Whose history is it anyway?

A friend gifted me with The American Songbook Treasury, copyright 1964. As I was pounding away on the piano this morning, aiming for a livelier rendition of “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” an observation popped into my head: My friend Mary might not find the verse that begins “The Injuns came down in a wild yelling horde” amusing. Mary holds tribal membership.

My father used to tell me that folk music in pre-radio times reported current events to the illiterate masses. (I formed the childish idea that songs were the only form of news for most people.)

According to the Song Treasury, “Sweet Betsy” was popular during the California gold rush days and reflected “the hardships of our westward-bound ancestors.” So there’s our point of view.  In 1849, Betsy and Ike would have been among 25,000 -30,000 others following the lure of gold across the plains. No wonder the song was popular. But that viewpoint leaves out those of us who have ancestors who traveled east over the Pacific to California or who tried to stay where they were (e.g. those “Injuns).

When history represents only one point of view, usually that of the victors, any inconvenient details that don’t support the narrative are left out. Leave out the indigenous peoples populating the plains, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny triumphs.

But there was a lot going on in that vast stretch of territory between Pike County, Missouri, and California. Who was living there? Why were they harassing Betsy and Ike?

Too often, we swallow our news in whatever form it presents itself, like it’s impartial. Even “Just the facts, ma’am” requires a context.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy slid their distorted “facts” into textbooks and enshrined their version of history in innumerable monuments and statues. Their narrative found fertile soil in a nation overgrown with racism. The UDC were technically on the losing side of the Civil War but they triumphed in maintaining white supremacy through pen, marble, and noose. They were the ladies embroidering KKK robes by lamplight. Their descendants are among the beneficiaries of an exploitive economic system that still serves Whites over everyone else. A few weeks ago, the UDC memorial building was fire bombed. It is not possible to feel much sympathy for the property destruction.

In this age of video, us White people are forced to examine our trust in official reports. Obnoxious, hostile, and violent police officers are usually outside of our personal experience. But video shows us how Black citizens die for minor infractions. The police spokesmen sing those same old songs, “Resisting Arrest” and “Drunk and Disorderly”. Will you believe them or your lying eyes?

People are singing new verses to old songs as they march in the streets, wearing masks and social distancing. And somewhere, someone is composing the Sonata for the Pandemic on an out-of-tune piano.

One thought on “Familiar Songs Part 2

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