Frank Zappa, Uncle Remus And My Black History Month Lesson - Pt.1

So a quick background on this month's post: I get to sing backup with a great rock band who once a year chooses one classic rock album to rehearse and perform from beginning to end. I love it because every year I get a schooling in one of our American popular idioms, rock music. More specifically, the classic rock era. In past years Cast Iron Skillet has covered Pink Floyd and Santana. This year we cover Frank Zappa's album - "Apostrophe(‘)". And I gotta say, this album took me deeper into my music research than I had ever been. Zappa is intriguing and provocative, and no less so in the song I will be performing with CIS in March...

Uncle Remus (Lawd, lawd, lawd! smh.)

At first I wasn't paying that close attention to the lyrics. I hadn't gotten past the surface level of learning the song yet...

"Whoa, are we moving too slow?
Have you seen us, Uncle Remus?
We look pretty sharp in these clothes
Unless we get sprayed with a hose
It ain't bad in the day
If they squirt it your way
'Cept in the winter, when it's froze
And it's hard if it hits, on your nose"

...then my caucasian husband shamed me by asking, "Isn't he talking about the civil rights movement or something?"

*Groan* Great. I think a part of me dreaded going into a deeper analysis of the song for fear of what I'd uncover. Studying civil rights history tends to be a general exercise in futile indignation for me and probably most African-Americans. It’s like watching the movie “Amistad” and even though you already knew the outcome - you still feel pretty pissed-off and dark by the end of the story...

So I first started with a little research on Uncle Remus himself. Why was this character central to this song? The second thing I looked up is the history of the lawn jockey.

Admittedly these were two aspects of my Black history that kind of slipped past me in any of my education through the years. (You know, with all the black cultural studies they taught in the public schools.....wait, no...) Uncle Remus was on my foggy peripheral, presumably as an "Uncle Tom" type character. But the lawn jockey? Honestly, this was my first introduction to this little artifact of American history. Little statues of black people dressed as jockeys...I mean even before I started my web search I was trying to imagine what possible racist stereotypes could be tied to equestrianism?

Fun stuff I gotta say. The craft of pervasively cementing racism into our cultural and societal psyche is quite creative work. It takes a true artist. (See Walt Disney & Joel Chandler Harris)

*Heavy sigh*

Artistically Racist?

Okay that's a little harsh of me. Walt Disney created the movie "Song Of The South" in a loving tribute to the Uncle Remus stories that Joel Chandler wrote. Chandler himself, born in 1845, was a racial reconciliation activist writer and journalist of the Reconstruction era - and his stories could be seen as a loving tribute to the slaves his family owned for whom he spent hours with listening to their storytelling that would then give way to his inspiration to write the Uncle Remus books. (Inspiration....plagiarism, take your pick.). In all seriousness, though, I can believe that these were well-intentioned men creating art out of their personal world-view and the overall cultural conscience of their time.

It was a different era. At any given time in history our society can only allow us to advance as far as our collective conscience will let us go. Though it can be humorous and even down right disturbing what our collective culture can find acceptable at times.

And the lawn jockeys? Still not fully clear of the origin or the point of these things. A couple of weird stories came out of my Internet search. One seeming fable involves President (then general) Washington creating a statue in tribute to a young black boy (I'm assuming a slave?) who froze to death on the shores of the Delaware keeping watch and tending horses as he waited for Washington and his troops to return from the Battle of Trenton.


Fast forward decades later and white folks keep these things on their lawn because.......? I'm kind of guessing its not like the rainbow flag or something. (See the lawn jockey? Come on in black people, you’re safe here!). Other than the historical connotations of black folks forever in servitude to whites....I'm still kinda scratching my head on this one. Guess you’ve got to be a connoisseur of racist historical memorabilia or something.

So back to Zappa...

I’m not attempting to analyze what this song means. Only Frank Zappa himself will eternally know that. And for me, it’s really not the point. It’s about the ideas that were presented in this song; stimulating and challenging. And in the middle of Black History Month (I’m still from the old school...) I grappled with how this song, that originally seemed outdated, may actually still carry some relevance in our present day reality.
TO BE CONTINUED....Frank Zappa, Uncle Remus And My Black History Month Lesson - Pt.2

*Correction: I later found out that "Uncle Remus" was actually written by the late great George Duke and not by Frank Zappa as I had originally assumed.

**A great discussion came out of the many comments on this post! But because those comments came through another website service we had to condense them into an HTML file here. You're welcomed to read the past comments and then join the discussion by leaving your comments below!

Michele ThomasComment