logo Enthusiasms No 69
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

A Different Country

Readers may have recently read that a Belgium court was asked to judge whether or not one of Hergé's Tintin books was racist and, if so, whether it should be banned from being sold.  The book in question is called Tintin in the Congo and was first published, in serialised form, in 1930.  In 2007 the UK Commission for Racial Equality said that the book contained "imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the 'savage natives' look like monkey and talk like imbeciles."  The Commission singled out one image in particular as being especially upsetting.  Here a black woman bows before Tintin saying, "White man very great.  White mister is big juju man."

In the mid 1960s I was living in Manchester.  There was a family from Ghana living next door.  Mum and dad were medical students and they shared their home with their two young children.  On one occasion my grandmother, then in her 80s, saw the children sitting on a wall and went over to them.  She patted them on their heads and said, "What lovely piccanninies."  I suppose that when my grandmother was born, in the late 1800s, such a word was commonplace, but I must say that it brought a shiver to my spine when I heard her utter the term.

It is strange how things, including words, come and go out of fashion.  When I first started going to folk clubs, sometime around 1960, I was quite happy to join in the chorus to songs that glorified killing whales or foxes.  There seemed to be any number of record albums around at that time which were devoted to such songs.  But that was half a century ago.  Would any record company today issue an album of whaling songs?  A few years ago I visited Kaikoura, on NewZealand's South Island coast, and spent some wonderful hours watching sperm whales.  A month later I was in the old whaling town of Valparaiso, in Chile, and it really came home to me then, just how much better it was to see live whales, rather than to sing about dead ones.

Why, one might ask, am I talking about this now?  Well, on the 22nd April, 1973, I called on an elderly singer called Percy Bridges who lived in the Oxfordshire village of Milton-under-Wychwood.  Percy was known locally for his version of the song Old Johnny Bigger (Roud 1329) and he was only too happy to let me record him singing the song.  And I was happy too, for Percy was a good singer and he was able to give me a very complete version of the song.  At the time the song did not bother me.  It was a comic song, originally, from the days of the Minstrel shows.  But, over the years, I did begin to wonder if the song was suitable for publication.  Why?  Because the song contained the word nigger in the chorus.  At one point I thought about omitting the word, replacing it with the word Bigger so that the chorus ran:

Old Johnny Bigger was a gay old Bigger
And a gay old Bigger was he.

But if I did that, would I not be doing the same sort of thing that Cecil Sharp did all those years ago when he 'softened' the words to any song that mentioned sex?  (And let us not forget the word gay in the chorus?  Would that offend anybody, I wondered.)  It almost seemed that I had unexpectedly stepped into a potential mine-field.

According to Eric Partridge, the word nigger was used by Robert Burns in 1786 and by Lord Byron in 1811.  And it was a word that became especially common among black and white people in the southern states of the USA.  At one point, in the 1930s, it was an acceptable (if not particular nice) word in parts of America (the South), but it was not acceptable in other parts (the North), as this story, told of the Mississippi singer Tommy McClennan by Big Bill Broonzy, shows:

How does that old children's rhyme go?  Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words don't hurt me. Not true, I'm afraid.  Words can, and indeed do, hurt.  But there is surely more to it than that.  I started by mentioning Tintin, the Belgium boy detective.  If we wish to seek out why colonialism is bad, then we need look no further than to what Belgium did to the Congo in the 19th and 20th centuries.  W G Sebald summarised some of the atrocities in his book The Rings of Saturn, first published, in German, in 1995. Here Sebald is talking about events that happened a hundred odd years ago, but these are events that continue to haunt and affect Belgium today.  Sebald again: In other words, actions have consequences.  Today we rightly consider whether or not some songs, once popular, should have a place in modern day society.  Do we really agree with all those songs that see women as second class citizens?  Or do we still laugh at songs based on the misfortunes of others?  I hope not.  And what of Old Johnny Bigger?  I have thought long and hard about what I should do.  In the end I have decided that, as an historical document - a product of its time - it should be available to those who wish to understand the customs and beliefs of some of our forefathers.  Copies of the song are available at London's National Sound Archive and in the Vaughan William's Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, also in London.  But, I will not be publishing the song in book form, nor issuing it on CD.  The days of the Minstrel Shows, including 'the Black and White Minstrels', are now long gone.  And I, for one, am not missing them.

Mike Yates - 18.2.12

No Whit Monday evening party in The Eagle in Bampton ever ended without Francis Shergold (Bampton Morris's Squire) having sung Old Johnny Bigger at some point.  Since it was extremely unlikely that any black person would be in the room, no offense was ever caused.  However, when Reg Hall (Bampton's musician) turned up with a Jamacan woman on his arm, the word 'Nigger' changed to 'Bigger' without a moment's thought ... and has remained 'Bigger' ever since - Ed.


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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