For the Yankees, Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” was a staple of the seventh-inning stretch since 2001.
For the Philadelphia Flyers, the connection was even tighter, with Smith serving as a mascot of sorts for the team’s 1970s Stanley Cup winners, and performing live at games.
Now both teams have announced they will stop playing Smith’s version of “God Bless America” after discovering that she sang songs with racist lyrics in the 1930s. The Flyers will also cover a statue of Smith that has been in front of their arena since 1987.
Smith, who died in 1986, is most closely identified with “God Bless America,” but she recorded numerous other songs over her long career. Among them were “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which contain disturbing lyrics that demean black people.
The Yankees used Smith’s “God Bless America” early in the season but stopped after an email from a fan alerted them to Smith’s racially insensitive work.
“The Yankees have been made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information,” a team spokesman said. “The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
The Flyers said in a statement: “We have recently become aware that several songs performed by Kate Smith contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization. As we continue to look into this serious matter, we are removing Kate Smith’s recording of ‘God Bless America’ from our library and covering up the statue that stands outside of our arena.”
The Flyers have a tradition of playing Smith’s version of “God Bless America” as a replacement for the national anthem at big games. The song has been said to bring the team good luck. Smith performed it live before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup final, the game in which the Flyers won their first Cup.
Like many white singers of her era, Smith sang some songs that at best are dated and insensitive and at worst are downright racist.
In “Pickaninny Heaven,” Smith sings of a place where “great big watermelons roll around and get in your way.” “Pickaninny” is a demeaning term for a black child. In the 1933 film “Hello Everybody,” Smith sings the song to a group of black orphans listening on the radio.
“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” begins: “Someone had to pick the cotton,/ Someone had to pick the corn,/ Someone had to slave and be able to sing,/ That’s why darkies were born.”
The lyrics also include: “Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and sing when you’re blue/ Sing, sing, that’s what you taught all the white folks to do.”
The song was also recorded by the black singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, although “one has to think that Robeson’s take on the lyrics was decidedly ironic,” Steven Carl Tracy wrote in “Hot Music, Ragmentation and the Bluing of American Literature.”
Jeffrey Magee, the director of the school of music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of the book “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater,” said songs like “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” reflected racial attitudes embedded in the cultural fabric of Smith’s era.
“To have shaped pop music in this country necessarily implicates musicians and songwriters in a history of racial exchange, impersonation and appropriation,” Magee said. “Kate Smith was inexorably part of that. She became a pop star on a foundation of songs like these.”
Magee noted that other popular white musicians of the 1930s, including Sophie Tucker, May Irwin and George M. Cohan, known as the father of Broadway, regularly performed minstrel songs, sometimes in blackface.
“The difference is you’re not going to find Cohan on YouTube,” Magee said.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/sports/kate-smith-new-york-yankees-philadelphia-flyers.html