid to put my foot in my mouth, and therefore won’t engage in an honest, open dialogue. I hate hearing it, and I especially hate hearing it divorced from any kind of historical context. I occasionally weigh in on the word and its use with much trepedation, but it will only be in a conversation regarding fiction or movies. And even then, it’s usually to seek clarification.
So I didn’t want to post about it either, until I finally decided I had to. Because the use here is interesting to me. There are plenty of reasons why the appropriation argument might fail, and there are plenty of reasons why you wouldn’t want a use that might seem to condone it to fall on the wrong ears. The afternoon of the Fresh Air broadcast, I felt that it was painful to hear such a hateful word rise out of such beautiful music. Then, I can’t help thinking; maybe that’s not such a bad thing for the kind of person who would regularly listen to NPR to feel, especially as they’re doing their routine errands on a Connecticut afternoon?
* Who are the white people who would sing it???