Sunday, December 13, 2015

Judy Garland – "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" (1941)

It's simply great, mate
Waiting on the levee
Waiting for the Robert E. Lee

A few days after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, CNN conducted a poll to see what  Americans thought about the Confederate flag.

That poll found that 57% of all Americans saw the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than as a symbol of racism, while 33% saw it more as a symbol of racism.  But the majority of those polled – whites as well as blacks – supported the removal of Confederate flags from government property.

Some believe that it’s not enough just to get rid of the Confederate flag.  They also want to take down statues of Confederate soldiers and rename military bases, schools, and other buildings that are named for Confederate leaders.

Robert E. Lee in 1838
For example, the Rev. Al Sharpton demanded that the streets at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton that are named after Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson get new names.  (Fort Hamilton is the last active military post in New York City, and both Lee and Jackson were stationed there when they were young U.S. Army officers.)

Others called for the Defense Department to rename the ten Army bases named for Confederate officers (including Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, and Fort Polk).  But a Pentagon spokesman has made it clear that the Army is not going to rename any of those bases:

“Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” Brigadier General Malcolm Frost, the service’s top spokesman, said.  “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.  It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

There are almost 200 public schools in the United States named after Confederate figures.  (I’m surprised there aren’t more.)  Not surprisingly, some people are unhappy about that.

Washington-Lee HS (Arlington, VA)
For example, one parent asked the school board in the liberal Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, to change the name of Washington-Lee High School long before the Charleston killings.  

“Why do we continue to honor Robert E. Lee with the rarified tribute of a high school name in our progressive county?” John Schachter said.  

“It’s likely inertia, at best.  Or racism, at worst.  Or some misguided so-called Southern pride to some extent. . . . Lee deserves no honor for fighting on the wrong side for the wrong cause.”

I think that most Americans share the opinion of Lee held by Teddy Roosevelt, who praised Lee’s “extraordinary skill as a general, his dauntless courage and high leadership.”  Lee is seen by many as someone who did not want war, but felt honor-bound to fight for his home state of Virginia once war became inevitable.  

Lee biographer Roy Blount doesn’t blame him for going along with secession – which Lee personally believed was a mistake – because, after all, “secession had been more or less democratically decided upon.”  For Blount, “it’s slavery, much more than secession as such, that casts a shadow over Lee’s honorableness.”

Elizabeth Brown Pryor
Another Lee biographer, the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor, discussed Lee’s attitude toward slavery in a 2007 interview:

Q: What were his views on slavery?

A: He saw slaves as property, that he owned them and their labor.  Now you can say he wasn't worse than anyone; he was reflecting the values of the society that he lived in.  I would say, he wasn't any better than anyone else, either.

Q: It is shocking how he treated his father-in-law's slaves.

A: Lee's wife inherited 196 slaves upon her father's death in 1857.  [Note: Lee's wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, also inherited Arlington House, a mansion that is located just across Potomac River from Washington.  The grounds of Arlington House were chosen as the site of Arlington National Cemetery in 1864, in part to ensure that Lee could never live there again.]  The will stated that the slaves were to be freed within five years, and at the same time large legacies – raised from selling property – should be given to the Lee children. But as the executor of the will, Lee decided that instead of freeing the slaves right away – as they expected – he could continue to own and work them for five years in an effort to make the estates profitable and not have to sell the property.

Q: What happened after that?

A: Lee was considered a hard taskmaster.  He also started hiring slaves to other families, sending them away, and breaking up families that had been together on the estate for generations.  The slaves resented him, were terrified they would never be freed, and they lost all respect for him.  There were many runaways, and at one point several slaves jumped him, claiming they were as free as he.   Lee ordered these men to be severely whipped.  He also petitioned the court to extend their servitude, but the court ruled against him and Lee did grant them their freedom on Jan. 1, 1863 – ironically, the same day that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

One contemporary newspaper report from 1859 alleges that when two male slaves and one female slave ran away from Arlington House, Lee himself whipped the female:

Mr. Lee was forthwith acquainted with their whereabouts . . . . [T]hey were transported back, taken to a barn, stripped, and the men received thirty and nine lashes each, from the hands of the slave-whipper. When he refused to whip the girl, Mr. Lee himself administered the thirty and nine lashes to her.

Arlington House
Another newspaper story published in Northern newspapers during the war quotes Wesley Norris, a former slave who described what happened after he tried to escape and was recaptured:

We were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away. We frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson which we never would forget. . . . [Lee] stood by and frequently enjoined Williams to “lay it on well,” an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done. 

At the time of the Charleston shootings, there were 78 public schools in the United States named after Robert E. Lee.  Most of them are located in the South, but one – Robert E. Lee Elementary School – is in San Diego.

Robert E. Lee Elementary
School (San Diego, CA)
In the next 2 or 3 lines, we’ll learn what happened when a San Diego legislator called on the school board to rename that school.

“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” was written in 1912 by Lewis F. Muir and L. Wolfe Gilbert.  The two teamed up after Gilbert criticized the title of Muir’s song, “When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary,” as being sacrilegious.  (Have you ever wondered why “religious” and sacrilegious” are spelled differently?  Click here to read a discussion of that question.)

“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” was featured in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927).  Al Jolson didn’t sing the song in the movie, but later recorded it.

The song got the full Busby Berkeley treatment in his 1941 musical, Babes on Broadway, which concludes with a long minstrel-show sequence.  Be prepared: Mickey Rooney and the rest of the cast perform the song in full blackface.  

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment