Hey, mister banjo

Some people have argued that the phenomenon of cover songs is inexorably bound up with racism— white musicians lifting black music. For example, Don McClean wrote that “A ‘cover’ version of a song is a racist tool.” I don’t think so. Here’s part of what I say in a current draft…

…although covers were sometimes used as racist tools, racism is not intrinsic to the concept of a cover as such. As Michael Coyle puts it, crossover covering of R&B hits by white artists “exploited racist inequality but did not arise because of it.” The word cover originally had a sense of coverage which was not in itself tied to race, and covers in that sense continued.

Coyle is a contemporary scholar, so it would help to have some historical evidence. So here’s the next paragraph.

To take just one typical case: In 1955, the trio The Sunnysiders had a version of the song “Hey, Mr. Banjo” that rose to #12 in the Billboard Hot 100. There were numerous covers within weeks, including several by big name artists, one aimed at the “polka market”, another aimed at the “kiddie market”, and even a “mambo version.” By the end of the year, there were also published recordings of the song in at least five other languages. Borrowed, lifted, and copied, but mostly by white musicians from white musicians.

The big names who covered “Hey, Mr. Banjo” included such whitebread acts as Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, and Frankie Yankovic. I used this example because it was covered in the music press at the time.

Unfortunately, there’s more to the story. The Sunnysiders had only recorded three songs when “Hey, Mr. Banjo” became a hit. In order to get a full album, their publisher added songs from another banjo group, the Happy Harts. The review at AllMusic describes the latter as “more pedestrian banjo-based singalongs.”

The Happy Harts were not a big deal, and I can’t find out much about them. It seems they either had black members or performed in blackface, though, leading to the album cover below for the 1958 reissue.

It may be that banjo music had such a strong association with minstrelsy that a banjo tune was inescapably tied up with racial imagery. Even though the song “Hey, Mr. Banjo” was written by white songwriters, played by a white trio, and covered by other white people, the covering of it was still embrangled with race. So it doesn’t really work to illustrate the point I wanted to make.

The album cover from the 1958 pressing of Hey! Mr Banjo. It’s mildly racist, but at least it doesn’t have a photo of a man in blackface.

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