clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jerry Earl Johnston: My father's undying affection for 'Old Man River'

Father’s Day is Sunday. That’s the day when aging sons spar with memories of their departed dads.

I’ve been sparring with the memory of mine.

My father was a complicated man. It’s what made him an interesting fellow.

It’s also what made him anxious and often melancholy. And one of his anxieties came from working out his complicated feelings about race.

He loved the Japanese people, except the ones he tried to bomb during World War II.

He admired Native Americans, though he had no clue what they wanted.

And being a performer, dad was awed by the power and passion of African American artists and athletes.

You could say he envied their “freedom.”

That’s an odd thing to say, I know. But dad was a classic, Western macho. He kept his deepest feelings tamped down, only letting them out when he sang. And the feelings flew whenever dad veered near to black culture.

Dad had a booming voice, so singing show tunes from “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” came easily for him. So did singing spirituals. He reveled in them. As a choir director he’d get his singers pumping out “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” then he’d jump in with a solo that drowned everyone out.

He just never knew how far to take it all.

The accent he used, the body language. What dad saw as a “tribute” to black entertainers would today come off as mimicry.

When my brothers and I had kids, dad loved to mug for them. He’d open his eyes wide, distort his mouth and say “Boo!” Years later I realized he’d been recreating the faces he’d pulled in the 1930s, back when he sang minstrel tunes. I don’t know if dad ever wore blackface, but he had all the shuck and jive moves down. Even his jokes could sound like a “Mr. Interlocutor” routine.

“What’s that river that runs through Egypt?”

“That’s the Nile.”

“Then what are those little rivers that run into it?”

“Those are the ‘juveniles.’”

Toward the end of his life, Dad would talk about those early times in sheepish tones. He knew he’d taken his “act” too far. But he didn’t know how to make things right. Over the years he’d sung “Old Man River” so often the song have become a part of him. Like blues singers on the Mississippi Delta, he’d use songs like “Going Home” and “Deep River” to purge himself of despair. He’d cast the devil out with music. It was a catharsis. I think those heart-wrenching tunes helped save his life. But he had to give up singing them the way he did, and with good reason.

He was guilty of what we now call “cultural appropriation.”

I spoke with him about all this a few years before he died. He could see he’d been guilty of playing fast and loose with cultural styles that didn’t belong to him, that he’d probably eased his own anxieties by causing anxiety in others.

He hadn’t thought it through, he said. He just heard the music, loved the music and used the music. He thought he was doing something worthwhile, not harmful.

The other day I opened Mark Twain’s novel “Huckleberry Finn” at random just to read a few graphs. The pages fell on the scene where Huck and some of his traveling pals try to disguise the runaway slave Jim by painting him bright blue and dressing him up to look like King Lear. The idea was to keep the law away from Jim so he could remain free. They even draped a sign around Jim’s neck that read: “Sick Arab — but harmless when not out of his head.”

I’m sure, in the 1800s, the image of Jim painted blue and dressed as a rabid Arab had folks slapping their knees. Today, it makes readers squirm. And yet, I’m sure Twain thought he was helping the cause by freeing Jim from slavery. Perhaps, like my father, Twain simply hadn’t thought things through.

In his early career, my father pulled some shenanigans on stage that would be roundly condemned today. And if the essence of sin lies in causing others to feel needless pain, well then, dad was surely a sinner.

I just hope, for his sake, one day he might be forgiven for his muddled approach to culture and music.

We’ll see.

Right now, it seems the jury is still out on that one.