The news item first then a comment:
"China Montgomery simply wants to sing. It is her first love, not including math and Barbie dolls. But when the Anderson Middle School student showed her parents the lyrics to a song her school choir is scheduled to sing in a concert Wednesday, they were appalled. The title: "Pick a Bale of Cotton." To China's parents, the song glorifies slavery in a shameful era of U.S. history. It is called an "American folk song" on the music sheet the children are learning. Greg Montgomery, China's father, is African-American. He appealed to everyone from the school's principal to the superintendent of the Berkley School District to pull the song from the concert. The school is mostly white.
There are several versions of the song, including at least one with a racial slur repeated twice in one verse. The slur does not appear in the version the 30 choir students -- six of them African-American -- were asked to sing. When Montgomery's pleas to pull the song from the concert were met with what he described as resistance, he decided to remove his daughter, 11, from the concert. "We just buried Mother Parks, and this is happening only a few weeks later," he said. "It's mind-boggling that people don't understand sensitive issues. "When I told my 81-year-old Aunt Minnie Ridout, she told me to tell the school administrators to come see her back," Montgomery said. Her back is still affected by the countless hours she spent bending to pick cotton as a girl, he said. "She said she was not jumping around and singing while she was picking cotton in Alabama and the Mississippi Delta as a young girl."
The school principal, Steve Frank, was not available to comment. The vice principal, Jim Cowdry, said he only knew "bits and pieces" of the issue and deferred to Superintendent Nancy Campbell, who deferred to Gwen Ahern, communications supervisor for the Berkley School District. "We used to sing that song when I was in school during the '50s," she said. "It's like a Southern type of folk song. I remember it being perky. It was more of a song that people just sang for fun." Ahern then proceeded to sing the song over the telephone. "This is going to be a folk music concert, and children will be performing songs from Germany, England, Mexico and other places."
Asked if she knew about the Montgomerys' concerns, Ahern said yes. "As far as I know, they're going ahead with the concert," she said. She added that district officials will study the origins of the song.
The children will be singing, in part, "Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton. Gotta jump down, turn around, Oh Lordie, pick a bale a day." Dr. Eugene Rogers, president of the North Oakland County NAACP, called the situation unbelievable. "Some people think they should be able to do anything, and we should be able to adjust and not take it personally," he said. "But I've lived through all of this, and I'm still living through it." Rogers said it is insensitive to proceed with the song. "People shouldn't have to be subjected to this, especially our children.""
I would have thought that the very lively and enjoyable song concerned would most accurately be seen as showing the triumph of the human spirit over the adversity of slavery. Two of my ancestors came to my country chained up in the holds of sailing ships and I have never felt the least bit humiliated to hear sung the many songs written about what they and their ilk experienced. I feel proud of the strength and endurance that enabled them to flourish under very adverse circumstances. Below is one of the songs I have in mind. It is one I sing myself from time to time:
1: One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin's island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore
2: I've been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I've been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails
3: For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay
4: Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan's yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind
The music is accessible here
The school has now dropped the song and a reader writes: "The weirdest thing of this is that the song was made famous in US by Harry Belafonte. The screaming ultra liberal himself."
Comments? Email John Ray