Saturday a listener named Liz posted a comment on the Paper and Pen page. I was going to respond there, but then decided that the question was important enough to merit a post. Liz wrote:
“When the pickaninnies pick the cotton” eh?
I will not try to figure out why anyone would play those Lyrics on the radio in this day and age.
Hank Snow, “Peach Picking Time in Georgia” from your
July 6, 2019 show
Liz has a point, given present-day sensitivities. Yet Hillbilly at Harvard is a program that samples nearly 100 years of country music, and tries to be faithful to its historical contexts. It is inevitable that words and phrases once current but no longer common or innocuous will turn up. Jimmie Rodgers recorded ’Peach-Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia’ in 1932, in the depths of the Depression, and near the end of his short life (truncated by tuberculosis). Jimmie was riding a crest of popularity spurred by the spread of phonographs and radios across the land, and a large part of his appeal was his synthesis of white ‘western’ styles with the black blues. While his recordings were not marketed as ‘race records’, it is very unlikely that he would have recorded a song that might offend his black listeners on radio.
The song has been covered many times by many musicians. Bill Monroe’s version from 1964 uses Jimmie Rodgers’s original lyrics. The Hank Snow version I played was from a 1969 album, though he may have recorded it earlier. That same year, the much younger Merle Haggard (in his wonderful double-LP tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, Same Train, Different Time) changed the line to, “When all the pickers [are?] picking the cotton, that’s when I’ll pick a wedding ring.” He changed it again in his Peer Sessions CD album in 2002: “Now after I’ve picked all my cotton, I’ll pick a wedding ring.” Same song, different times, but I don’t think Merle would have had us stop playing the original. The history is important; indeed it is essential.
If you look up ‘pickaninny’ in Wikipedia, you’ll find that it’s derived from a Portuguese term meaning ‘something small’, and came to be used, in the English-speaking world, of small children, and in the American South more particularly of black children. Historically it was not a slur, but was also used affectionately, among both blacks and whites. That it accrued a disparaging sense in some elements of American popular culture is an unfortunate consequence of the Jim Crow era, but I don’t think Jimmie Rodgers, who spent all his life with both white and black railroad men and musicians, would have entertained any negative connotations. Children, of course, did still pick cotton in those days, but I expect the great singer and songwriter, latterly known as ‘The Father of Country Music’, liked the alliteration even more. /CL