One era’s poignant representation of social inequality is another era’s racially problematic ballad. The song remains the same, but the interpretation evolves.
The musician-actor Mac Davis died Tuesday after heart surgery at 78. He was a telegenic Southerner with an aw-shucks good nature and a knack for writing ingratiating pseudo-country hits such as I Believe in Music and Stop and Smell the Roses. Fans of easy-listening in 1972 might have counted Davis’s catchy Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me as the song of that summer.
Music critics were never much in favour of Nashville’s answer to Barry Manilow, but Elvis Presley was. The King recorded Davis’s mournful Memories and the Vegas razzle-dazzling A Little Less Conversation. More famously, Presley had a No. 3 hit with the Davis-penned In the Ghetto in 1969.
In addition to Elvis’s epic reading, In the Ghetto has been covered by everybody from Sammy Davis Jr. to Marilyn Manson, Dolly Parton to Nick Cave, Merle Haggard to the Cranberries. It’s Davis’s most successful song. It’s also his most lyrically thorny – solidly in the White Saviour section of the record store with Do They Know It’s Christmas – and a good example of how a song’s reception can mutate as social mores shift over time.
We saw this happen this summer when controversy erupted over the Band’s song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. When Alabama singer-songwriter Early James performed it on a live stream out of Nashville, he changed the lyrics to the song he saw as an elegy for a lost Confederate cause.
Among the alterations, the chorus was switched from “Tonight, they drove old Dixie down” to a virtue-signaling sing-along, “Tonight, we drive old Dixie down.” Thus, the pro-Confederate sentiment perceived by the sensitive 27-year-old musician is buried, not praised.
"The lines that made me cringe, I had to change those,” James explained, about the lyrics written by Robbie Robertson. “I’m from the South. I grew up with racist family members.”
About The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rolling Stone magazine’s pipe-smoking music critic Ralph J. Gleason was full of breathless praise in 1969. “Nothing I have read,” he wrote, “has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.”
Now? In the Rolling Stone piece about the song and the awoken James, writer Simon Vozick-Levinson called The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down a “troubling requiem for the Confederate cause” and a "vehicle for a harmful, racist American myth.”
I’ve never heard anyone argue that Davis’s In the Ghetto is racist. In fact, when it was first presented to Presley, there apparently was concern from Elvis’s manager that the song was too left-wing. “I heard that the Colonel didn’t want Elvis to record it because it was controversial,” Davis once told American Songwriter magazine. “They believed it was a story of a protest song.”
According to Davis, In the Ghetto was inspired by a Black childhood friend of his who grew up in “really funky dirt street ghetto” in Lubbock, Texas, and that the song was about being born into a hopeless situation.
“I just thought it was drawing attention to a problem that’s been around for a millennium," explained Davis. "The more we can draw attention to it, the more likelihood that somebody can find a solution.”
Fair enough. But why does the hopeless situation have to concern a Black family? Why set the song in Chicago? When American President Donald Trump cites that city’s violence, we know what he’s talking about.
The family in the song has no father – a stereotype? And is a Black child pre-inclined to a life of a crime? “He buys a gun, steals a car, tries to run, but he don’t get far. And his mama cries.”
The song is well-meaning – progressive in its day. In 2020, not so much. The word “ghetto" alone doesn’t fly. Firmly a pejorative now, it’s off limits to the Taylor Swifts of the world. Remember when Quentin Tarantino took some heat for uttering the word, with no racial context, at the Golden Globes in 2016.
Would In The Ghetto be a hit today? I hope not. Racial stereotypes aside, the maudlin white guilt is a deal-breaker. If social morality can evolve, so can taste in pop music.
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