Song Ethics: Isn’t “Whitewashing” Just Covering A Song For A Different Audience?

I usually don’t expect “Great Stupid”-style race-baiting from The History Channel, but today for some reason it alerted me that on this date in 1955 “Black music got whiter” with the release of Georgia Gibbs’ “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” “setting off a dubious trend known as ‘whitewashing.'” This recording was a cleaned up version of Etta James risque song you can hear above. “Roll with me, Henry,” as the lyrics of that song went, essentially meant “Fuck me, Henry,” and they weren’t going to play that on mainstream AM radio stations in 1955. So producers bowdlerized the lyrics for pop singer Gibbs, who was, ugh!, white, and she had a hit:

Apparently there’s supposed to be something sinister about this, as if Gibbs was “stealing’ record sales from Etta James. Nonsense. Artists aiming at different audiences with covers of songs taking a different turn is called “commerce.”

Here’s a 1936 song by Rodgers and Hart that was favored by old fogies at the time..

…but only after the lyrics were changed…

Old Blue Eyes, before he was old, covered it later by jazzing it up…

But “Blue Moon” only became a mega-smash when it a lot of 50’s era gibberish was added and it came out like this:

Rodgers threatened to sue—until the checks came rolling in. Then he liked to say it was his favorite rendition of any of his songs. You will notice that three of the five Marcels were black. Does that make the re-do okay? Were the Marcels, by changing the song to appeal to an “American Graffiti” crowd that would have barfed at the typical “Blue Moon” versions “teen-washing”?

I guess when this hit…

had everyone humming, it was “English-washing” when teen idol Bobby Rydell sang it with a jazz beat and so the lyrics could be understood…

As for “Roll With Me Henry,” Etta James waited a bit to long to record the “clean version,” which she could have done to begin with:

This race-baiting complaint isn’t new, of course; Elvis Presley especially was and continues to be accused of “cultural appropriation” by making hits out of songs previously sung to less acclaim by black artists. This was usually because Elvis sang better than than the original artists—he sang better than almost anyone. The “whitewashing” insult is especially obnoxious in the case of James’ song, which wouldn’t have been played on radio stations with the original lyrics if the singer were Doris Day.

Some examples of white stars trying to make hits out of black artists’ records were just embarrassing, like super-white Pat Boone’s various covers of Little Richard’s classics. If anything, Pat’s hubris probably drove audiences to the originals.

Any performer of any color can sing any song any way they like, as long as the songwriters sell the rights, and if they get a hit out of it, good for everyone. The problem black artists had getting on major AM stations in the 50’s was due to racism, straight up. There was, and is, nothing “dubious” about a white artist crafting a cover to appeal to a new audience.

Here’s Louis Armstrong “blackwashing” “White Christmas”:

15 thoughts on “Song Ethics: Isn’t “Whitewashing” Just Covering A Song For A Different Audience?

  1. You want to hear variety (in redundancy):

    Whisky in the Jar by The Dubliners

    Gilgarra Mountain by Peter Paul and Mary

    Whisky in the Jar by Thin Lizzy

    Whisky in the Jar by Metallica (covering Thin Lizzy’s version of the song).

    Actually, they all sound exactly the same because they are all performed by white people.


    • And my favorite version: Whiskey in the Jar by the Irish Rovers.

      There is another song I’ve been exploring recently — “Hard Times Come Again No More’, by Stephen Foster. I really like the version by the 2nd Carolina String Band, but I’ve listened to perhaps a dozen other artists performing that song.

      Always interesting to hear different takes on a song.

  2. For Gypsywashing, listen to the Gypsy Kings version of Volare. It’s terrific. For even more cultural appropriation listen their version of Hotel California.
    Bobby Rydell was actually a very talented singe//entertainer. Don’t know why his star faded so quickly. No rag on him, but the production values and, particularly the backup singers in his Volare are remeniscent of I Lost My Heart at a Drive-In Movie by the great Jerry Lewis in the classic The Patsy. Comicwashing?

    • Bobby was still performing last I checked a few years ago. I also heard an interview about a decade ago in which he was laughing about how he always was the best singer of those crooning teen idols of the early 60s (he was formally trained) but looked like a geek, but now, in late middle age, he was no worse looking than his competitors like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, but he, unlike them, could sing as well as ever. They went on a “Tern Idols” tour and the other two quit because they were being embarrassed by Rydell.

  3. RE: Roll with Me/Dance with Me

    This isn’t directly related, but I’ve been listening to oldies for most of the pandemic, and there is one song that struck me as both simultaneously cheep and clever.

    It is a song about taking a girl for a walk, with a perfectly wholesome video of kids staying exactly one cubit apart the the whole time while strolling down the dance floor.

    Some highlights:

    * “Come, LET’s STROLL!…” (followed by a burlesque trumpet flare)

    * “Let’s stroll across the floor” (flare)

    * “Now turn around baby, let’s stroll once more” (flare)

    * “Feel’s so good, take me by my hand” (flare)

    Apparently it was one of the most popular songs of the late 1950’s. It’s just about a couple strolling down the dance floor, so the censors had no issue with it on the radio. Featured unironically on American bandstand and local television. No word on whether Ed Sullivan featured it….

  4. The fact of the matter is that, at least for the time being, white people, including yourself, can’t win any argument the minute racism is alleged. This is just another path to reparations, alleging that white artists stole profits from black artists. If you argue with it, you’ll just be called another white guy aiding and abetting racism without thinking he is doing it, because white people just don’t get it. That means you’re not anti-racist, so you’re cancelled.

    The chorus I belong to used to do at least one or two spirituals per concert, but, at least for now, since we’re mostly white, we’re taking them off the program, lest we be accused of cultural appropriation and face the righteous finger of judgment. Assuming we’re out of this pandemic by Thanksgiving, we’ve been told that the AME church will not be joining us and the other local choruses for the Thanksgiving ecumenical service. Ostensibly they’ve “decided to celebrate in their own community,” but it really boils down to they don’t want to be in the same service with white people or join in singing “white” hymns with white singers. A lot of us think this is just being more divisive, but if we say so, we just get told we don’t get it and we’re the problem.

    At this point, anything that can be made about racism, will be made about racism, and that racism will be used to beat white people over the head.

  5. And, speaking of Pat Boone, one shan’t forget his album of heavy metal covers:
    In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy


  6. Is Etta James of color or is she white? She suspects her father was Minnesota Fats who was the son of Swiss immigrants. If you want to be cancelled, just be the white parent of a prominent of color person. Halle Berry, Barack Obama. Best not to be TOO black, you know.

      • It was evidently Ms. James’ belief, as reported on her wiki page. The image of her above looks white washed to me.

        Of course, my main point is: what makes a person a person of color? One drop? If a person is mixed race, are they fifty percent privileged or does one drop of white blood make them one hundred percent privileged and therefore ineligible for special treatment?

        Beyonce descends from New Orleans octoroons. Does that make her not “of color?” Does she have one drop of white blood in her? Shouldn’t she be moved to the back of the line and defer to all the people of color who have no white blood in their lineage? Don’t they outrank her? Isn’t she ineligible to be an icon?

  7. Just for the irrelevant record, the “Manhattan” version of the lyrics to the song that ultimately became “Blue Moon” were not Rodgers & Hart’s original try at the melody, but actually their third. They first wrote the song in 1933 with completely different lyrics for a song by Jean Harlow in a different picture, but that song was cut from the movie before release (as was Harlow). They tried again when “Manhattan” came along a year later, but nobody liked those lyrics either; so they scrapped them and wrote the third version, which finally made it into the film. From there, the historical ball started rolling in the astounding way that you describe.

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