The other day I was reading a new biography, Ray Connolly’s “Being John Lennon: A Restless Life,” when I came upon a passage in which Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ brilliant yet self-destructive manager, announced he would write his autobiography.
It was eventually titled “A Cellarful of Noise.” But when Epstein asked Lennon what title he’d recommend, the acerbic Beatle responded, without missing a beat, “Queer Jew.” Later, Lennon joked that Epstein’s book should’ve been titled, “A Cellarful of Boys.” (It should also be noted that during recording sessions for the Beatles’ tune “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” Lennon changed a line in the chorus to “Baby You’re A Rich Fag Jew,” playfully alluding to Epstein.)
Despite the sainthood bestowed upon him since he was killed in December of 1980, Lennon — God rest his soul — was known for his sharp, often mean-spirited tongue and irreverent sense of humor. Even if it meant offending minorities, women, the mentally and physically disabled, or any other group he deemed worthy of ridicule, disdain and envelope-pushing.
Was John Lennon, one of my personal heroes, an anti-Semite or a homophobe? Perhaps. At the very least, he was known to occasionally utter anti-Semitic or homophobic remarks.
Does that mean I should stop listening to the Beatles? Or – as they did back in ’66 after John’s infamous “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remark – should I destroy my copies of “Meet the Beatles!” and “Rubber Soul”?
Don’t count on it.
Now we hear that the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers have announced they will discontinue their long-standing traditions of playing Kate Smith’s classic rendition of “God Bless America” at their games. The Flyers have even removed a statue of the iconic singer that stood outside of the team’s venue since 1987.
Why suddenly the rebuking and banishing of Kate Smith, who died in 1986 at age 79, and her patriotic anthem, which was penned by a Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin during World War I and revised prior to World War II? (A song that reportedly inspired Woody Guthrie to write the far superior, in my opinion, “This Land Is Your Land.”)
And by the way, when was the last time you even heard anyone mention Kate Smith?
It seems that a Yankees fan recently alerted the team that Smith recorded at least two racially offensive songs in the early ‘30s – “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven” – that are well beyond the pale by our contemporary standards. They’re absolutely disgusting and appalling.
“The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously,” said a team spokesman. “And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
In a statement, Paul Holmgren, president of the Flyers, said, “The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for. As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”
I remember as a little kid hearing Smith’s maudlin, over-the-top version of “God Bless America” when the local TV stations signed off every night (back when they used to do that kind of thing). In my mind, even back then, Smith was strictly cornball and pathetically old-school, like Lawrence Welk and his ilk, a throwback to my parents’ generation.
But Smith – who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982 from President Reagan — left an important legacy. During World War II, she helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the government’s wartime efforts. It is said that no other American entertainer – not even Bob Hope! – came close to Smith in generating revenue to finance the war operation against the Nazis and Imperialistic Japan.
None of this is to make any excuses or justifications whatsoever for such horrific, painful songs as “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” (the latter of which was also recorded by the great African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson). In the strongest terms, we must condemn all works of art and materials — of any era — that espouse offensive and bigoted sentiments.
But at the same time, we need to view these matters in the historical context in which they were originally presented and not through the prism of our own modern (and hopefully more enlightened) sensibilities.
Should I stop reading Hemingway because the character of Robert Cohn in his classic 1925 novel “The Sun Also Rises” is characterized as a “kike” and a “rich Jew”? No, I view it in the context of the times in which it was written. That’s not the same as giving someone a pass, but looking at the bigger picture and how far we’ve come.
“I’m appalled,” Kate Smith’s niece, Suzy Andron, told a Philadelphia TV affiliate. “Aunt Katherine was probably one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. She was certainly anything but a prejudice person. She loved everybody.”
I’ll give Andron (and Smith) the benefit of the doubt on that one. And I’ll also forgive John Lennon (not that he needs my forgiveness) for making a few repugnant comments about Jews, gays and others over the course of his lifetime. After all, let’s be honest — who hasn’t made comments during a particular era that they wish they could take back?
I appreciate the cultural sensitivity that we’re trying to convey in a world rife with hatred, scapegoating and small-mindedness. (Did someone mention Charlottesville and equivocation?) I’m just not sure that condemning a deceased entertainer who sang a couple of insipid and offensive songs (that she didn’t write) nearly nine decades ago is the best way to do it.
In fact, if nothing else, it only gives more fuel to those opposed to the noble intentions of what we call “political correctness” and living in a polite, respectful and equitable society.