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.
Mr. Troiano’s spirited defense of preserving his town’s custom has placed Wildwood in the middle of a national cultural debate about political correctness and how America should reckon with its racist past.
“People obviously can change throughout their lives and have different viewpoints,” said Safeer Quraishi, the administrative director of the New Jersey chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “But it should not be lost on anyone that she went out of her way to record a few songs that had racist overtones.”
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.
But Wildwood’s mayor said he would not be influenced by the choices of two high-profile sports teams.
“That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla ice cream,” the mayor said. “I will not question their decisions. They had their reasons to do it and we have our reasons.
“I’m not the Flyers, and I’m not the Yankees,” he added. “I’m the city of Wildwood.”
Mr. Troiano said that the history of Smith’s songs cannot be erased. But Smith’s recordings reflected, he said, the racial attitudes of her times, and she could not be faulted for that today.
“Eighty-eight years ago, she did something that was, at the time, an acceptable means of conversation,” Mr. Troiano said. “I’m not saying it was right, but the times were different.”
Songs like “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” were still fairly common in the 1930s, said Charles D. Carson, an associate professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at the University of Texas.
“It’s pretty characteristic, especially for as famous as she was, of someone of that era,” Mr. Carson, who teaches classes on American and African-American popular music.
But by the time Smith made her recordings, attitudes toward the songs, which derive from a tradition of blackface minstrelsy that began in the 19th century, had started to shift.
Amid a growing awareness that these stereotypical characterizations of African-Americans were offensive, some of the top performers of Smith’s era started to pull away from songs, Mr. Carson said. Black audiences were particularly critical.
Still, songs like the ones Smith sang remained popular with many white audiences, Mr. Carson said. He was not surprised that Smith, who was known as the “Songbird of the South,” recorded them.
“It would have been very on brand for her,” Mr. Carson said.
It was not until the mid-1940s that popular culture began to abandon once-popular minstrelsy tropes, Mr. Carson said.
Around that time, in 1945, Ms. Smith gave a radio address cited by The Philadelphia Inquirerin which she deplored racism and bigotry and called on listeners to be more tolerant.
Mr. Quraishi said he had no quarrel with “God Bless America,” but believed that Smith’s version was tainted by her association with racist lyrics. Wildwood, he suggested, could use a different artist’s recording of the song.
But Mr. Troiano said he was wedded to Smith’s version, saying that he thinks it’s the best. He also called Smith a patriot, noting that she had raised millions in war bonds during World War II.
“This woman was not a racist,” he said. “I mean this woman, she gave a lot to her country. Hell, she got the Medal of Freedom.”
Wildwood, a community of roughly 5,000 residents about 90 miles southeast of Philadelphia, sits on an island about five miles long. The city is a popular working-class beach resort destination — Mr. Troiano called it the “blue-collar Riviera.”
During summer weekends, hundreds of thousands of people swarm onto the island, said Tracey DuFault, the executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce. Many of them are drawn to the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk, which stretches for nearly two miles.
Neither Ms. DuFault, who has lived in Wildwood for 14 years, nor Mr. Troiano, who was raised there, knew exactly when “God Bless America” began playing on the boardwalk.
Mr. Troiano, 68, said he remembered hearing the anthem as a child. He said that the tradition may have begun because Wildwood has long been home to many veterans.
Many of the people along the sparsely populated boardwalk on Tuesday afternoon — the busy season won’t start until next month — said they had no objections to the mayor’s decision.
Barbara Willemen of Prospect Park, N.J., who visits Wildwood often with her husband, said the “God Bless America” tradition should continue.
“This country was based on Christian principles,” Ms. Willemen said. “I pray that we will be taken back to God. The country is getting away from that.”
Kurt Schroter, 58, who was walking to his home in Wildwood after an afternoon at the beach, said Smith’s past should not be held against her.
“We have to forgive and forget because people reflect the time they grow up in,” he said.
Mr. Troiano is taking the issue one step further and is considering an idea floated by some of his constituents — to make Wildwood the new home of the Smith statue evicted by the Flyers.
In an odd twist, Wildwood is not the only place on the Jersey Shore finding itself grappling with questions about Smith’s legacy. Farther south, the Hume family, which owns and operates properties along a beach in Cape May Point, has held a nightly flag ceremony honoring veterans for more than 40 years.
Smith’s version of “God Bless America” has long been part of the sunset tradition. But following the controversy, the Humes were considering whether to continue playing the song.
“We have not made a final decision,” Larry Hume said in an email on Wednesday. “When we do it will be at our discretion.”
Karen DeMasters contributed reporting from Wildwood, N.J.
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