So there I am, late one night, watching a rerun of the Seinfeld episode where Susan dies from licking the cheap envelopes for the wedding invitations that George picked out. It is the last scene where the doctor in the hospital tells George she has passed, and the others, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer, don’t know what to say, and I break out singing the chorus to “Old Black Joe,” all alone in my living room. Why? I don’t know. It just popped into my head and seemed the thing to do.
I recalled the lyrics easily, but I have no recollection of learning them. I was never in a school play where I sang it. I don’t remember any teacher writing the words on the blackboard. But there it was, in my mind, clear and effortlessly recalled:
I’m coming. I’m coming.
For my head is bending low.
I hear those gentle voices calling
Old Black Joe.
Do they still teach it, or is it now too politically incorrect? The song is by Stephen Foster, and a classic even in my time. Foster, they taught us in grade school, was the only American song writer worth remembering, but I doubt today’s children have ever heard of him. Among his most famous songs are: Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home (theme song of the Kentucky Derby, easy to sway to when all dressed up and drunk), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, and Beautiful Dreamer. Children of today probably never heard of these songs, either.
Back in Stephen Foster’s time, referring to someone as “black” could be offensive. Better play it safe and call him “Old Negro Joe,” but now that would be offensive. The black opera singer Paul Robeson, among others, side-stepped the issue by recording the song under the title “Poor Old Joe.” Foster was said to have been inspired to write the song by an old slave servant in his father-in-law’s house. Foster did not write it in demeaning dialect, even though that was popular at the time (1853).
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away . . .
I never worked in a cotton field, I kid you not. This whole recollection thing is chilling. Is someone trying to tell me something?
Or, is Joe a metaphor for all of us? Maybe this is about general truths, and not about cotton fields at all. Or old black guys. Maybe there is more to Stephen Foster than I thought.
I hear gentle voices now too. Is that you, Ma? . . . Dad?
Why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain?
Why do I sigh that my friends come not again?
Grieving for forms now departed long ago
I hear their gentle voice calling, “Old Black Joe.”
Where are the hearts once so happy and free?
The children so dear that I held upon my knee?
Gone to the shore [Ocean City] where my soul has long’d to go
I hear their gentle voices calling, “Old Black Joe.”
Old White Roger