Enthusiasms No 69
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
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:
The house was full of blues singers and the people told me to get Tommy to sing. I went to Tommy, but I told him: "Don't sing that Bottle Up and Go, please" "The hell with them, I'll sing my song anywhere I want to." So I just stayed close to him because I knew there would be some trouble when he would get to that verse. And there was. I had to put Tommy out the window, and me and him ran about five miles to another friend of mine's house where we got a drink. "I told you that would happen, didn't I?" "Yes, you did, and they made us bottle up and go, but I'm going back to get my guitar." "There's no need." "Why, Bill?" "You have some of it around your neck.'
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.
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