It’s always fascinating to take old assumptions and hold them up to the light. For years, I assumed along with most that the song called “SHINE,” or sometimes “S-H-I-N-E,” had disgracefully racist lyrics, and that having someone proud of his African-American heritage — such as Louis Armstrong — sing it was a deep insult. “Poor Louis,” we thought, “forced to endure material unworthy of him, degrading to his race and self,” although he doesn’t seem abashed in what follows.
Here’s the version from RHAPSODY IN BLACK AND BLUE (with a nice close-up of drummer Tubby Hall):
And a decade or so later, a Soundie of SHINE from 1942 (with closeups of Sidney Catlett and dancer Nick Stewart):
“Those poor Mills Brothers — other singers saddled with demeaning material.” That there seemed to be other lyrics — in Bing Crosby’s version — was puzzling, but I think many assumed that this was part of a clean-up campaign or some racist plot against people of color.
No, not at all.
The song — as “THAT’S WHY THEY CALL ME ‘SHINE,'” dates from 1910* and was composed by Ford Dabney (music) and, more importantly, Cecil Mack (born Richard C. McPherson), both African-Americans. That in itself wouldn’t have prevented them from creating a song that later generations would have found demeaning. But the lyrics of “THAT’S WHY THEY CALL ME ‘SHINE'” are anything but self-deprecating.
When I was born they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown,
I hadn’t grown so very big ‘fore some folks in the town
Had changed it ’round to Sambo, I was Rastus to a few,
Then Choc’late Drop was added by some others that I knew,
And then to cap the climax I was strolling down the line
When someone shouted, “Fellers, hey, come on and pipe the Shine.”
But I don’t care a bit,
Here’s how I figure it.
‘Cause my hair is curly,
‘Cause my teeth are pearly,
Just because I always wear a smile,
Like to dress up in the latest style,
‘Cause I’m glad I’m living.
Take troubles smiling, never whine;
Just because my color’s shady,
Slightly diff’rent maybe,
That’s why they call me “Shine.”
A rose, they say, by any other name would smell as sweet,
So if that’s right, why should a nickname take me off my feet?
Why, ev’rything that’s precious from a gold piece to a dime
And diamonds, pearls, and rubies ain’t no good unless they shine.
So when these clever people call me “shine” or “coon” or “smoke,”
I simply smile, and smile some more, and vote them all a joke.
I’m thinking just the same,
What is there in a name?
I think — having read these lyrics, especially the verse! — some of us might have to reconsider our perceptions of this song. The lyrics, by the way, come from READING LYRICS, ed. Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball (Pantheon, 2000); they date the song as 1924. Text courtesy of the Beloved’s bookcase.