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.

Verse 1:

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.”

Verse 2:

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?

Repeat Refrain.

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.

19 responses to ““SHINE,” RECONSIDERED

  1. Yes, this is a good point I’ve made to several folks along the way. It was an early protest song of sorts.

  2. The song “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” was sung by Aida Overton Walker in the Broadway production of “His Honor: the Barber.” The show ran at the Majestic Theatre from May 8 to May 20, 1911. Music by James Brymm; book by Edwin Hanaford; lyrics by Chris Smith and James Burris; featuring songs by Chris Smith, Ford Dabney and Cecil Mack; directed by S.H. Dudley. [Source: IBDB]
    Aida was the wife of George Walker, the partner of Bert Williams. After Walker died in 1911, Williams was hired for a three-year contract for the Ziegfield Follies. “The white actors threatened to revolt because they did not want to perform onstage with a black actor, but changed their minds when Ziegfeld said he could replace any of them except for Williams because he was unique and talented. After his contract was up, he was such a big hit that he stayed on for three more years. [Source: Wikipedia]


  3. It just goes to show that verses are important and not some extra bit of fluff added to pad-out the chorus. Composers took the time to write BOTH the chorus and the verse.

  4. Rob Rothberg

    Good job, Michael!

  5. Apparently Prez wasn’t the only one who valued knowing the lyrics to a tune. Beautiful, Michael.

  6. Dan Morgenstern

    Exactly, and the way Louis delivers it, on the record (with that sensational trumpet solo, Lionel on vibes behind the vocal (seldom mentioned) and on drums.) amplifies the message. He’s as convincing in the “Rhapsody, etc” film (dig those neck muscles) but I don’t like the soundie due to obnoxious Nicodemus, though Big Sid is a redeemer….
    The tune, BTW, is great to blow on, like so many non-AABA ones….

  7. John P. Cooper

    One of the very greatest “SHINE”‘s of all time is the version sung and danced by John Bubbles and played by Duke Ellington and his band in CABIN IN THE SKY – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c58AAcnaPTo

    That said – I recall back in NY in the 60s still hearing the term “shine” used as a derogatory term for black people.

  8. John P. Cooper

    The verse in the CABIN IN THE SKY performance has a verse not included above.



  10. I heard a white group of musicians performing this. This shine is a black minstrel piece. A shine equals nigger. No matter how yu might play it. Fun melody, but the lyrics are racist.

  11. Reread the lyrics, please. Does it make no difference to you that the writer of those lyrics says explicitly, “No matter what name you might call me, my essential human self is beautiful — more beautiful than the people slinging epithets at me?” Does it matter that the lyricist was a proud African-American fellow? To me it does. May your happiness increase, Jazz Poet!

  12. Thank you for this magnificent post, dear Michael!

    Other Michael

  13. Thanks for a great post Michael. After listening to Django Reinhardt’s version today, I decided to hunt around for its history. I also own Pop’s version. “Shine,” IMO, conveys the same message as Fats Waller’s “What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue” (below). The term shine is derogatory. The lyrics of both songs express the pain, the hurt African American’s felt about racism.

    “I’m so forlorn, Life’s just a thorn, My heart is torn, Why was I born? What did I do to be so black and blue?”

    And so I agree with you that the song in itself isn’t racist.

    Cold, empty bed,
    Springs hard as lead,
    Pains in my head,
    Feel like old Ned.
    What did I do
    To be so black and blue?

    No joys for me,
    No company,
    Even the mouse
    Ran from my house,
    All my life through
    I’ve been so
    Black and blue.

    I’m so forlorn,
    Life’s just a thorn,
    My heart is torn,
    Why was I born?
    What did I do to be so
    Black and blue?

    I’m white inside,
    But that don’t help my case.
    ‘Cause I can’t hide
    What is on my face,

    [Alternative lyrics
    for the last verse]
    I’m sad inside,
    But it don’t help my case
    ‘Cause I can’t hide
    All the sorrow
    That’s on my face,

  14. I agree with Jon Erik Kellso. “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” was arguably the first protest song in jazz. Certainly it is a parody song. The words are “signifiying”, a device used by blacks to impart the opposte meaning of what you think they mean. eg. “Brer Rabbit says the Brer Fox, “Whatever you do don’t throw me in the bramble bushes”. So the fox throws him into the brambles which is, of course exactly what the rabbit wanted because he now escapes to his den which is in the brambles where the fox cannot foillow. Shine? The words are from blacks to other blacks about the ignorance of whites and not at all racist. They are saying why do you folks hate me, because I have a great smile, or because my hair is curly etc.? How ignorant is that hatred. Black theater goers in 1910-11 understood that perfectly while most whites did not. That is true even today where folks who don’t read the verse carefully, mistake the chorus as racist.



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