The voice of singer Kate Smith is rapidly disappearing from the world of professional sports. The New York Yankees reportedly confirmed Thursday that they were no longer playing Smith’s version of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning of home games, after the team learned of a Depression-era song she’d recorded that raised questions of possible racism. The Philadelphia Flyers followed suit Friday, distancing themselves from Smith by taking her famed rendition of “God Bless America” out of their playlist and covering a bronze statue of the singer near their arena as they investigate the matter.
Smith and her rendition of “God Bless America” have been most closely associated in the sports world with the Flyers, who had a decades-long stretch of remarkable success in games preceded by her version. She performed it at the team’s former arena, the Spectrum, before the Flyers won the first of their two Stanley Cup titles in 1974.
Two of Smith’s other songs cited by the New York Daily News, which broke the story Thursday, included “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” a 1931 hit for Smith, and “Pickaninny Heaven.”
“We have recently become aware that several songs performed by Kate Smith contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization,” the Flyers said in a statement, according to Philly.com. “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 statue of Smith was erected outside the Spectrum in 1987 and moved to the Xfinity Live! entertainment complex in 2011 when the arena was demolished. It was covered on Friday with a dark tarp.
Smith’s 1939 version of “God Bless America” had been in the rotation at Yankee Stadium since the team began regularly playing the song following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
“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 club spokesman told the Daily News. “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 Daily News reported that the Yankees “are investigating” Smith’s legacy of potentially objectionable music and noted that some have described “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” as a satire of white supremacists. The song, which was also recorded by Paul Robeson, the son of a runaway slave who would go on to become a civil rights activist, includes these lyrics:
“Someone had to pick the cotton/Someone had to plant the corn,
“Someone had to slave and be able to sing/That’s why darkies were born.
“Someone had to laugh at trouble/Though he was tired and worn,
“Had to be contented with any old thing/That’s why darkies were born.”
Smith, who was born in Greenville, Va., grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and was nicknamed “The Songbird of the South.” She was one of the first big stars of radio and also appeared on Broadway and in several movies. She died in 1986 at age of 79.
Smith starred in a 1933 film, “Hello, Everybody!” in which she sang “Pickaninny Heaven.” Dedicating the song to “a lot of little colored children living in an orphanage,” she sang of how “great big watermelons roll around and get in your way” and “luscious pork chop bushes bloom right outside your doorway,” as the movie showed a room full of black children listening to her on a radio.
In 1939, a cartoon ad for a baking powder Smith endorsed featured a “Mammy Doll,” a bandanna-clad figure meant to evoke stereotypical notions of black women in the kitchen, along the lines of Aunt Jemima. In the ad, a “Mammy” character tells a white woman who is bad at cooking, “You jes ain’t got a way wid an oven, honey chile!” After subsequently using a recipe book by Smith to successfully bake a cake, the woman sends the doll to the delighted singer as a gesture of gratitude.
In 2009, the Yankees fired tenor Ronan Tynan, who had been performing live renditions of “God Bless America,” after he reportedly confirmed to the team he’d made an anti-Semitic remark and claimed it was just a joke.
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