Relistening to a Restoration.


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???

  • Scott

    My first answer, without trying to be flippant, about which white people would sing the lines would be those white people that need a job. Also, as you pointed out yourself, McGinn said Rogers & Hammerstein purposefully used the n-word to jolt people about the realities of life then. Changing the lyrics sanitizes it and allows people to be less honest about what really took place. The usage in the play doesn’t seem to be be divorced from the historical context so why feel guilty about it?

  • Scott

    My comment about the guilt (the wrong word) was more directed to Quad and her statement about the pain of the n-word being use in such beautiful music. I don’t think she should feel pain about it b/c to me it doesn’t necessarily serve a useful purpose. My feeling is that the jolt of the n-word being used in the music was to raise people’s consciousness about the realities of the time period in which the play was set and hopefully to inspire action (rather than make people feel bad/guilt) to change the realities of the time when the play was written.

  • kaya

    this makes me laugh because i remember my ancient high school music teacher tried to get us to sing music from this show. the choir was like 85% white. i remember some song about picking cotton being too rough “fo this po black chile…” then one day we mysteriously weren’t singing any of the songs anymore.
    it is beautiful music, but i definitely didn’t miss hearing that stuff being sung by a sea of caucasians.

  • michaelTO61

    What’s telling to me is that the WHOLE chorus walked the hell out. THAT signifies why the lyric was changed in the first place. For him to proceed in such a fashion, without giving a hoot and holler about the chorus’ feelings about the n-word smacked of white privilege to the nth degree. It’s not like the black chorus needed to hear that word in order be jolted. They heard it and bolted. It’s offensive. Period. I don’t care if it historically accurate or not. Anybody who knows anything about slavery knows the n-word was used indiscrimanantly.

    And what kind of white people would sing it? The same kind of white people that would be so culturally ignorant as to revive a hateful word, have his black chorus walk out, and not even apologize to the those said black artists for offending them. I have a name for those people but unlike said auteur I’m too much of gentleman to say it in this forum.