Our musical heritage is a racial minefield. Prejudice pops up regularly to complicate tunes we’d rather simply enjoy—in the same way it feels weird these days to listen to a Bill Cosby record or rent a Mel Gibson movie.
Take “Big Bend Gal,” a catchy fiddle-and-vocal number I learned from my Vermont cousins a few summers back: “There’s no use talking about the Big Bend Gal who lives at the county line/For Betsy Jane from the prairie plain just leaves them way behind.” The song is about a fieldhand everyone is smitten with: “She’s the queen of the whole plantation!”
Back home in California, I looked up the song’s history. It turns out “Big Bend Gal” was first recorded in 1927 by the Shelor Family of Virginia. The Shelors, who were white, sang it in a raw hillbilly style with lyrics that put a damper on the festivities. Whereas my cousins sang, “A fellow’ll turn around and come pretty quick when he hears that pretty gal laugh,” the Shelors crooned, “The niggers turn around…” And my cousins’ line about “the fellers in the cotton patch” was originally “the niggers in the cotton patch.” You get the picture.
As a white musician who cares about racial justice, what do I do with that knowledge? Do I sing the sanitized version, or skip the words, or leave the whole thing in a box? Should I feel conflicted, even, about playing a haunting instrumental like “Mace Bell’s Civil War March” knowing it came from a Texas fiddler who served in the Confederate Army? (And does it matter whether the marchers were advancing or retreating?)