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Kate Smith Sang Racist Songs. But a Jersey Shore Town Will Not Abandon Her ‘God Bless America.’ - The New York Times

Posted by George Manley on April 25, 2019
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Kate Smith Sang Racist Songs. But a Jersey Shore Town Will Not Abandon Her ‘God Bless America.’ - The New York Times

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At the height of summer, when the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J., is mobbed by beach-loving visitors, pretty much everything comes to a halt at 11 a.m.

That’s when the sunscreen-drenched crowd falls silent, the cacophony of loud voices replaced by a patriotic medley blasted from the boardwalk’s loudspeakers — “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ followed by Kate Smith’s famous version of “God Bless America.’’

The daily ritual, rooted in national pride, is a beloved local tradition. But it has now come under scrutiny after recent revelations that Smith’s recording catalog featured racist songs.

Nevertheless, the town’s mayor, Ernie Troiano Jr., insists that Wildwood had no plans to silence Smith.

“It is one of the most patriotic songs that was ever recorded,” Mr. Troiano said. “Why would I want to change tradition?”

The mayor’s stance differed from recent decisions by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing Smith’s version of the song at their games after each team learned about the offensive songs, which were recorded in the 1930s.

Smith, who died in 1986, was one of the most popular singers of her time. She recorded almost 3,000 songs during her career, according to her obituary in The New York Times, but was most closely associated with “God Bless America.”

The song was written by Irving Berlin during World War I but was first performed by Smith on her radio show in 1938. Her recording became so popular that it practically was an unofficial second national anthem.

Starting in 1969, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team began playing Smith’s “God Bless America,” substituting it for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games.

Smith also performed the song live at many Flyers games, including the one in which the team won its first Stanley Cup in 1974. Her association with the team became so strong that the Flyers erected a statue of the singer in front of their arena in 1987.

But beyond “God Bless America,” Smith’s recording library was extensive. Like many white singers of her time, she sang songs that most modern-day listeners would find offensive. Those included two songs with titles and lyrics that demean black people, “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was also recorded by the African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson.

After a fan alerted the Yankees to the songs, the team said it would stop playing Smith’s version of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. The Flyers followed suit, saying the songs were incompatible with the team’s values. The team also removed Smith’s statue outside its arena, though officials would not say where they took it.

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