language and music

Today’s writing music had me drifting through old rock songs from my childhood on youtube. I came across the Ted Mulry Gang version of Darktown Strutters Ball, and while I listened, looked at the comments. One person commented about the distasteful song. I was puzzled by that, so clicked on the thread to read the responses, and she clarified by saying if people read the lyrics, they would find they were actually quite racist.

It’s a known fact that a lot of tunes from that era were indeed quite racist. However the history of this particular song – isn’t. The Darktown was an area in Chicago where mostly black people lived, and the Darktown Ball began by the ladies of the night from Darktown deciding enough was enough, they’d have a grand Ball, and dress up and show the world they were as good as anyone. It became a huge invitation only event, even the Mayor of Chicago couldn’t get in without an invite! The original songwriter, Shelton Brooks, captured how getting an invite to this grand Ball, was a social honour. Good music can do that, it can capture, in just a few words, the essence of an event, and immortalize it. Good lyrics are like telling a short story.

The song was a celebration of people at the bottom end of the social ladder, and what they achieved. It was written with respect and understanding. Modern sensibilities do, as they should, jerk away from calling a place Darktown these days, and they can find it distasteful that people did in the past. But a song like this should serve to remind people to never underestimate anyone.

And when I hear it, I’m back on the farm where I grew up, when all that mattered to me was that I like the rocked up version 🙂

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