Here’s another lyric of Waring Cuney’s used on Josh White’s 1941 record Southern Exposure. Before I get on with presenting the song, let me briefly review who White and Cuney are.
Josh White was a Black American singer and guitarist who usually performed in the Afro-American Blues style. The Blues was a popular musical genre among Black Americans during the first half or so of the 20th century. During that century, some of the musical ideas and a great deal of the outlook and performance style of Blues were gradually absorbed into general American musical culture. As another Blues lyricist, Willie Dixon put it: “The Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock’n’Roll.” And so, when I was a young man, there were numerous young acts seeking to call attention to the centrality of Blues music to Rock music. However, most of these then young musical artists, like the majority of their audiences, were white. Unluckily, Josh White’s relationship to the Blues and it’s audiences was essentially premature — he was a man before his time.
Though White was a fine guitarist, singer, and performer who could have scuffled on the segregated Black performance circuit, for a complex set of reasons he became associated with the American political left and its largely white “Folk Music” performers. There’s a fascinating story on how that came to be that I can’t fit into a short blog post, but the shortest summary I can make of this is that equal rights for Afro-Americans was taken up as a left-wing cause, even more specifically as an American Communist cause, after the Lincoln-Grant Republican party became estranged from energetic advocacy for those rights. In the 1930s-50s era White performed for mixed, largely white audiences associated with the Left, while his contemporary Black Blues artists performed to overwhelmingly Black audiences. Want to know more? Here’s a link to an excellent blog post by Elijah Wald that explains how this premature Blues cross-over complicated White’s career. TL:DNR? Because he crossed-over before the Sixties, he was somehow considered inauthentic.
A later re-issue of the White-Cuney Southern Exposure record
Waring Cuney, as this month’s readers of this blog know, was associated with other young artists of the “Harlem Renaissance” even though his name became lesser-known than his colleagues. Always musically interested, he lent his poetic skills to White’s 1941 Southern Exposure album. Today’s selection, where I perform one of his lyrics from that with my own music, deals with a specific area of equal-rights advocacy for Afro-Americans: military service. In 1941, the American military was segregated, and like America in general in this era, the dictum “separate but equal” was largely an absurd charade, easily tied to pervasive white supremacy and ideas of Black inferiority. Ugly stuff — but in the era just before America entered into WWII, also stupid and counterproductive.
I’m going to oversimplify and compress again, but during the Civil War and in WWI segregated American Black soldier companies had proven their abilities as fighting units, but in the between-the-wars era the US Military had reduced itself to something reflective of the plantation South or the servant-class North. Roles for Afro-American military personnel were limited. Cuney’s “Uncle Sam Says” is a prophetic smart missile aimed at that situation. How so?
It’s a four-verse song, but let’s get on to how Cuney is able to foresee or encourage three things that became current events in the months around when White recorded his singing version of Cuney’s words.
Verse one: Black folks can’t fly combat airplanes. That takes a skilled knight of the air in the mind of the prejudiced. In the same 1941, an Air Corps unit was formed that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Yes, it was a segregated all-Black unit, but by 1943 they started proving their mettle.
Verse two: this one is almost eerie. American involvement in WWII combat began with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Aboard the battleship West Virginia there was a messman’s mate named Doris Miller who just before the enemy warplanes arrived was serving breakfast — as Cuney’s lyric says “Keep your apron son.” Miller was a big guy, fullback on his Texas high school team. He was deputized to help carry wounded out of fire and to aid stations on the ship while it was under attack, which he did, including being called on to carry the dying commander of the battleship to treatment. In the midst of this someone directed him to an unmanned machine gun. Miller had no machine gun training — remember, subservient roles in this Jim Crow military — but he’d hunted squirrels, and taking charge of the gun it’s said that he downed between 2 and 6 of the attacking aircraft.
Verse three: while the US hadn’t entered WWII when Cuney wrote his lyrics or when White sang them, the lyric’s prophetic claim that “when the trouble starts, we’ll all be in that same big fight” isn’t as specific as the opening two verses’ charges. Still, it’s a good point. Also note: when blindered folks maintain that the struggle for Afro-American civic equality is all about “privileges,” that it has also historically been a struggle for access to civic responsibilities too.
The last verse issues the call to action and wraps up this effective “message song.” I performed it —that’s a regular part of my encounters with the words this project explores — but if you’d like to hear Josh White’s original version here’s the link to his. The player gadget for my version is below, and if you don’t see that, here’s a link to my version. I have one more example yet from the young Black poets who published Fire!! planned if situations allow me this month, so follow this blog or check back for that.